Over the past three seasons, the Seahawks have produced 33 regular season wins in the rugged NFC West, capturing a division title and earning two wild card berths. But this success has not translated into the postseason, where the franchise has gone 1-3 during that span and failed to advance past the divisional round.
Most recently, despite finishing with a 12-4 record and narrowly missing out on a first-round bye, Seattle went one-and-done in the playoffs for the second time in three years, losing a 30-20 decision to the Los Angeles Rams in the wild card round. The inability to go deeper into January has irked star quarterback Russell Wilson, who has been outspoken about his frustrations in recent weeks, including pleading for improved pass protection in front of him.
Considering the Seahawks recent struggles advancing in the playoffs, failure to compete for Super Bowl titles, and Wilson's overall discontentment, this offseason will be a critical one for the organization. Complicating further efforts to improve the roster, the NFL's salary cap will be significantly less this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Seattle currently has an estimated $4.3 million in cap space, and the team also has only four draft picks to work with in April.
Keeping this lack of resources in mind, what will it take for Seattle to close the gap on the rest of the NFC's elite in coming months? Stepping in for general manager John Schneider, I simulated the entire offseason from free agency through the draft aiming to build a legitimate Super Bowl front-runner in 2021.
Step 1: Restructure Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner's contracts.
With free agency now one month away, Seattle's first move should be turning a large chunk of Wilson and Wagner's 2021 base salary into a signing bonus. Under normal circumstances, general managers don't like to do this because it increases cap hits in future seasons. But even with Wilson's cap hit for 2022 jumping to north of $40 million and Wagner's cap hit escalating to $26 million as a result of the restructure, the benefit outweighs the risk here because the Seahawks instantly creates close to $18 million in cap relief. Schneider now has plenty of money to play with re-signing his own players and potentially looking at outside free agents to bolster the roster.
Step 2: Extend Tyler Lockett, Carlos Dunlap, and Duane Brown.
Before free agency even begins, Schneider has several key players with one year remaining on their respective deals that should have their contract situations addressed proactively. Due to the salary cap decrease league-wide, the Seahawks cannot afford to have $13 million-plus cap hits for all three of these players on the books in 2021. But they also can't afford to lose any of these three players either.
The solution? Contract extensions allow teams the opportunity to convert existing base salaries into a signing bonus and spread that money out of the new years added on an extension. This consequently would lower the salary cap hit for 2021. In this scenario, Schneider gives Lockett a two-year extension through 2023 and creates $4 million in cap space, gives Dunlap a two-year extension through 2023 and creates $6 million in cap space, and adds an extra year onto Brown's deal to open up $2.5 million.
At this stage, the Seahawks now have close to $35 million in cap space available and they have locked up three cornerstones beyond next season.
Step 3: Extend Jamal Adams as the NFL's highest-paid safety.
Contrary to prior moves, extending Adams could cut into Seattle's current available cap space, depending on the structure of the new contract. In this case, the Seahawks sign the All-Pro safety to a four-year, $72 million extension with a $12 million signing bonus, locking him up through 2025. In this simulation, his cap hit for 2021 receives a slight bump, jumping from $9.86 million to $11.86 million, leaving the franchise with around $32.5 million in cap room.
Step 4: Trade Jarran Reed in exchange for a fifth round draft pick.
While Schneider could extend Reed to lower his cap hit, at some point, he will need to find a way to recoup a few draft picks. Still fairly young at 29 years old and coming off a strong season with 6.5 sacks, the former Alabama standout could draw interest from other teams because whoever trades for him will only be on the hook for $8.975 million of his $13.975 million cap charge. The Seahawks would have to eat the remaining $5 million, but with Poona Ford, Bryan Mone, and Cedric Lattimore already on the roster, adding close to $9 million in cap space is worth making the move to jettison him for a day three selection.
Step 5: Cut cornerback Tre Flowers.
Away from Dunlap and Reed, the Seahawks don't have many plausible options for cutting players to create cap relief. The franchise certainly won't be releasing players such as Lockett, Brown, or Quandre Diggs. But much as Schneider did a year ago by releasing safety Tedric Thompson, who earned a Proven Performance Escalator due to playing more than 35 percent of Seattle's defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons, he could save $2 million by moving on from Flowers, who also earned the PPE raise by playing more than 75 percent of the team's snaps in his first three years. Under this scenario, Flowers won't be brought back on a cheaper contract, but that option would remain on the table.
Step 6: Sign Corey Linsley to a four-year, $48 million deal.
Wilson hasn't been shy about his desire for an improved offensive line and with ample salary cap space to work with, Schneider bucks past trends and lands himself a big fish to dramatically upgrade the center position. While previous starter Ethan Pocic exceeded expectations last year, Linsley garnered First-Team All-Pro honors anchoring the middle of Green Bay's fantastic offensive line and has been among the best at his position in all seven of his NFL seasons. He received an elite 89.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, ranking first among all NFL centers, and excelled as both a pass protector (82.8 grade) and run blocker (87.8) last season.
Step 7: Reunite with Richard Sherman on a two-year, $14 million deal.
