Inches short of a repeat, how will the Seahawks approach the offseason?
The Malcolm Butler interception that ended Super Bowl XLIX and sent the Seattle Seahawks into a long offseason of what-might-have-beens shouldn't eclipse the job that head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have done in the Emerald City since taking their respective positions in 2010. The Seahawks were the youngest team ever to win the Super Bowl a year ago, and just two players -- center Max Unger and punter Jon Ryan -- preceded Carroll and Schneider on the roster. Clearly, these guys know how to build a team and sustain success despite the vagaries of NFL personnel.
The Seahawks are set up pretty well for at least one more trip to the sport's biggest game in the next few years, but where do things stand in Seattle heading into the 2015 offseason, and what may change as the new season begins?
Given an estimated 2015 base salary cap of roughly $140 million (the league is still putting the final numbers together, and the NFLPA will have its own estimates), the Seahawks are in decent shape: Overthecap.com has their current 2015 cap spending just over $119.3 million, with about $20 million more spent on defense than offense. That makes sense, given that the team made dramatic moves to wrap up their key players on that side of the ball in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett. Now, Seattle will need to make some major moves on the offensive side -- chief among those is the new contract for Russell Wilson (which is rumored to be $20 million per year or more), along with a possible extension for Marshawn Lynch that could bring him $10 million in 2015. Wilson is still on his rookie contract, so his cap hit has been negligible. The ideal, of course, would be to give him the same kind of year-to-year deals that Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick received last year. Kaepernick's 2015 cap hit is over $15 million, and Dalton's comes in at $9.6 million; the Seahawks may land somewhere in between with Wilson, with more guaranteed dollars over the course of the deal.
A new contract for Lynch could actually reduce his $8.5 million cap hit for 2015 if it's back-loaded. The Seahawks will also have to consider new deals for cornerback Byron Maxwell, who becomes a free agent at the start of the new league year, and linebacker Bobby Wagner, who will be one after the 2015 season. Maxwell is important to Seattle's defense, especially with the news that Richard Sherman will have to have offseason elbow surgery. Wagner is absolutely indispensable; this defense is far more vulnerable when he's not on the field.
Maxwell and left guard James Carpenter are the big names here, along with several lesser-known role players whose contributions have been important. Carpenter, a Carroll/Schneider first-round pick as a tackle, has actually done pretty well since moving inside, though his injury history might give the team pause moving forward. Maxwell may get bigger offers from other teams, since Seattle believes firmly in young cornerback Tharold Simon as a potential starter. Receivers Ricardo Lockette and Jermaine Kearse, linebacker Malcolm Smith and outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield could be high on Seattle's priority list.
There could be a lot of change coming here. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, whose creativity with defensive fronts has helped to clarify this great defense, will be the Atlanta Falcons' new head coach. The expectation is that Quinn will be replaced by defensive backs coach Kris Richard, an able lieutenant who goes back to Carroll's USC days as a player and assistant. Richard seems to have everything it takes to be a great defensive coordinator, but his acumen as a secondary coach will need to be replaced. Linebackers coach Ken Norton, another longtime compadre of Carroll's, is rumored to have interest from the Oakland Raiders for their open defensive coordinator position.
As for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, there's no indication yet that Carroll would let him go because of one Super Bowl play-call, but it's also true that Seattle's passing game has been functionally limited for a long time, and Wilson appears to be the kind of quarterback capable of taking on even more responsibility. If the Seahawks can do better there, they certainly should.
Whether in the draft or free agency, Seattle's primary need is clear: This team must come out of the offseason with at least one receiver who is big enough to beat press coverage and fast enough to win straight-line battles with the NFL's best defensive backs. The impact little-known Chris Matthews made in Super Bowl XLIX should inform the Seahawks' front office as never before what this offense could look like if Wilson had a big downfield target. Louisville's DeVante Parker would be an outstanding fit in this (or any other) offense, but the Seahawks might have to trade up from their current 31st overall pick to get someone that highly-regarded. In the past, Seattle has liked athletic project receivers with size and leaping ability such as Matthews, and Arizona State's Jaelen Strong fits that description. Auburn's Sammie Coates, a freak athlete who still needs development, would be an outstanding addition to start, and a possible franchise receiver over time.
Seattle could also use help at nose tackle, tight end, offensive guard and outside pass-rusher, but the receiver issue is primary. The Seahawks' current group is, with apologies to Doug Baldwin, pretty pedestrian. That needs to change if this franchise wants to remain at the top of its conference.
In addition to their battles with always-tough NFC West opponents, the Seahawks will take on the NFC North, with games at home against the Bears and Lions, and games at Green Bay and Minnesota. That's four more difficult opponents, and given the recent history of thrilling games between the Seahawks and Packers, you can certainly expect that one to get primetime billing.
Seattle also gets the AFC North in 2015, with home games against the Steelers and Browns and away games against the Bengals and Ravens. They'll travel to Dallas and host Carolina. Outside of Cleveland (depending on the Browns' quarterback situation) and the 49ers (who have spent this offseason finding new ways to self-implode), there really isn't an obvious gimme anywhere on this schedule. The Seahawks will face four division champs from 2014, eight playoff teams (Arizona twice) and only five teams (the Bears, Vikings, Panthers, Rams and Browns) who had losing records last year.