SEATTLE — There is a difference between hope and expectation in NFL free agency.
And in Seattle, that difference turns out to be six years.
While the Seahawks entered this offseason hoping to make additions, they were determined to do so in 2007. That distinction explains the difference between paying the full sticker price as Seattle did for two veteran defenders back in 2007 and this year’s triple play, which had Seattle’s general manager John Schneider pinching himself.
“There is no way I thought, a week and a half ago, that we’d have Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril or Michael Bennett on our team this year,” Schneider said, according to Sports Illustrated. “Any of them. Things just fell right for us.”
Schneider said that Saturday in an interview with Peter King, Sports Illustrated’s longtime NFL reporter, and it’s an observation that puts this year’s acquisitions in context. It shows that while the Seahawks entered the offseason open to the idea of making significant additions — hopeful even, especially at defensive end — they were not beholden to that urge or even necessarily expecting to. That stands in contrast to the team’s previous forays into the free-agent market.
Seattle has made big splashes before in free agency. Several times, in fact, whether it was signing linebacker Chad Brown from Pittsburgh in 1997 or adding Grant Wistrom from the Rams in 2004. More recently, there was the double-play addition of defensive end Patrick Kerney and safety Deon Grant in 2007, when Seattle entered the offseason determined to pay for upgrades under then-president Tim Ruskell.
Seattle decided it was going to spend in free agency, and the Seahawks were aggressive from the get-go, flying Chargers guard Kris Dielman to town as soon as free agency began. When Dielman spurned the Seahawks, the team turned its attention first to Kerney and then to Grant, deploying Paul Allen’s private plane in each instance. The team later added safety Brian Russell.
The plan worked. For a year. The Seahawks won 10 games in 2007, Kerney was runner-up to Jared Allen as the league’s defensive player of the year and the Seahawks reached the second round of the playoffs. But as Seattle won nine games total over the next two seasons, it became clear this team had relied too much on veterans, leaving it vulnerable to the erosion age inevitably takes.
The cost of those veterans soon became prohibitive. Grant was one of the first players released once Schneider and coach Pete Carroll took over. Kerney followed, retiring before training camp.
But the issue here is not the long-term effectiveness of Seattle’s free-agent acquisitions in 2007, but the approach the franchise took to the free-agent market. The Seahawks had cash on hand that was (apparently) burning a hole in their pocket. The question wasn’t how much Seattle would spend, but who the Seahawks could convince to take it. When Dielman spurned Seattle’s seven-year, $49 million offer, the Seahawks turned to Kerney. And when tight end Daniel Graham opted against Seattle to head to Denver, the Seahawks turned their attention to Grant.
Compare that to the approach Seattle took under Schneider this year.
“You’ve got to be careful in free agency,” he said last week in a radio interview on 710 ESPN Seattle. “You have to be able to have a level of interest and be able to stick to that level and be able to walk away from deals. We try to pride ourselves on being able to do that and not just kind of give in to the excitement of adding the player and taking care of what may be perceived as a need and just checking it off the list so you can just get in bed and sleep well at night.”
Since Schneider has arrived, he has pointed out that Seattle grades draft prospects for its own team and not for the league. That difference is significant. The Seahawks evaluate, rank and ultimately choose prospects based on their own criteria and not where the team believes that player will be chosen.
Does Seattle take a similar approach in free agency, pegging a value of a player based on what the team decides he’s worth as opposed to deciding whether he’s worth the price he will get on the open market?
“That’s a great question,” Schneider said in the same radio interview. “Because you have to be aware of both ... if there’s just too much of a difference, then you just move on. There’s times where deals fall apart for them for one reason or another club and then they can come back to you, closer to your price range if you will.”
That interview was on Tuesday, March 12, nearly a full 24 hours before the first report of Seattle’s agreement with Avril. In retrospect, it’s easy to to see what was going on. Paul Kruger had agreed to a five-year contract with Cleveland for $40 million, effectively setting the ceiling for free-agent pass-rushers much lower than anyone expected.
Seattle wanted to upgrade its pass rush. It had Avril and Bennett graded as two of the top three pass-rushers available in free agency. But Seattle didn’t bowl the pair over with a strong opening offer. It held out a significant salary on a short-term contract and watched as the market played out.
Avril wound up in Seattle on a two-year deal for $13 million, and Bennett signed a one-year deal for $4.8 million. The result was one of the biggest hauls in free agency. Only this time it wasn’t the result of over-the-top spending aggression, but a little patience and some discipline.