Difficult decisions are inevitable, both in life and in sports. Of course, difficulty has varying degrees, and in life the level of difficulty often depends on how good you are at acclimating to your surroundings. In football, much more often than life, some difficult decisions are characterized as “a good problem to have.”
That is often the plight of successful teams. Other teams want players who shared locker rooms with successful players, for some reason. Players are often paid an echelon above what they’re worth because of their relative proximity to a championship team. The Seahawks, who have $2.5 million in cap spaced headed into the offseason, can ill-afford to overpay for anyone, even their own players.
(Check out potential cap casualties that may clear cap space for the Seahawks)
The downside of this is a guy like Deion Branch. Deion Branch won a Super Bowl MVP, and that was by far his career’s greatest achievement to that point, and barring a mid-30s resurrection of his career, it will go down as the absolute highlight. When the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl in the 2005 season, in the following offseason they felt they needed that one extra piece. They ostensibly couldn’t find that piece, and ultimately waited until Week 2 of the 2006 season to trade for Branch, giving up a first round pick, and forking over a six-year, $39 million deal. Obviously, the rest is history. Mediocre history.
Following the 2005 season, the same offseason we saw the Seahawks trade for Branch, we saw them extend Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones, and Shaun Alexander that offseason, while Steve Hutchinson fled to Minnesota. Alexander would fall off a cliff in terms of production, while Hutchinson would remain one of the league’s best guards of all time for many years to come.
The Seahawks made two critical errors that offseason. They overvalued Super Bowl experience at the expense of what it takes to get there – generally high-level talent. They also underestimated the aging curve of modern running backs. Both moves became crucial to the low swing in their success, with the Hutchinson departure also playing what appears to have been a pretty big role.
Teams that remain very good for a long time usually start by being good while their roster is young – something the Seahawks are on the leading edge of. They also don’t miss when it comes to retaining their own free agents. There are no free agents available that the Seahawks have more information on than the ones who began their careers, or who have played recent years of their careers with the Seahawks. Having the discipline to allow players to leave – especially players whose market value far exceeds their functional value – is a virtue that many teams lack.
In the NFL players can become free agents in a couple of ways: they can become unrestricted free agents by being released, or having their contract end following their fourth or later season in the league, or they can become restricted free agents,those who have played less than four years, but who were only signed to three-year contracts as rookies.
Unrestricted free agents are free to sign anywhere, with only the threat of a franchise tag, or the general desire of a player to remain with his present team available as leverage to negotiating teams. The Seahawks don’t have any players in line for the franchise tag this offseason, but if you’re interested in how it is being handled under the new collective bargaining agreement, ProFootballTalk did a pretty good job of explaining it last year.
For restricted free agents, a team must tender the player a one year contract, at which point the player may seek a contract from another team. If the player reaches an agreement with another team, the Seahawks are granted the ability to match that contract. If they don’t want to match the contract they can be granted compensation depending on the amount of tender offer they made to the player, with different thresholds granting them different compensation in the form of draft picks.
Each of the Seahawks three restricted free agents was undrafted, but in the case of a drafted player, there is an “original round” tender available, costing their new team a draft pick in the round the signing player was originally drafted in. In addition to those, the Seahawks may offer their restricted free agents $3.02 million (assuming a five percent increase from last year’s RFA tender scale), and receive a first round pick were a player of theirs to sign with another team and they chose not to match. A $2.12 million tender offer would grant them a second round pick in the same scenario.
