INDIANAPOLIS — The Seattle Seahawks’ to-do list for this offseason is a lot shorter than it has been the past couple of years.
They’re not searching for a left tackle like they were in 2010. They’re not scouring the free-agent market for four starters on offense like 2011. And after three years of long-term uncertainty at quarterback, Seattle might be overstocked at the position with Russell Wilson the undisputed starter and Matt Flynn an overqualified backup
Seattle has so many pieces in place that it makes it all the more important they fill those final few needs. Going sackless in the playoff loss at Atlanta underscored what is the team’s biggest need going forward, and a good part of Seattle’s offseason will be spent trying to find men capable of tackling, hurrying or otherwise harassing the opposing quarterback.
The Seahawks could use more speed at receiver, as well as another starting linebacker, but Seattle’s ability to improve the pass rush is the most important question facing this team. The answer will only begin to take shape this week when the NFL’s offseason begins in earnest this week at the annual scouting combine.
Everyone in the league — from coaches to general managers to scouts — converges in Indianapolis this weekend to watch this year’s top draft prospects on display. The workouts are the backdrop to the NFL equivalent of baseball’s winter meetings. This is when franchise tags can first be affixed to players, preventing them from becoming unrestricted free agents, long-term deals are struck to keep a player from hitting the open market, and teams begin to decide whether they have to spend big to add free-agent talent or they’ll roll the dice on finding cost-effective alternatives in the draft.
Seattle enters the offseason with 10 draft selections, millions of dollars in salary-cap space and a bargaining chip for a backup quarterback.
The Seahawks also have a need at a position that commands a premium in the NFL. Only quarterbacks, left tackles and the occasional cornerback command more than a high-end pass rusher.
Options exist on the open market this year, whether it’s veterans like Dwight Freeney of the Colts or Osi Umenyiora of the Giants or younger players like Paul Kruger of Baltimore or perhaps Michael Johnson of Cincinnati.
It’s not that Seattle’s pass rush was toothless. Chris Clemons had double-digit sacks for the third successive season since coming to Seattle, and last year’s first-round pick of Bruce Irvin had eight sacks, most among NFL rookies. But no one else on the team had more than three sacks. Throw in that Clemons will be coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, and there’s no doubt about Seattle’s desire to improve the pass rush.
I. Catch a rising star
Seattle hasn’t made a habit of spending big in free agency, but two years ago, the Seahawks signed a pair of 20-somethings to two big-budget deals, adding receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller.
Each was in his mid-20s. Both were first-time free agents. A couple of pass-rushers meet those specs this year.
Kruger had nine sacks during the regular season and 4.5 more during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He turned 27 last week and is entering his prime. He’s also a one-year starter who recorded the bulk of his sacks in the run-up to free agency.
Same holds true for Johnson. He is 6 feet 7, a lean speed rusher off the edge who totaled 11.5 sacks in 2012. A candidate to be franchise-tagged, he may not get to free agency, and if he does, he’s going to cost millions.
II. Veteran seasoning
It isn’t a rule that Seattle won’t sink big money into veterans, but under Schneider it has been the exception for the team to offer a multiyear contract to someone in his 30s.
Freeney and Umenyiora have been exceptional pass rushers in this league, though. Both are expected to hit free agency, where several contenders will take a look. The upside is obvious, and there are plenty of examples of pass-rushers who have remained effective into their 30s, from Bruce Smith to Michael Strahan to Jason Taylor.
On the other hand, Seattle’s history with both Grant Wistrom and Patrick Kerney demonstrates the danger of relying on high-priced veterans.
III. Pick a winner
Seattle’s ability to find value in all rounds of the draft has been the signature of John Schneider’s time as general manager. He has picked Pro Bowlers in the first round like left tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas. He has found stars in the fifth round, too, in safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman.
But finding an immediate-impact pass-rusher with the 25th pick of the first round would take some doing, even for Schneider. From 2002 to 2012, 12 players totaled double-digit sacks as rookies. Ten were chosen among the first 20 picks.
One of those two picked outside the top 20 was linebacker Clay Matthews, chosen No. 26 in 2009 by the Green Bay Packers, where Schneider was working at the time. Four years later, Schneider will spend this week looking to see if he can find someone to provide a similar boost in Seattle.
Seahawks’ offseason checklist
1. Tag, you’re it
Feb. 18 — March 4
Teams are now able to apply the franchise tag to potential unrestricted free agents. Seattle is expected to sit out this game of tag for a third consecutive year. Kicker Steven Hauschka is the only feasible candidate, but the Seahawks aren’t going to commit almost $3 million for a guy who made two of his four attempts from 50 yards or more in 2012.
2. Open-market shopping
Free agency begins the second Tuesday in March, and the question in Seattle regards potential additions more than possible subtractions. Only two of Seattle’s 22 starters from last season are unsigned: defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebacker Leroy Hill, who is not expected back. Will Seattle go shopping for a young — and expensive — defensive end like Paul Kruger or be looking to add a veteran like Osi Umenyiora or Dwight Freeney?
3. Whither Matt Flynn?
Any move regarding Seattle’s backup quarterback is likely to occur in the weeks leading up to the draft. Flynn has two seasons left on a contract that calls for a salary of $5.25 million in 2013. Could a team like Jacksonville or perhaps the New York Jets consider trading draft position to bring in Flynn?
4. Feeling a draft
Seattle holds the 25th pick of the first round, too low to expect to select a pass rusher capable of providing double-digit sacks as a rookie. The Seahawks have 10 choices, though, and while Seattle has never traded up in the draft order with John Schneider as general manager, there are some who think this is precisely the time Seattle might try that.