If the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have a weakness, it’s along the offensive line. That group was average at best in 2013 and recently lost starting right tackle Breno Giacomini to the Jets in free agency. Another weakness is wide receiver, where the departures of Golden Tate (signed with Lions) and the oft-injured Sidney Rice (released) leave a vacancy at the No. 3 and 4 spots.
Indeed, these are immediate needs, but great organizations rarely address immediate needs through the draft. Likely more pressing to general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll are 2015 needs. Among the Seahawks scheduled to hit free agency after this season: FS Earl Thomas, CB Richard Sherman, CB Byron Maxwell, DE Cliff Avril, OLB K.J. Wright and OLB Malcolm Smith. Or, in other words, most of the vaunted defense.
In 2016, the core of Seattle’s offense is scheduled for free agency, as QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, RB Robert Turbin and TE Zach Miller will have expiring contracts. And, just for good measure, so will MLB Bobby Wagner, DT Brandon Mebane, CB Jeremy Lane and OLB Bruce Irvin.
There’s a reason dynasties—outside of the Patriots in the early 2000s—haven’t materialized in the NFL’s salary cap era. Finances prohibit teams from holding onto all of the young stars they develop. The Seahawks are not immune to this. They’ll have to sort the aforementioned future free agents into two categories: essentials and nonessentials. Those lists should look something like this:
FS Earl Thomas
CB Richard Sherman
DE Cliff Avril
MLB Bobby Wagner
QB Russell Wilson
CB Byron Maxwell
CB Jeremy Lane
OLB K.J. Wright
OLB Malcolm Smith
OLB Bruce Irvin
DT Brandon Mebane
RB Marshawn Lynch (he turns 30 in April 2016)
RB Robert Turbin
LT Russell Okung (because offensive tackles often are not worth their jolting price tag)
TE Zach Miller
Certainly, some of the “nonessential” players will be retained, but only if it’s assured that all of the “essential” players are first. And everyone on the essential list, save for Avril and maybe Wilson, will warrant a contract that pays at or very near the top of the market for their position. (Wilson’s contract, even if it’s on the second tier for quarterbacks, will likely still cost more than any of those other deals.)
Instead of prioritizing the offensive line in the 2014 draft, Schneider and Carroll should examine their “nonessentials” list and prioritize outside linebacker. As the Seahawks learned in 2013, they can get by with an average offensive line given Wilson’s mobility and the nature of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s run-first, controlled passing system. But to play this way, they need a dominant defense, which requires playmakers at all three levels (front line, linebacker and secondary). The ledger says to draft a speedy, athletic outside linebacker who can eventually take over for Wright, Smith or Irvin.
The ledger also says to look at cornerback. Likely either Maxwell or Lane will be re-signed long-term, but not both. The Seahawks covet a distinct type of corner—lanky, strong, physical—and they’ve been able to find them in the later rounds or even in the undrafted free agent pool. As long as they have the rangy Earl Thomas patrolling centerfield, they’ll be able to keep developing successful young corners. But those corners will have to be drafted earlier now because other teams are copying Seattle’s blueprint and looking for size and strength.
Yes, it would make perfect sense for Schneider and Carroll to draft a wide receiver or two this May. In addition to the immediate vacancies at that position, there’s no assurance that the fragile Percy Harvin will always be available, plus restricted free agent Doug Baldwin might be tough to retain next year. But don’t be surprised if wide receiver—and especially offensive lineman—drop behind athletic defensive playmakers in Seattle’s pecking order. There will be significant needs on defense in a year or two. Smart teams address significant needs long before they become dire.