With that stated, the Seahawks have the following decisions to make this offseason as it relates to free agents:
Be sure to check out the Seattle Seahawks offseason financial primer
Unrestricted Free Agents (2014 season ages)
Golden Tate, WR, 26 years old
Breno Giacomini, OT, 29 years old
Michael Bennett, DE, 29 years old
Walter Thurmond, CB, 27 years old
Brandon Browner, CB, 30 years old
Steven Hauschka, K, 29 years old
Going into the offseason prior to the 2012 season a decent argument could be made that the Seahawks needed to cut ties with the occasionally-enigmatic Tate. Tate hadn’t been remarkably productive, and occasional mental lapses on and off the field painted an immature, albeit non-nefarious picture of Tate. Since then he’s become one of the league’s most efficient players, ranking high in the top five of DVOA in 2012, and 19th in 2013. While Tate’s relative immaturity can be unnerving at times, it didn’t hurt him as much in 2013 as in his first two seasons. The biggest questions surrounding Tate’s return are the amount of money he wants or is willing to take to remain in Seattle, and how the team factors wide receiver into the budget. With Sidney Rice most-certainly either released or restructured going into next season, the team has ostensible cap-space as a result, but the majority of the space created by releasing or restructuring Rice has been eaten up by an $8.5 million increase in Percy Harvin‘s cap number. Not only is Tate not a number one, but the Seahawks don’t really need a number one receiver. The NFL has a history of teams succeeding without number one receivers — or at least without high-salary receivers. Last offseason Brian Hartline received a five-year, $30.775 million contract with a $7 million signing bonus as a non-number-one. Danny Amendola got five-years, $28.5 million with a $6 million bonus. Something in this range seems most likely for Tate, and fitting that on the roster with the likes of Doug Baldwin (maybe) and Jermaine Kearse on the roster makes such a salary hard to stomach. If Tate is really willing to take substantially less, the Seahawks must negotiate with him, but receiver has been proven a position where stars are non-essential for sustained success, and expensive non-stars are even worse.
Giacomini has been a source of consternation for fans in his three-plus seasons in Seattle. While clearly powerful and relatively athletic, Giacomini has been prone to penalties, with four false starts and four holding calls in 2013, and the same amount of both in 2012, with two unnecessary roughness penalties and two personal fouls to boot. Prior to the 2012 season Giacomini signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract, relatively large considering his lack of substantial experience to that point. Nonetheless, he’s started every game he’s been healthy since then. In the offseason preceding the 2013 season we saw William Beatty sign a five-year, $38.75 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus. Beatty is a left tackle, and a class or two above Giacomini in terms of talent. Conversely, Eric Winston, a somewhat well-regarded talent at the position, was forced to wait for a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Giacomini’s success is also a showcase of how the Seahawks have been able to find viable talent in some of the darkest recesses of the league, pulling Giacomini off the Green Bay Packers practice squad. Giacomini could be the kind of player for which the open market has a higher mean value than a good team like the Seahawks should, which could spell the end of Giacomini’s time in Seattle if he’s unwilling to take less to play for the Seahawks.
Like Tate, Bennett has been vocal about his desire to remain in Seattle. Bennett is an interesting case, while he played only one full season with the Seahawks, they had him in camp during his rookie season. He’s been productive in spurts, but he isn’t a classically dominant pass rusher, and faced a pretty cold market last offseason. If the Seahawks end up releasing Chris Clemons, it seems somewhat counterintuitive to replace their entire savings with Bennett, who is arguably worse than Clemens. Bennett does provide some depth on the interior line also, and is a good guy to rotate through all four positions on the line, but such versatility isn’t necessarily enough of a selling point to sign Bennett to a high-salary, large-guarantee contract. Last year Cliff Avril, a guy whose stock was arguably higher, received only two-years, $15 million from the Seahawks. Even Elvis Dumervil received only five-years, $26 million, with a $7.5 million signing bonus. While Bennett’s 2013 season was good, it wasn’t markedly better than the 2012 season that earned him only a $5 million, one-year contract last offseason.
If there’s any position group that the Seahawks have drafted well at since Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over, unsurprisingly, it’s the secondary. Assuming that the Seahawks can find starting-caliber players at will in the draft is probably misguided, but they’ve got what appears to be a market advantage that should allow them to avoid overpaying for talent at the cornerback and safety positions. Thurmond is pretty good, but his suspension let the Byron Maxwell cat out of the bag, as Maxwell arguably matched, if not outplayed Thurmond. Thurmond was suspended for testing positive for marijuana, and ultimately that has to hurt Thurmond’s stock. Last offseason similarly troubled, but unarguably better Aqib Talib signed a one-year, $4.86 million contract with the Patriots. DeAngelo Hall signed for one-year, $2.25 million. Last year the largest contract signed by a free agent cornerback was signed by Keenan Lewis, who signed for five-years, $25.55 million with a $6 million signing bonus. If Thurmond is in line for a contract like that, the Seahawks may be better off drafting for depth, and resting on the talents of Maxwell and Jeremy Lane.
