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Clayton: What will be next piece of Seahawks’ offseason puzzle to come into place?

By not franchising Sheldon Richardson, it became more likely he won't return to the Seahawks. (AP)

On Friday, Seahawks general manager John Schneider didn’t have plans to use a franchise tag on defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

The 1 p.m. Tuesday deadline passed and the Seahawks didn’t franchise him, so while the Seahawks still have until next Wednesday to re-sign him, it’s most likely he will hit the free agent market and leave Seattle.

Clayton on what he learned at combine from Carroll, Schneider

As it turned out, Richardson became a very good one-year rental for the 2017 season. The Seahawks didn’t have plans of trading for him until they found out second-round pick Malik McDowell suffered a bad head injury in an ATV accident in Michigan before the start of training camp. The season approached and Schneider ended up with a need to fill, so the Seahawks gave up a No. 2 draft pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for Richardson.

Arguably, Richardson could be considered one of the top three available players in free agency. Of the top 100 players Over The Cap rated that were set to enter free agency, nine of the top 12 players were on offense. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (Cowboys) and Ziggy Ansah (Lions) were the top two defensive players, but they were franchised. Cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler were rated slightly ahead of Richardson, who was rated 14th.

Despite those ratings, it’s not out of the question for Richardson to get more with his next contract than Johnson and Butler, who are expected to get $14 million and $13 million a year, respectively. Richardson could command in excess of $14 million a year, and that would easily net the Seahawks a third-round compensatory pick in the 2019 draft.

The decision not to franchise Richardson was the first major roster decision for the Seahawks this offseason. He was one of eight defensive starters who have been selected to a Pro Bowl, and as it stands now, the Seahawks could be without four defensive starters with Pro Bowl experience from their 2017 team.

Cliff Avril isn’t expected back because of neck problems. A neck injury could sidelined safety Kam Chancellor for the season, as well. Defensive end Michael Bennett is being shopped and there is definite interest from the Atlanta Falcons.

Seeing that many current and former Pro Bowl defenders exit a defense should build momentum toward the Seahawks keeping Earl Thomas at free safety. Everyone knows around the league that the Seahawks could deal Thomas for the right price. He has hinted about a holdout and even ran over to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and told him to come get him after Seattle’s game in Dallas in December.

Thomas is probably too valuable to trade under the current circumstances, however, with cornerback Richard Sherman coming off Achilles surgery and Chancellor’s status uncertain. The Seahawks were successful in breaking in two good, young cornerbacks last year in Shaquill Griffin and Justin Coleman though, and they can bring back Bradley McDougald to join two young safeties, Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson.

The money saved from not having Bennett, Avril and Richardson could more than make up the difference of giving Thomas a contract extension. Thomas makes $10 million a year. Eric Berry is the highest paid safety at $13 million a year, and the $3 million-plus difference per year isn’t that bad as long as Thomas doesn’t want to totally blow away the safety market.

If the Seahawks could only get a second-round choice and maybe another draft choice for Thomas in a trade, it only makes sense to keep him even if he has to play out the final year of his contract. The Seahawks do have the ability to franchise him in 2019 if they can’t reach a long-term deal, too.

Getting back to Bennett, at the very least the Seahawks could get a fourth-rounder from the Falcons (the Falcons don’t have a fifth-round pick). Even if the Seahawks had to throw in one of their three seventh-rounders, getting a fourth-rounder from the Falcons would be adequate. It would give them nine picks: a first, two fourths, three fifths and three sevenths.

Schneider still has a difficult puzzle, but Tuesday’s franchise decision was the first piece.

Huard: Paul Richardson could be in demand in free agency

John Clayton on 710 ESPN Seattle
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