The Seahawks’ prime shopping season is about to begin.
And once again, they won’t be needing a cart.
It’ll be more like a la carte.
Even before reports surfaced Tuesday night that the Seahawks were losing linebacker Bruce Irvin to a big, new contract from Oakland, Seattle had well-defined needs and limited means to fulfill them in free agency. That market officially begins across the NFL on Wednesday at 1 p.m. In it, the NFC champions in two of the past three seasons will be using the express checkout lane. Then, next month, it will pursue its usual practice of building through the draft rather than binging on expensive purchases.
Counting Marshawn Lynch’s retirement, which will save the team $6.5 million against its 2016 salary cap, the Seahawks have about $15 million in space under the cap that the players’ union says is $155.27 million for this year. That is believed to be in the bottom third of the league in available money.
The Seahawks could have had kept Irvin for $7.8 million for the 2016 season. That was the value of his fifth-year contract option the team declined to exercise last spring. Irvin admitted then he was angry and extra motivated for 2015 in what became a contract year, the final season of his rookie deal at a base salary of $1.66 million.
Now Irvin is about to earn as much as perhaps $9 million annually with his new deal, signifying how ultra-valued pass rushers are in the NFL.
That’s far more than the Seahawks could commit to him.
Seattle’s $15 million in cap space is after the contract that defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin agreed to with the Seahawks on Monday. It is worth a reported $4 million per year for three years and includes a signing bonus of $4.5 million, according to USA Today. The charge against Seattle cap in 2016 for Rubin is reportedly $3 million — $1.5 million prorated from the signing bonus, a $1 million base salary and $500,000 in roster bonuses.
Fifteen of Rubin’s teammates are set to become unrestricted free agents Wednesday, barring any more 11th-hour contracts to remain Seahawks. They — along with those league free agents available as potential imports on the offensive line and running back — have been the focus of general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll even before the team’s season-ending playoff loss at Carolina on Jan. 17.
Versatile linebacker Nick Perry of Green Bay could be an option to fill that hole Irvin left. Perry was on Carroll’s USC teams in 2008 and ’09.
Here are Seattle’s most prominent free agents, in order of our projected likelihood the Seahawks will re-sign each, with possible outside fits on the market based on likely cost and style of play:
WR Jermaine Kearse
Seattle’s No. 3 wide receiver and clutch performer the past three postseasons is going to shop to see what his best offers will be in free agency. They are likely to be perhaps $4 million per year. That’s the salary the Seahawks are scheduled to pay No. 1 wideout Doug Baldwin, and Baldwin just set the franchise record and co-led the NFL in touchdown catches. Thus, it’s probably too expensive for the Lakewood native to stay with his hometown team. Tyler Lockett’s role is about to get even bigger in his second league season this fall.
Chance Seattle keeps: 30 percent.
OT Russell Okung
Schneider and Carroll are trying to bank on their relationship with the man they made their first draft choice for Seattle in 2010 at No. 6 overall. They have been negotiating with Okung — and with Okung only; he is representing himself in contract talks, deciding to not hire an agent. Left tackle, protector of the right-handed quarterback’s blind side, is an expensive position for free agency and Okung is one of the most accomplished ones on the market, even while recovering from shoulder surgery this offseason. Okung knows every veteran in the league is seeing how large a contract he can get on his own, and he’s stated he sees a higher calling of “liberty, discipline and fortitude” in representing himself in free agency. With all eyes on him, he is unlikely to settle for what would likely be below-market value to stay.
Chance Seattle keeps: 40 percent.
Possible outside free-agent replacements: Donald Penn, Oakland; Kelvin Beachum, Pittsburgh.
DT Brandon Mebane
He turned 31 in January and came off a torn hamstring to excel as the run-stopping partner next to Rubin. His salary was $5.5 million in 2015. The Seahawks are trying to bring back their key nose tackle and central piece to its standout run defense, but not for anywhere near $5.5 million per year and not for many years beyond maybe 2016. If he can get an offer for more years elsewhere, it would likely come with a higher signing bonus than Seattle’s willing to offer. We might see whether money or familiarity wins here.
Chance Seattle keeps: 50 percent.