Unless something changes in the year-long suspension that Browner faces, he’s unlikely to play a significant role on any team next year. However, while his suspension has caused him to fall out of favor with fans, it’s important to remember that the suspension was not for PEDs. So while normal PED suspensions come with the risk of reduced performances once a player is off of those PEDs, Browner was probably playing at something like his true-talent level last year. The reality is, if Browner wants to resurrect his career, Seattle is probably the best place, and there hasn’t been much indication that Browner has fallen substantially out of favor with the team – at least not any more than Walter Thurmond, who made essentially the same mistake with lesser consequences.
There are kickers with stronger legs than Steven Hauschka, but Hauschka was nearly-automatic this year, and was even 3-3 from 50+ yards. While Hauschka’s 94.3 percent success rate on field goals is good, and better than league average, league average is creeping closer to 90 percent, coming in at 86.5 percent in 2013. Is the marginal difference between Hauschka and a league-average, or even a readily available kicker worth a relatively large contract? Rob Bironas signed for two-years, $6.6 million last year despite missing 20 percent of his kicks. Phil Dawson signed for $2.35 million at age 38. It bears mentioning that the Seahawks found Hauschka after he was cut by both the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos, also. Also worth noting, of the teams with the five highest paid kickers in the NFL, only the New England Patriots made the playoffs. Not to say that high-paid kickers directly correlate with losses, but that high-paid kickers may correlate with poor positional valuation from organizations.
Restricted Free Agents
Doug Baldwin, WR, 26 years old
Mike Morgan, LB/DE, 26 years old
Lemuel Jeanpierre, OL, 27 years old
DVOA makes a pretty good case that while Golden Tate got a lot of ink, that Doug Baldwin was the Seahawks best receiver in 2013. In fact, according to DVOA Baldwin was the league’s second best receiver, and he was 13th in terms of DYAR. More importantly though, the Seahawks have the option to retain Baldwin by way of a compensation-tied tender, which means that they’ll have some leverage in prospective negotiations, or the ability to retain Baldwin on a low-salary contract compared to Baldwin’s expected value. The largest decision the Seahawks face on Baldwin at this point is whether to offer him a first or second round tender. Advances stats say that Baldwin is very valuable. The difference in dollar value between a first and second round tender is about $1 million, a small difference to pay to retain Baldwin, and while the first round tender doesn’t guarantee Baldwin stays in Seattle, the additional risk is mitigated completely by the potential for the Seahawks to gain a first round pick, studies have shown. The Seahawks should offer Baldwin a first-round tender, and either love the extra year of surplus value they receive from Baldwin, or run away laughing with a first round pick from another team. (If you’re enough of a nerd to click-through that link, you can scroll to page 52, but remember that the salary structure for rookies is much more team-friendly now, increasing surplus value, and that the total dollar value in the NFL has changed considerably since this study.)
Like Malcolm Smith, Morgan is a good-value player that played under Carroll at USC. While that resource is one that is drying up, Morgan represents a pretty clear divide between a Carroll player and what the rest of the league values. Morgan is undersized for linebacker in most any scheme, but has been able to carve a niche out on the Seahawks defense and special teams. Morgan’s athletic, and a good story because of his ties to Carroll, but probably isn’t worth a tender of any kind.
In his three years with the Seahawks Jeanpierre has become pretty reliable depth on the Seahawks offensive line, while being versatile enough to play both guard and center. That in mind, while Jeanpierre would likely be welcomed back on the Seahawks roster, he probably doesn’t provide enough value to garner a tender.