Free agency kicks off on March 12th and truly, anything could happen. The Seahawks were big players the year they added Sidney Rice, Robert Gallery and Zach Miller (they also re-signed Brandon Mebane). In 2010 they wined and dined Brandon Marshall. Last year things were a little quieter apart from the re-signing of Red Bryant and the addition of Matt Flynn.
So what happens in 2013? Will they go big to try and improve the pass rush? Will they take a back seat and concentrate on the draft? With the team so close to reaching the NFC Championship, do you make the big splash to try and get over the line? Or do you recognise how many teams have chased the dream — failed — and then been left to face the consequences?
The Rice and Miller signings were seen to be jump starts — moves that would increase the speed of the rebuild. Let’s not forget just how bad this roster was when Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over. Now that it’s in a much healthier position, do they really need to go big in free agency again? Perhaps, but only for the right player.
The one that probably stands out more than any other this year is Henry Melton in Chicago. A running back in college, Melton made the unusual transition to defensive end and then eventually to tackle. Somewhat against the odds, he’s been among the leagues best three-techniques in recent seasons. A staple in Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 scheme, he’s looked the part within a star-studded Bears defense.
A lot has changed in Chicago recently, including Smith’s departure. Perhaps priorities have changed too? Despite fielding a top-ranked defense, the Bears couldn’t protect their main asset. Jay Cutler doesn’t usually need any encouragement to start carelessly winging the ball into coverage, but that reckless nature’s been stoked by a lack of time in the pocket. The Bears’ offensive line has been a revolving door of mediocre talent. And when they finally decided to address the issue, they wasted a first round pick on Gabe Carimi.
Great job, guys.
Failing to sufficiently protect Cutler prompted the changes in Chicago. After all, they spent a small fortune on a quarterback thinking he’d win a title or two. Having leaned on the defense and managed only one NFC North title in the Cutler-era, the new plan appears to be offense-centric. Marc Trestman is an intellectual, offensive mind. He’s already made it clear his priority is to do a better job protecting the quarterback. The entire offensive line could be set for a rebuild.
Jake Long, for me, looks like a Bear in the making. He’ll be the top rated left tackle hitting the market if he gets out of Miami. Surprisingly, despite a decent chunk of cap room (+$30m), the Dolphins have shown little motivation to speak to any of their pending free agents. If Trestman is serious about protecting Cutler, they can’t rely on a tackle being there with the 20th overall pick. The three top left tackles — Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson — could all be off the board by San Diego at #11. Signing Long would put the Bears in a strong position and allow them to target the two guard spots in the first round.
Long + Jonathan Cooper = better Jay Cutler… Probably.
The only problem is, Chicago has just $13.3m available in cap space. There’s not a ton of wiggle room if they want to go chasing big name free agents. Long could generate a contract worth up to $9-10m per year. They can structure the deal to lessen the hit in 2013, but when you’re paying big contracts to Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Julius Peppers and others, you can put yourself in a big hole if you keep signing expensive free agents.
Going back to Melton, if the Bears want to franchise him it’ll cost $8.3m. That’s not an unreasonable sum but it’s big enough to take the Bears out of the free agency market for several other players. As the franchise moves in a new direction, they could be prepared to take a hit by losing Melton. What is more important to the franchise? Keeping Melton, or going after Long? It could be an either/or situation.
It’s worth noting that while I referred to ‘change’ earlier, one thing that won’t change is Chicago’s defensive scheme. New coordinator Mel Tucker has already revealed he’s sticking with the 4-3 and won’t even be changing the terminology used under Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli. If Melton leaves, it won’t be because the Bears don’t want or need him. I suspect they’d love to keep him, but it’s all about priorities.
So what about the Seahawks? He’ll turn 27 in October so on a four-year deal you’d be fairly confident about getting at least three years of peak performance. He recorded thirteen sacks in his last two seasons. He’s really the kind of player Seattle has lacked so far — an interior penetrator who consistently collapses the pocket. It helps that he’s had the chance to play on the same line as Julius Peppers. How much has it helped? Would he be the same force in Seattle’s defense?
Essentially that’s what it all boils down to. If you’re paying top price for a free agent, you want instant gratification. That’s hard to find, whoever you are.
Schneider and Carroll spent big on an injury prone Sidney Rice and had no qualms about going after Zach Miller. They also had plenty of background on Rice from Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable knew all about Miller and Robert Gallery. Will anyone be banging the table for Melton? And how influential was that vouch-for-factor in dishing out the big contracts in 2011?
One thing that could play into Seattle’s hands is the strong class of defensive tackles in the draft. Potential competitors for Melton’s services might feel confident about entering the Sheldon Richardson/Sharrif Floyd/Star Lotulelei sweepstakes and resist the temptation to offer a big contract. All three would be a lot cheaper, even if they go in the top ten. Unfortunately at #25 the Seahawks have little chance of getting at this talented trio.
