Washington Huskies

Managing numbers tricky for Seahawks in free agency

Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) pressures Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer during a game Nov. 15. Irvin is an unrestricted free agent, and will likely be offered more money from other teams than the Seahawks would be willing to pay.
Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) pressures Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer during a game Nov. 15. Irvin is an unrestricted free agent, and will likely be offered more money from other teams than the Seahawks would be willing to pay. The Associated Press

A theory on the Seahawks’ approach to the upcoming free agency period, with 17 veterans eligible to enter the market:

If the front office thought any player was indispensable, he would be re-signed before the shopping opens on Wednesday.

Locking up defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin on Monday is an example.

That’s the way they like to work, offering top-dollar contracts to their core of elite players, or key middle-range guys like Rubin, before they get into an open-market auction situation that inflates the price.

And within a year or so, those guys look like bargains.

It takes some of the drama out of the upcoming weeks as Seahawks players seek new employers.

Even with the rise in the available salary-cap funds, the Seahawks are likely pretty close to the number of “upper-class” contracts they’ll want to carry.

According to Spotrac.com, the Seahawks are looking at having nine players with contracts above a $6 million cap number for 2016, which is up from seven last season and five in 2014.

That’s about the same balance of upper-class players that other successful franchises like New England, Denver and Green Bay rely upon.

It reflects the shrinking middle class in the NFL, where the few big contracts are offset by the bulk of kids on the rise in their rookie deals, with specific roster needs bolstered by the handful of mid-range veteran free agents or second-contract guys operating at reasonable rates.

Russell Okung, for instance, has been a reliable performer at left tackle when healthy. It’s one of the game’s most valuable positions, and given the spotty performance by a shifting cast of offensive linemen, he’s been an important anchor up front.

But if the Hawks believed he had value as a top left tackle in the NFL, they had all last season to extend him. They did not.

Linebacker Bruce Irvin is another who likely will have more value to other clubs than to the Seahawks. The Hawks had the option on the fifth year of his rookie contract but didn’t exercise it.

In both those cases, as with any number of other free agents, it’s not that they wouldn’t like to have Okung and Irvin back. Or Brandon Mebane, J.R. Sweezy, Jermaine Kearse, Jeremy Lane, and others, too.

Here’s the essence of what they say in such cases: Test the market. If somebody gives you top dollar and makes you happy, go with our blessing. If not, come back and we’ll talk value.

Where the system comes undone a bit is when the first-contract players aren’t ready to step in for aging veterans whose price has risen past their performance.

Tharold Simon, for instance, was hoped to mature into the right cornerback job, but has been derailed by injuries. That led to the ill-fated, free-agent signing of Cary Williams last season.

This need for secondary depth further enhances Lane’s value, although he, too, has had to fight back from serious injuries.

Jordan Hill (third round, 2013) should be relied upon to step into the job on the defensive line for either Mebane or Rubin, but he also has dealt with injuries, making the appeal of the veterans more keen.

Kevin Pierre-Louis looked like the cheap alternative to Irvin, but didn’t seem to ripen into that role last season.

Kearse has made so many big plays for the Hawks that he should see a good market elsewhere. Second-round pick (2014) Paul Richardson should be ready to jump into that role, but hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to prove his readiness.

These factors make this free-agency period a little more than the typical anti-climax for the Hawks.

The value of Okung and Sweezy, meanwhile, is enhanced by the sheer numbers of players already needed to step in and even sustain the offensive line, let alone upgrade it.

Managing the import/export of unrestricted free agents is only part of the challenge.

To complicate matters, the Hawks need to arrive at some fiscal enticements to the most openly dissatisfied — and valuable — veterans: Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett.

And we shouldn’t overlook that a prominent star of the 2015 second-half surge, receiver Doug Baldwin, will be in the final season of his contract, making extension discussions now a fair concern.

All Baldwin did was set the franchise record for touchdown catches in a season (14) and develop a connection with quarterback Russell Wilson that makes him even more valuable.

The Hawks often don’t make a lot of news in free agency, but they’re going to be busy nonetheless just keeping enough players on the roster.