Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider know that the window to win championships will not stay open much longer, and Seattle's off-season moves, including the blockbuster trade for Jimmy Graham, reflect that now-or-never mindset.
NFL teams consider themselves lucky if they're able to uncover one or two "franchise players"—talents around which to build a team. Seattle, now, arguably has seven: Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Marshawn Lynch and the latest addition, tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham's acquisition this off-season was a stunning, blockbuster trade in a league that does not often produce such drama. The Seahawks dealt center Max Unger and a first-round pick to New Orleans for Graham and a fourth-rounder.
Seattle made that move because championship windows can closer rather quickly in the NFL. Even with all those upper-echelon talents, GM John Schneider realized this team was his best chance to win it all, on the heels of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
Lynch already has dabbled with retirement, Wilson's contract situation threatens to linger as a distraction into the regular season and Wagner also is in need of a substantial pay raise. (Meanwhile, Michael Bennett's still threatening a holdout.) Eventually, all these factors like the salary cap and players' advancing ages catch up to a franchise. The dream is to extend those glory days, as New England has managed to do with Tom Brady and co.; more often, teams hit a dip every couple of seasons.
Landing Graham ought to help prolong Seattle's stay as a title contender. Schneider is hopeful that a few other, less sensational moves do the same.
"We are working on continuing to make this the most competitive roster in the NFL," said coach Pete Carroll at the NFL combine. "Whether we do that, we’ll wait and see, but that’s what’s at hand right now moving forward. ... It’s a really, really exciting time."
Seattle lost cornerback Byron Maxwell via free agency, one off-season after Brandon Browner bolted. In Maxwell's stead the Seahawks will attempt to resurrect Cary Williams as a legit starting corner—his two-season stop with Philadelphia was forgettable, at best. Former Jaguar Will Blackmon will join Williams in the secondary, potentially as the top nickel-back option. Up front, Schneider signed 330-pounder Ahtyba Rubin, providing one of the NFL's deepest D-lines with yet another option.
Being down a Round 1 draft pick would have hurt Seattle more had the roster not been so well-stocked in the first place. Carroll and Schneider took some heat for their second-round pick, DE Frank Clark, who was dismissed from the Michigan roster last season following a domestic-violence incident. On the field Clark could be a solid contributor in the pass rush.
Third-rounder Tyler Lockett is one to watch. The speedy, polished Kansas State receiver is undersized (5'9") but knows how to create space and could be a special-teams threat. Schneider also picked up three interior linemen with Day 3 choices (Terry Poole, Mark Glowinski and Kristian Sokoli).
Seattle faces a challenge keeping its current core together long-term. For now, with Graham joining the party, the Seahawks have to be considered among the NFC favorites again.
Best acquisition: Jimmy Graham, TE
"The opportunity to get a player that can make these kinds of plays that we’ve seen Jimmy Graham do for a number of years really got us excited," Carroll said, via the Seattle Times, upon completing the trade for Graham. Exactly how the Seahawks take advantage of their new weapon is a must-see storyline for the start of this season.
Graham has averaged 88.8 receptions and 11.5 touchdowns over the past four seasons, and he topped the NFL in touchdown catches (16) two years ago. Seattle's leading receiver in 2014 was Doug Baldwin, with 66 catches, while no other player topped 38 grabs; Lynch actually led the Seahawks with four scores through the air.
The 6'7" Graham is a nightmare cover, no matter if a team opts to use a linebacker, safety or cornerback on him. The conundrum usually results in multiple defenders keeping eyes on Graham, which would spread the field further for the Wilson-Lynch combo on the ground and Seattle's underrated pass-catchers elsewhere. Graham and fellow tight end Luke Willson make up an absurdly athletic combo at their position.
Coughing up Unger to land Graham made for a hefty price tag, especially on top of the first-round pick Seattle included. Graham should be worth it.
"Both teams had specific needs," said Schneider of the deal. "For us, we’re going to miss Max’s leadership—he was a core part of what we were doing around here the last several years. ... But we have to continue moving this thing forward. We always talk about not having any finish lines, and this is just part of it. Tough decisions, but exciting futures as well."
Graham's contract is another that Schenider will have to address in the not-too-distant future—this will mark year two of a four-year, $40 million extension that could leave Graham underpaid by 2017.
Again, that's a problem for tomorrow. Graham could be the piece that pushes Seattle back over the top this season.
Biggest loss: Byron Maxwell, CB
Herein lies part of the beauty of having Richard Sherman on the roster. Sherman's lock-down ability remains a transcendent element, and the effects trickle down to the rest of the secondary. Because Thomas does not necessarily have to provide deep support on Sherman's side of the field, he can drift the other direction. As a result, the Seahawks can get by with average CB play opposite Sherman.
Still, the personnel losses have begun to pile up a bit—Browner and Walter Thurmond during 2014 free agency, now Maxwell. He is far from perfect, but Maxwell's 6'1" frame is a staunch obstacle and he led the Seahawks with seven passes defended during the regular season.
Philadelphia drove a truckload of cash to Maxwell's doorstep because it wanted an upgrade on Williams, so Seattle flipping Williams into the lineup and keeping everything hunky-dory will be a test.
Underrated draft pick: Obum Gwacham, DE/OLB, Oregon State
Seattle enjoys the luxury of being able to stash a draft pick here or there. In other words, it can take a player like Gwacham in Round 6, then permit him the year or two he'll likely need to refine his game enough to be a reliable player.
The dream of what Gwacham could be down the road is understandably exciting. A wide receiver for Oregon State through the 2013 season, he slid to the defensive side for his final season and produced 4.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. There were times—lots of them—-where Gwacham looked the part of a receiver-turned-DE. However, he maintained his athleticism, which is why he is ripe to be molded.
The Seahawks have no real need for Gwacham to see the field much in 2015, outside of perhaps as a special-teamer. When Gwacham is ready, they might have their next versatile, dynamic pass-rusher.
Looming question for training camp: Who are the O-line starters?
While Unger's absence forces turnover along the offensive front, center is far from the only spot with a forthcoming camp battle. Practice-squad journeyman Patrick Lewis and the re-signed Lemuel Jeanpierre are set to clash for Unger's vacated job in the middle—a critical position on any team but doubly so in Seattle because of its run-game schemes.
One of two starting guards from last season is no longer around, either, after James Carpenter signed a four-year, $19 million contract with the Jets. The Seahawks were ready for that transition, as Alvin Bailey will increase his workload.
The tackle jobs are claimed, in theory: Russell Okung at LT and Justin Britt at RT. The former has had a difficult time staying healthy (two games missed in '14, eight the prior season). He also presents yet another looming decision for the Seahawks, with a contract set to expire following the season. The News Tribune's Gregg Bell speculated earlier this month that Seattle is "likely" to give Garry Gilliam added practice time as a first-team left tackle, just in case Okung suffers another injury or leaves in 2016.
Competition is a great thing to have, provided it pushes players to be better. Otherwise, a team can be left grasping at straws. If the Seahawks had an Achilles' heel last season, it was their offensive line. But headed into camp, there may still be lingering concerns.