It’s rare that a team gets the opportunity to sign one of the leagues best three techniques. The Seahawks have $18.6m in cap space and that will increase if they release or trade Matt Flynn. The key factor could be how it impacts being able to re-sign the teams own free agents over the next few years. Eventually guys like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate and K.J. Wright will be looking for new contracts. This will be off-set by the likes of Zach Miller seeing a reduction in salary, but being in a position to keep throwing unused cap space forward into future seasons is crucial to ‘keep the band together’.
Melton was a fourth round pick. Geno Atkins was a fourth round pick. Darnell Docket went in round three. In a contract sense, the team would benefit explicitly from finding their own version in the draft rather than going after a big name free agent.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. We’re talking about a position that’s notoriously hard to scout. The Seahawks drafted Jaye Howard in round four last year, probably hoping he could be the next mid-round gem. Instead he spent most of the year on the inactive list, even when Jason Jones was placed on injured reserve. Greg Scruggs forced his way onto the field as a rookie, Howard could not.
The search will probably continue this year and there’s a couple of guys that really intrigue me. One is Kaleb Ramsey at Boston College — a player hampered by injury issues. He’s likely to be a late round pick or UDFA because he couldn’t stay healthy. However, I’d take a flier on him with the hope his fortunes change at the next level. Ramsey’s a really talented player who would’ve been a much higher draft pick had he avoided the injuries.
The other intriguing player is Jordan Hill at Penn State. I cannot talk highly enough of this guy. I’ve put his tape on the blog before, but I’ve re-posted the Wisconsin game below for anyone who missed it. He’s solid against the run despite a lack of pure size (6-0/6-1, 295lbs), he gets into the backfield to make plays and he’s got that little spark to his game that you want to see from a three technique. Any defensive lineman at that size who performs well against Wisconsin deserves a ton of credit.
John Schneider and Pete Carroll might decide to trust their ability to find a mid-round prospect like Hill that negates the need to spend big in free agency. Presumably there would also be some concern that a guy taken later in the draft just wouldn’t have an impact (like Jaye Howard). Then what? Another year of mediocre pass rush costing the team wins?
It’s a tough balancing act. Trying to address the problem and failing on a third or fourth round salary won’t cripple the franchise. Spending big and not getting value for money could, especially if it jeopardises your ability to re-sign players who are actually doing their jobs. A conservative approach would be financially sound, but not taking the occasional gamble could cost you the chance to win a title.
I think Carroll is trying to create a culture of reward. You play well for this team, buy in to what we’re doing and we’ll look after you. I’m not sure he’ll be so desperate to reward other team’s players unless they absolutely take this roster to the next level. Will Henry Melton do that? Is he that much of a difference maker?
Don’t rule out Alan Branch re-signing with the Seahawks instead. If they want to keep size up the middle, then he’s an option. He performed fairly well for two years, would be relatively cheap and he’s familiar with the team. Randy Starks is another option and a player Carroll highlighted for praise when Seattle were beaten by Miami during the regular season. Starks plays the run brilliantly for a guy weighing just over 300lbs. He’s also a very capable pass rusher and made the Pro-Bowl this year.
Yet both players lack the kind of star power Melton possesses. If the team really is serious about improving the pass rush, replacing Jason Jones might not be enough. If Chris Clemons doesn’t make an Adrian Peterson-style recovery from his ACL injury, if anything Seattle’s pass rush could be even weaker in 2013. You could argue it’s crying out for a big splash, especially if the best defensive line prospects leave the board early on draft day.
One final note on Melton — during the pre-draft work outs and All-star games he was listed at around 260-270lbs and played defensive end. During the Texas vs Nation work outs he featured exclusively at end. The Bears took him in the middle rounds and moved him inside. He’s since added weight, maintained his athleticism and turned into an interior force. Datone Jones similarly weighed as little as 260lbs at UCLA for a time but got up to around 280lbs for the Senior Bowl. He also has a similar athletic quality to his play and was recruited by USC during Carroll’s time at Southern Cal. Just a few things to remember.
In terms of other prospective free agent defensive tackles, I’m not sure the Seahawks would necessarily look at failed top-ten picks like Glenn Dorsey and Sedrick Ellis. Both have been pretty disappointing so far. You could argue Dorsey has played out of position in the 3-4, but in the year he turns 28 can you rely on him to suddenly explode at the three? Ellis has been one of the bigger busts from the 2008 draft. He has history with Pete Carroll at USC and really that’s the only thing that makes this a viable suggestion. The best he can probably hope for is an opportunity to compete.
The Raiders are going to struggle to keep any of their free agents because they’re already over the cap, meaning Desmond Bryant is likely to be available. He’s probably the best option after Melton and Starks with eight sacks in the last two years. Tom Cable will likely give the front office an inside track here. He’s 6-6 and 311lbs meaning the continuation of size up the middle plus a pass-rush upgrade over Alan Branch. At the right price, the Seahawks could show some interest. He’ll turn 28 in December.
Team mate Richard Seymour also had a better 2012 season than most people give him credit for. But with his 34th birthday due in October, he’s unlikely to be anything more than a stop-gap.
Jordan Hill (DT, Penn State) tape vs Wisconsin