Entering this week's NFL combine, the Seahawks' priority is improving their pass rush. That won't be easy because it's a position that commands a premium.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Seahawks’ to-do list for this offseason is a lot shorter than it has been the past couple of years.
They’re not searching for a left tackle like they were in 2010. They’re not scouring the free-agent market for four starters on offense like 2011. And after three years of long-term uncertainty at quarterback, Seattle might be overstocked at the position with Russell Wilson the undisputed starter and Matt Flynn an overqualified backup.
Seattle has so many pieces in place that it makes it all the more important they fill those final few needs. Going sackless in the playoff loss at Atlanta underscored what is the team’s biggest need going forward, and a good part of Seattle’s offseason will be spent trying to find men capable of tackling, hurrying or otherwise harassing the opposing quarterback.
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The Seahawks could use more speed at receiver, as well as another starting linebacker, but Seattle’s ability to improve the pass rush is the most important question facing this team. The answer will only begin to take shape this week when the NFL’s offseason begins in earnest at the annual scouting combine.
Everyone in the league — from coaches to general managers to scouts — converges in Indianapolis this weekend to watch this year’s top draft prospects on display. The workouts are the backdrop to the NFL equivalent of baseball’s winter meetings. This is when franchise tags can first be affixed to players, preventing them from becoming unrestricted free agents, long-term deals are struck to keep a player from hitting the open market, and teams begin to decide whether they have to spend big to add free-agent talent or they’ll roll the dice on finding cost-effective alternatives in the draft.
Seattle enters the offseason with 10 draft selections, millions of dollars in salary-cap space and a bargaining chip for a backup quarterback.
The Seahawks also have a need at a position that commands a premium in the NFL. Only quarterbacks, left tackles and the occasional cornerback command more than a high-end pass rusher.
Options exist on the open market this year, whether it’s veterans like Dwight Freeney of the Colts or Osi Umenyiora of the Giants or younger players like Paul Kruger of Baltimore or perhaps Michael Johnson of Cincinnati.
It’s not that Seattle’s pass rush was toothless. Chris Clemons had double-digit sacks for the third successive season since coming to Seattle, and last year’s first-round pick of Bruce Irvin had eight sacks, most among NFL rookies. But no one else on the team had more than three sacks. Throw in that Clemons will be coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, and there’s no doubt about Seattle’s desire to improve the pass rush.
So how will the Seahawks do it? There are plenty of options, all with risks and difficult choices that Seattle must weigh.
I. Catch a rising star
Seattle hasn’t made a habit of spending big in free agency, but two years ago, the Seahawks signed a pair of 20-somethings to two big-budget deals, adding receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller.
Each was in his mid-20s. Both were first-time free agents. A couple of pass-rushers meet those specs this year.
Kruger had nine sacks during the regular season and 4.5 more during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He turned 27 last week and is entering his prime. He’s also a one-year starter who recorded the bulk of his sacks in the run-up to free agency.
Same holds true for Johnson. He is 6 feet 7, a lean speed rusher off the edge who totaled 11.5 sacks in 2012. A candidate to be franchise-tagged, he may not get to free agency, and if he does, he’s going to cost millions.
II. Veteran seasoning
It isn’t a rule that Seattle won’t sink big money into veterans, but under Schneider it has been the exception for the team to offer a multiyear contract to someone in his 30s.
Freeney and Umenyiora have been exceptional pass rushers in this league, though. Both are expected to hit free agency, where several contenders will take a look. The upside is obvious, and there are plenty of examples of pass-rushers who have remained effective into their 30s, from Bruce Smith to Michael Strahan to Jason Taylor.
On the other hand, Seattle’s history with both Grant Wistrom and Patrick Kerney demonstrates the danger of relying on high-priced veterans.
III. Pick a winner
Seattle’s ability to find value in all rounds of the draft has been the signature of John Schneider’s time as general manager. He has picked Pro Bowlers in the first round like left tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas. He has found stars in the fifth round, too, in safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman.
But finding an immediate-impact pass-rusher with the 25th pick of the first round would take some doing, even for Schneider. From 2002 to 2012, 12 players totaled double-digit sacks as rookies. Ten were chosen among the first 20 picks.
One of those two picked outside the top 20 was linebacker Clay Matthews, chosen No. 26 in 2009 by the Green Bay Packers, where Schneider was working at the time. Four years later, Schneider will spend this week looking to see if he can find someone to provide a similar boost in Seattle.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org