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O’Neil: Does Seahawks’ trade of Frank Clark signal change to their approach?

The Seahawks don't usually flip players entering their prime, but they did with Frank Clark. (AP)

Are the Seahawks re-imagining their defense, taking a step back with an eye toward a brighter future down the road?

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Yes. It certainly appears they are by trading away Frank Clark, their top pass-rusher from last season.

But wasn’t this a case of being offered a deal for Frank Clark that was simply too good to pass up?

Yep. That’s also very true.

And understanding how the answer can be the same to two questions that appear to be mutually exclusive gets to the heart of what is most interesting about the Seahawks trade of Clark in exchange for Kansas City’s first-round pick this year, its second-round choice next year and a swap of third-round choices.

This is not the kind of trade the Seahawks have ever made under general manager John Schneider. They don’t flip players entering their prime for picks, which means that either Seattle has decided to alter its approach to building the team or it was gobsmacked by what the Chiefs were willing to offer.

In an effort to get to the bottom of what happened, let’s count down three things we learned from the deal.

1. Seattle had a firm limit on what it would pay Frank Clark.

The Seahawks weren’t going to pay Clark more than $20 million per year. The fact that they were willing to go that high means that Seattle hadn’t reached a decision to move on from Clark. The Seahawks decided, however, that they weren’t going to go to the same level the Cowboys had gone with DeMarcus Lawrence even when it became clear that another team – in this case the Chiefs and perhaps others – would go that high. That means this was a decision on Clark’s value on the field, not about character or red flags or anything else like that. This was about the Seahawks being unwilling to go beyond a certain number for a player they deemed good, but something short of great.

2. The most important decision regarding Clark’s future in Seattle – or lack thereof – was made last year.

Seattle has made a habit of extending the contracts of its best players a year before they run out. It happened with center Max Unger in 2011, Kam Chancellor in 2013, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in 2014 and Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner in 2015. The incentive for the player is readily apparent: They get more security sooner, taking away the risk that an injury in that contract year would lessen their bargaining power. Because the team is taking on that injury risk, essentially buying out the final year of the player’s rookie contract, the contract total isn’t as high as it would be were the player headed to free agency. The team offers immediate financial security in lieu of a higher payout were the deal to be done the following year. Now Clark hadn’t produced as much in his first three seasons as those players mentioned above. He started 17 games over his first three seasons, and while he had 22 sacks, he was more a component of the team’s defensive line than a mainstay. The fact that Seattle let Clark enter the final year of his contract spoke to the fact one of two things was true:

1) He wasn’t seen as being as essential as players like Chancellor and Wagner had been;

or

2) His asking price was too high for Seattle’s liking.

Either way, it was clear well before Seattle placed the franchise tag on Clark this March that this situation wasn’t following the paths of previous Pro Bowl-caliber players on Seattle’s defense.

3. Seattle opted for the long-term play over the short-term gain.

The Seahawks got great value for Clark in that they’re receiving a first-round pick in this year’s draft – No. 29 overall – and a second-rounder next year. Compare that with what Pittsburgh received for Antonio Brown: a third- and a fifth-round pick from Oakland. Now, the situations are utterly different in that the Steelers didn’t want Brown any more, but still, the guy caught more than 100 passes in each of the past six seasons and the Steelers didn’t come close to getting the return for him that Seattle received from the Chiefs. But while the Steelers believed they were better off not having Brown on the team at all, no one thinks the Seahawks are going to benefit from Clark’s absence. The question is whether Seattle can use the picks they acquired and the $17 million they won’t be spending on Clark this season to make up for his absence. That’s one of the things we’ll have to wait and see to determine if this was a good deal for Seattle.

More on the Frank Clark trade: John Clayton | Brock Huard | Trade details