Thursday, February 3, 2011
Guessing Seattle's Offseason Strategy
February 7th is the date that NFL teams will be able to cut players under contract. March 3rd is the date free agency would normally begin, but it's pre-empted this year by the lapse of the league's Collective Bargaining Arrangement. No business can be conducted after that date - signing free agents, trading players, or any kind of negotiations.
In other words, teams have only three weeks to tweak their roster this year unless the NFL gets a new CBA in place - which, depending on whom you listen to, could be tomorrow or sometime in 2012.
This deadline has teams scrambling to sign players to futures contracts, stocking up on spare parts like my family loading the basement with canned green beans before Y2K. Futures contracts are given to players for 2011 who weren't on a team in 2010 and usually involve the kind of fringe talent that Seattle saw a lot of in 2010.
How will the situation affect the Seahawks' strategies of finding players? Will Seattle keep up its usual frenzy of wheeling-and-dealing in the three weeks that NFL business can still be conducted? Or will they stay relatively quiet in order to make the most out of the draft? There could be a way for us to predict their strategy by looking back on last year and getting a feel for GM John Schneider's modus operandi.
One of the first things the Carroll/Schneider brain trust did was cut SS Deon Grant. Whatever you think of Grant, some folks read between the lines and concluded that the front office was planning to replace him with a first-round safety from the upcoming draft. This was a natural guess, because the draft offered three such safeties - Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, and Taylor Mays - and Seattle's draft position was prime to strike at any of them.
Schneider eventually did pull the trigger on Thomas, but unlike some, I don't think that Seattle was tipping its hand at all by cutting Grant. Berry, Thomas, and Mays are all free safeties; Grant was a strong safety (a different role in a Tampa 2 defense), with a replacement at hand in Lawyer Milloy. So getting rid of Grant didn't necessarily open up a hole at free safety and didn't necessarily signal Seattle's intentions.
One of the big positives of GM John Schneider's drafting so far is his stick-to-it-iveness. Last year, the front office identified a short list of first-round players they wanted using the BPA strategy (Best Player Available) and stood fast when their pick arrived. They received trade down offers from other teams but declined them, feeling that their targets offered more. The results speak for themselves on the field, in the form of Russell Okung and Earl Thomas.
Classic BPA - find the highest value where you are, don't let other teams talk you out of it, and don't let your pick be dictated by need.
Schneider helped pioneer the BPA formula in Green Bay. He came to Seattle with a reputation as a "build through the draft" poster boy. He and Carroll jumped deftly into all the coy gamesmanship that comes with draft season, feeding false leads to the media about who they liked, staying quiet about those they actually did like. The need at left tackle couldn't be hidden, but the multiple options at the position allowed them to play the shell game. And once the picks were in, Schneider's comments revealed that Okung and Thomas had been the targets all along, to the point that Seattle was worried when Philly traded ahead of them.
The front office had done its homework. They had a long-range plan, and they'd been careful not to do anything pre-draft that might telegraph their intentions or shoehorn them into a specific need. They'd protected their plans well.
But this year, without free agency to patch roster holes, the draft becomes the sole avenue for teams to address their roster.
Say Seattle cuts a struggling starter (say, Lofa Tatupu) from a 2011 team that has no replacement for him. Without free agency to address the need, that's like shouting for all the world to hear that Seattle Plans To Draft a Middle Linebacker - inviting other teams to guess and snatch the potential target. Such a move also serves to lock Seattle into drafting for that need instead of being able to pursue the BPA. So in a couple of ways, roster cuts in 2011 can constrict a team's options in the draft.
That doesn't sound like a situation a GM like John Schneider wants to be in. My guess, therefore, is to expect only minimal roster overhaul from Seattle in 2011, and probably from most other teams as well. The Seahawks will want to protect their draft plans. We may see more franchise tags than usual, but in general, I'm guessing that starting rosters will look largely the same in 2011 as they did in 2010, plus draft picks and minus players whose contracts end on March 3rd.
Do expect a lot of futures contracts. Minnesota and New Orleans are amongst the teams already scouring the free-agent pool with futures contracts. The funny thing is, thanks to its heavy free-agent experimentation in 2010, Seattle is already quite familiar with the "dumpster-diving" approach and should have a good methodology in place for making the most out of it. An extra benefit of Carroll's "always compete" philosophy, if you will.
It'll be interesting.