Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks’ offseason dominoes will fall behind decision on Lynch’s fate

Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (15) has blossomed from undrafted beginnings, grabbing 63 passes for 813 yards and 7 TDs in the regular season and playoffs this year.
Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (15) has blossomed from undrafted beginnings, grabbing 63 passes for 813 yards and 7 TDs in the regular season and playoffs this year. AP

Jermaine Kearse won’t accept a hometown discount. Bruce Irvin would.

The Seahawks might not be able to accept having 40 percent of its offensive line leave.

And no one, including his team, knows what Marshawn Lynch will or won’t accept.

Seattle’s offseason will be intriguing, eventful and pivotal — as most are in a league whose economics are designed to keep championship teams from staying that way for long.

The Seahawks’ young core remains intact, under contract for multiple years beyond 2016. That’s how franchises remain in the playoffs year after year.

It’s the moves on the edges of that core with key veterans that determine whether teams win championships annually. Those edges are where Seattle’s most important offseason moves will be.

Thursday the Seahawks got a sign that Kearse’s desire to stay home apparently doesn’t come cheaply.

The Lakewood native and former standout at Lakes High School and the University of Washington is on the cusp of unrestricted free agency that begins March 9. On Thursday, three days after Irvin, a fellow free-agent-to-be, said he’d accept a “hometown discount” to remain with Seattle, Seattle’s No. 2 wide receiver said he would not.

Kearse wrote to ESPN in a text message: “I love my hometown, but I’ve put in too much hard work to give a discount. My number one priority is to take care of my family’s future, so I will consider all opportunities.”

Sunday Kearse said following the season-ending playoff loss at Carolina: “I mean, I grew up in the state of Washington. I would love to be here. But there are going to have to be decisions that are going to have to be made, and we are just going to have to see when that time comes.”

Monday as the Seahawks were cleaning out lockers at team headquarters, Irvin said general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll asked him if he would accept less than free-agent market value to stay. Irvin said he would.

Irvin was Seattle’s first-round draft choice, 15th overall, in 2012. In what round did Kearse get drafted that same year? He didn’t. Seattle signed Kearse after the draft as a rookie free agent out of UW.

Irvin, the pass rusher out of West Virginia, got a four-year contract worth an average of $2,335,500 per season (including signing bonus). He got more than $9.34 million fully guaranteed. Even if he woefully underperformed — which he did not, becoming a valued every-down linebacker — there was little chance of Seattle releasing him with all the money it invested in him.

Kearse? He began his NFL career living week to week in 2012 rookie minicamps. He hoped playing every special teams unit and catching enough passes on the side from some fellow rookie third-round pick named Russell Wilson would earn him a place in the next minicamp. When he made the 2012 team as a scrappy special-teamer, he got the league’s minimum salary of $390,000. The next season he remained tied for the NFL’s lowest-paid player at $480,000 while emerging as a trusted target for Wilson. He caught four touchdown passes in the 2013 regular season, another in the NFC title game against San Francisco and another in the rout of Denver in Super Bowl 48.

In 2014, same thing. His was the NFL minimum salary for two-year veterans, $570,000. He continued his postseason stardom with TDs against Carolina in the divisional round and then in the conference title game. His grab in the end zone in overtime finished the Seahawks’ miraculous comeback to beat Green Bay in overtime and sent Seattle back to the Super Bowl. Late in Super Bowl 49, Kearse made a ridiculous, juggling catch while on his back and off his leg. That put Seattle in position for its final, fateful play from the 1-yard line.

Kearse got his first raise after that game. Last spring he signed the Seahawks’ tender offer of $2,356,000 on a one-year contract as a restricted free agent.

Now, after he had a career-high 11 catches and two more postseason touchdown receptions last weekend in the 31-24 loss at Carolina, he finally gets the chance to explore the NFL’s free market.

Of course the son of an Army sergeant at Fort Lewis wants to stay where he grew up. He just got married this past year. He still could remain a Seahawk for years by agreeing to a new contract with the team in March. But Kearse wants to know his market value, and his potential security in a sport scarce in that commodity. He’s already lived year-to-year at the very bottom of the NFL’s pay scale.

What the Seahawks can or can’t pay Kearse and Irvin — or left tackle Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy, two other starters that can become unrestricted free agents March 9 — depends largely on what happens with Lynch. The running back’s future is the offseason domino behind which the team’s all other financial decisions will fall into place.

The former franchise cornerstone played in just seven regular-season games in 2015, the first injury-filled season of his nine-year career. He turns 30 in April. He’s considered retirement in each of the last two offseason. The team must reduce or shed his scheduled, nonguaranteed base salary of $9 million with charge of $11.5 million to its salary cap in 2016.

Thomas Rawls, this past season’s rookie surprise, should be recovered from a broken ankle in time to be Lynch’s replacement as lead running back for the start of next season. Releasing Lynch would save Seattle $6.5 million against its cap in 2016.

That money could be used to perhaps bring back Sweezy. Coaches value the former seventh-round draft choice for his development from a college defensive lineman to a physical, mean-streaked starter at guard. Sweezy may get added importance with the likely departure of Okung.

If their recent years of frugality on the offensive line are any indication, the Seahawks won’t invest the going rate for a 27-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl selection at the highly valued position of left tackle — even one as injured and inconsistent as Okung has been the last two seasons. Seattle may not want to lose Sweezy on top of Okung. That would leave holes at two of the five spots on a line that allowed 31 sacks in its first seven games of 2015 and imploded in the first half last weekend as the Seahawks fell behind fatally, 31-0, at Carolina.

Despite a less-than-dominant season with 5  1/2 sacks, none over the last six games and no tackles, hits or statistics in the season-ending loss, Irvin may be more valuable to the Seahawks than he was at the start of the ‘15 season. His potential replacement, 2014 draft choice Kevin Pierre-Louis, has stalled. He’s been either injured or ineffective and inactive for games.

Other Seahawks whose contracts ended last weekend — and whose prospects to return rest on what happens with the guys above — include nickel back Jeremy Lane, who ended the season starting at cornerback, Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin, the tackles who were the foundation for a run defense that stonewalled foes over the season’s final half, and punter Jon Ryan.

Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle

Upcoming key offseason dates

Feb: 16: First day for clubs to designate franchise or transition tags.

March 1: Prior to 1 p.m. (PST), deadline for clubs to designate franchise or transition tags.

March 7-9: Clubs are permitted to contact and enter into contract negotiations with the agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents on March 9.

March 9: Free agency opens at 1 p.m. (PST). Teams must submit qualifying offers to restricted free agents and exercise any option clauses for 2016 in player contracts before 1 p.m.

April 28-30: NFL Draft, Chicago.