G J.R. Sweezy
Rumors, likely from agents, say the Seahawks’ homegrown former college defensive tackle is gaining attention, and price, in this free-agent market. Seemingly every team that issues helmets is suddenly enamored with him. And Sweezy had to smile that the market produced a reported $15.75 million, three-year contract Tuesday for guard Richie Incognito to sign with Buffalo. He is seven years older than Sweezy.
However, assuming Sweezy is getting priced out of Seattle is looking at him in a vacuum.
If Seattle loses Okung in free agency, that will leave more money and effort to spend on Sweezy, so the Seahawks don’t lose 40 percent of their already iffy offensive line in a matter of days. Veteran line coach Tom Cable converted Sweezy from the defensive line, and the experiment worked. It produced a nasty, at-times dominant run blocker who remains inconsistent in pass protection. Cable holds big sway in all offensive-line transactions. And he has invested too much personally in Sweezy to let him leave without a big fight.
Chance Seattle keeps: 60 percent.
Possible outside free-agent replacements: Louis Vasquez, Denver; Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland.
CB Jeremy Lane
The Seahawks learned the hard way last fall that replacing a departed free-agent cornerback by signing another free agent (Cary Williams) doesn’t always fit the specific requirements of their vaunted defensive secondary. Lane is another homegrown Seahawk. He knows the team’s step-kick technique better than Williams ever could grasp before Seattle cut its brief starter and free-agent signee in the middle of the 2015 season. Lane’s ability to start at corner and slide inside to nickel as the fifth DB on passing downs is valuable more to Seattle than it would be to any other team. The Seahawks may be about to experience the lone positive to Lane breaking his arm and tearing knee ligaments in Super Bowl 49 and missing the first half of last season recovering: the market for him might be lower.
Chance Seattle keeps: 75 percent.
P Jon Ryan
The 34-year old earned $1.5 million last season — and a raise for what he’s done with the six-year contract he just finished for the Seahawks. He has often flipped field position with booming punts in key times; Carroll constantly calls him an underrated member of the defense for giving it such advantageous positions to start drives. Sure, the Seahawks could get a punter elsewhere and save money doing it, but with Ryan it would be a sharp case of not fully realizing what they had until he was gone. And it wouldn’t be a huge cap dent to retain him.
Chance Seattle keeps: 75 percent.
Seattle’s reserves who are unrestricted free agents include: QB Tarvaris Jackson, LB Mike Morgan, RB Fred Jackson, FB Will Tukuafu, TE Chase Coffman, DL Demarcus Dobbs, C Lemuel Jeanpierre, TE Anthony McCoy and RB Bryce Brown. … When asked two weeks ago at the combine in Indianapolis whether he’d like to stay with a veteran backup quarterback behind Russell Wilson, Carroll said: “We’d love to have it in that format. It’s worked out great. We’ll see what happens.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
Seahawks’ free agency at a glance
Estimated cap space: $15 million.
Unrestricted free agents
Russell Okung, DT Brandon Mebane, G J.R. Sweezy, WR Jermaine Kearse, LB Bruce Irvin, CB Jeremy Lane, QB Tarvaris Jackson, LB Mike Morgan, P Jon Ryan, RB Fred Jackson, FB Will Tukuafu, DE Demarcus Dobbs, C Lemuel Jeanpierre, TE Chase Coffman, RB Bryce Brown, TE Anthony McCoy.
Restricted free agents
WR Ricardo Lockette, DB DeShawn Shead, LB Nick Moody, RB Christine Michael, C Patrick Lewis, DB Steven Terrell, DT A.J. Francis, T Alvin Bailey, FB Derrick Coleman, CB Marcus Burley, CB Mohammed Seisay, TE Cooper Helfet, LB Eric Pinkins, DT Jesse Williams.
Line of scrimmage is priority for Seattle. There are problems to solve on offensive line and decisions to make on bringing back Okung and Sweezy. On the defensive front, Seattle re-signed DT Ahytba Rubin to a three-year deal on Monday; long-time DT Mebane might not be retained now. Irvin is expected to be hot commodity on open market so Seattle will also need to find pass-rushing outside linebacker and could be looking to fill cornerback if Lane seeks new home.