Rather than overpay to re-sign Shaquill Griffin or bring back an injury-prone Quinton Dunbar, Schneider opts to bring back an old friend, re-signing Sherman to a two-year deal that allows him to wrap up his career where it began in the Pacific Northwest. Set to turn 33 years old in March, the perennial All-Pro's best days are likely behind him and he missed 11 games due to injury a year ago, but he's only two seasons removed from being a Second-Team All-Pro selection and obviously fits Seattle's scheme to perfection. Under the presumption he will join a contender for a bit less money chasing one more Lombardi Trophy, in the short-term, Seattle upgrades the secondary without breaking the bank and repairs a burned bridge with one of its most iconic stars.
Step 8: Sign T.Y. Hilton to a two-year, $16.5 million deal.
While Wilson clearly wants the offensive line to be Seattle's primary focus this offseason, he won't be upset if Schneider decides to grab him another weapon on the outside either, particularly if it's a receiver who can be dynamic in the quick passing game. Hilton isn't the same player who posted 1,000-plus yards in five out of six seasons from 2013 to 2018, but he won't need to be in Seattle, as he will benefit immensely from the presence of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Still possessing elite speed and capable of creating yardage in chunks after the catch, his versatility running routes from the outside and the slot could make him the missing piece for a passing game that struggled to find a consistent third option in 2020.
Step 9: Place a second-round tender on Poona Ford.
After trading Reed earlier in the offseason, the Seahawks should look into a long-term extension for Ford. But in this simulation, the team applies a second-round tender on the fourth-year defensive tackle, hiking his salary up to $3.422 million for the 2021 season. Assuming he signs the tender for a lucrative pay raise, the door will be open for Schneider to then negotiate a long-term deal without having to worry about losing him to another team. If another team does make a substantial offer and the Seahawks choose not to match, they will receive a second-round pick.
Step 10: Place Exclusive Rights Tenders on Bryan Mone and Ryan Neal.
Now in the process of filling out the roster with quality players for depth purposes, Mone and Neal will both be cheap to retain as exclusive right free agents at $850,000 and $780,000 respectively. Keeping both players in the fold provides Seattle with a massive nose tackle to stuff the middle and a versatile defensive back who can play in dime packages and contribute on special teams.
Step 11: Re-sign Geno Smith, Jordan Simmons, and Cedric Ogbuehi to team-friendly one-year contracts.
Seattle could certainly explore drafting a quarterback in April and looking at other free agent options, but re-signing Smith should not be expensive and he's one of the more experienced backups in the NFL. The Seahawks bring back the former second-round pick on a one-year, $1.25 million deal. Due to his injury history, Schneider won't place a pricey restricted free agent tender on Simmons but will re-sign him on a more affordable one-year pact worth $1.785 million. He should compete for the starting left guard spot in 2021. With Brown set to turn 36 in August, Seattle decides to bring back the 29-year old Ogbuehi after he played well in limited action last season, re-signing the veteran tackle to a one-year, $2.225 million contract.
Step 12: Fill remaining gaps with the 2021 NFL Draft...
Entering the draft with five selections after trading Reed, Schneider nets the Seahawks a sixth pick by trading down from No. 56 overall to No. 61 overall, adding a seventh round selection in the process.
Pick No. 61: Chazz Surratt, LB, North Carolina
With Jordyn Brooks taking over as the full-time weakside linebacker, Seattle finds a quality replacement for K.J. Wright at strongside linebacker in Surratt, a two-time First-Team All-ACC selection who racks up tackles in bunches. Despite minimal experience as a former quarterback-turned-linebacker, he has also shown proficiency as a pass rusher and in coverage.
Pick No. 129: Cam Sample, DT, Tulane
While listed as a defensive tackle, the Seahawks may use the 280-pound Sample similarly to Quinton Jefferson, deploying him at multiple positions along the defensive line. He can play the 5-tech base defensive end spot and reduce inside to the 3-tech role in a pinch, which would help offset Reed's departure.
Pick No. 168: Camryn Bynum, CB, California
Before D.J. Reed's surprise performance last season, the Seahawks probably don't pick a player like Bynum, who has just 30 3/4-inch arms. But the First-Team All-Pac 12 selection plays bigger than his size and provides better ball productivity than advertised with 28 passes defensed in college. With Sherman signing, the team can develop him as an eventual starter.
Pick No. 175: Quinton Morris, TE, Bowling Green
Though limited to just five games as a senior due to COVID-19, Morris caught 97 passes for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns during his sophomore and junior seasons with the Falcons. An athletic move tight end with soft hands who can also block inline or as a wing, he's an intriguing fit with Shane Waldron's offense.
Pick No. 209: Master Teague, RB, Ohio State
Teague never emerged as a bell cow running back for the Buckeyes and he's had a few significant lower body injuries, but at 6-foot, 225 pounds, he's the type of physical back the Seahawks have tended to prefer under Pete Carroll. His light workload at the college level may bode well for being a late-round gem in the league.
Pick No. 234: Jonathan Cooper, DE, Ohio State
Once again picking a former Buckeye, the Seahawks take a chance on Cooper, who never fully put everything together in the Big Ten and was overshadowed by other top rushers on the team. But he offers the size (6-foot-4, 257 pounds) and athletic traits to develop into a quality rotational pass rusher and projects to play the LEO in Seattle's scheme.
By the end of this simulation, the Seahawks have only a few million in effective cap space after accounting for their draft class, but Schneider has filled the vast majority of gaps without losing much talent in the process while also retaining several key players for the foreseeable future. A few minor moves could still be made to round out the roster, including finding competition at left guard, but after upgrading the offensive line and adding another dynamic play maker to the equation, Seattle looks poised to push for another division title and make a run at returning to the big game.