RENTON – The Seahawks are about to find out if money truly changes everything.
Not so much in what might be obvious — how some of their players react to new long-term contracts — though that, too, will be worth watching.
Of more long-term importance as the NFL draft looms on the horizon is how spending that money and how it impacts the team’s salary cap has changed, and will continue to change, the roster.
In the four years it took coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider to rebuild the Seahawks from a team that won nine games in the previous two seasons to a Super Bowl champ, one of their greatest assets was a favorable salary-cap situation.
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The past two seasons, Seattle was led by a number of elite players still playing under the terms of their rookie contracts, notably safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and quarterback Russell Wilson.
That began to change last year when the team gave safety Kam Chancellor, a member of the 2010 draft class, a new five-year, $35 million deal.
It’s changing even more now.
Last week, Thomas signed a four-year extension worth $40 million. Soon, Sherman is expected to sign a big deal — with rumors that it could be in the five- or six-year range, worth possibly $12 million to $13 million a year.
And next year, Wilson will be due for an extension that could be worth $18 million to $20 million.
All of that means less money to go around to fill out the roster with a salary cap that in 2014 is set at $133 million.
In particular, paying out big money to their own players means less to spend on veteran free agents from other teams; the Seahawks have signed just three this year. It also means continued hard decisions on some of their own players.
So for the Seahawks to stay at an elite level, they will need to continue to replenish their roster with younger, cheaper players, and specifically by continuing to hit big on picks in the draft.
“Now that Seattle is about to make the turn from rookie contracts to veteran contracts, the draft remains very critical,’’ said Jason Fitzgerald, who writes about NFL finances for the website OvertheCap.com. “Seattle has benefited greatly not just from drafting well the last few seasons, but even more importantly drafting well at premier positions. Russell Wilson plays for pennies (a base salary of $662,434 in 2014) at a position where a good veteran earns at least $18 million a season. Richard Sherman plays for next to nothing ($555,000 base in 2013) at a position where top players are around $10 million a season.’’
Throw in Thomas and receiver Golden Tate (who made $630,000 last year but recently signed a five-year deal worth as much as $31 million with the Lions), and Fitzgerald estimates the Seahawks were essentially saving about $40 million in 2013 in terms of what they were paying those four players versus what they will soon get.
That, Fitzgerald said, “allowed the Seahawks to take chances in free agency and trades and not worry too much about the new players doing well or not. The only way the Seahawks can continue to build in the same manner is to replace those core players with new bargain draft picks, ideally at positions like wide receiver and defensive end where the cap value added is exceptional.’’
None of this is news to Schneider, who said the team has been planning for this for several years.
In fact, Seattle’s entire offseason plan was predicated on creating the cap space necessary to re-sign Thomas, Sherman and Wilson.
“It’s kind of like having pillars, if you will, and then building around it,’’ Schneider said. “And we have to be very cognizant of what is coming three, four years out.”
That plan caused Seattle to take some hits in the offseason, losing the likes of Tate, defensive linemen Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald, offensive linemen Breno Giacomini and Paul McQuistan, and cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, either via releasing them or allowing them to leave in free agency.
Many, though, were veteran players on the back ends of their careers.
In coming seasons, Seattle will face decisions mostly on what are younger, core players such as left tackle Russell Okung, linebackers Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith and receiver Doug Baldwin (though veteran defensive end Cliff Avril also looms as a key free agent following the 2014 season).
Schneider says it means Seattle will have to continue with the philosophy that got them here — depending on young players in key roles.
“It gets back to a coaching staff being willing to play with young players,’’ Schneider said. “And so we know that by extending ourselves (financially) at specific positions that the other positions are going to be younger players that have smaller salaries and are going to be expected to come in and contribute right away, much like Earl did right away and Sherm did right away, Russell Okung. All these young guys that came in and played right away.’’
Part of Seattle’s long-term thinking involved the 2013 draft. Many of the 11 players selected were taken not so much with the idea that they would play in 2013 but that they would fill in voids down the road. Notable examples include cornerback Tharold Simon, who the team knew was battling a foot injury that required him to sit out last season but who now could be thrust into a key role with the loss of Browner and Thurmond; and defensive linemen Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams, who will be called on to help replace the likes of McDonald, Bryant and Clemons.
Having lost a few more veteran players this offseason, though, Seattle could be drafting for more immediate help in 2014 at spots such as receiver and the offensive and defensive line.
Making it somewhat trickier is that Seattle has just six picks this year (at the moment, anyway) after having had 39 the past four years, the second-most in the NFL.
Schneider, though, notes Seattle’s success in finding players through other avenues, specifically undrafted rookie free agents such as Baldwin and fellow receiver Jermaine Kearse, and says all will remain equally vital in keeping the Seahawks on top.
“The draft is the primary way to build your team,’’ he said. “But there are a lot of great avenues to acquire people. Our pro staff is working round the clock all the time evaluating other teams and when they’re going to be releasing players and what situations are on the horizon in terms of cap casualties, and what veterans might be let go, and CFL guys and punters, kickers, snappers working out in Arizona. We value all those things.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta