Bruce Irvin’s departure brings Seahawks’ challenge into focus

Mar 9, 2016, 10:22 AM | Updated: 11:10 am
Seattle will have to hit on draft picks to counteract inevitable departures like that of Bruce Irvi...
Seattle will have to hit on draft picks to counteract inevitable departures like that of Bruce Irvin. (AP)
(AP)

Seattle’s success was never going to depend upon re-signing Bruce Irvin.

It will, however, rely in part on how the Seahawks replace Irvin now that he’s leaving for Oakland.

Same goes for J.R. Sweezy if he’s the next out the door, which looks to be very possible unless his affection and loyalty to Tom Cable and the Seahawks trumps more lucrative offers he has received elsewhere.

This isn’t a criticism of Irvin nor of Sweezy. It isn’t a justification of Seattle’s willingness to be outbid, either. It’s a recognition of the realities in a salary-capped league, and more importantly, an explanation of Seattle’s strategy for swimming upstream against the parity-inducing currents of the NFL.

The Seahawks can’t afford to keep all the young talent they amassed in John Schneider’s first three years as general manager. Not at a time where a team like Jacksonville has more money to spend than anyone else in part because the Jaguars drafted a punter ahead of Russell Wilson in 2012, thereby avoiding the burdensome salary-cap footprint of a franchise quarterback.

That last observation is a joke (admittedly not a very good one), but teams like the Jags and the Raiders – who lead the league in salary-cap space – have all that money because from 2010 to 2012 they didn’t draft many young players worth keeping.

Seattle did. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in 2010, Richard Sherman and K.J. Wright in 2011 and then a 2012 draft in which the Seahawks picked Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson to headline a class that also included Irvin and Sweezy.

Thirty or 40 years ago, a franchise would have been able to take that group of young players, hold on to them tight and squeeze out as many titles as possible. That’s how Pittsburgh was able to keep its Steel Curtain in place in the 1970s and how the 49ers became the team of the 1980s.

The league is different now. A salary cap limits how much Seattle can spend, and the Seahawks’ success is not only a testament to the talent they’ve drafted and developed; it’s a spotlight that will attract other teams to come poaching the different parts who’ve contributed to that success.

The past two years, however, provide a guide for how Seattle plans to counteract the free-agent attrition that functions like gravity in the NFL, pulling the top teams down. That process is pretty straightforward:

1) Keep the most talented players of the team’s nucleus, extending their contracts a year in advance of expiration to dilute the salary-cap impact by a couple million dollars per year.

2) Remain competitive in trying to re-sign those players who do become free agents, knowing that you simply might get outbid.

3) When you do lose a player to free agency, know that you may be in line to receive a draft pick as consolation.

This last part is critical to understanding what is happening now in Seattle. The NFL awards compensatory draft picks to teams that suffer a net loss in free agency. That’s a fancy way of saying that if a team loses more unrestricted free agents than it signs, it is given extra picks in the draft the following year. Those compensatory picks can come as early as the end of the third round.

The Seahawks received four compensatory picks in last year’s draft. They’re expected to be given three this year, though that won’t be announced until later this month. Those picks will be awarded for the departures of Byron Maxwell, James Carpenter and Malcolm Smith.

The Seahawks’ signing of Cary Williams last year didn’t affect the count as he had been released by Philadelphia and therefore wasn’t an unrestricted free agent. Ahtyba Rubin was the only unrestricted free agent that Seattle signed, according to the criteria.

Next year, Seattle is likely to get either a third- or fourth-round compensatory choice for losing Irvin.

While it’s not exactly fair nor necessarily realistic to expect a player chosen at the end of the third or fourth round to step in immediately for a starter like Irvin, who was the 15th overall pick in 2012, that ability to continue mining talent out of all ends of the draft is the key to Seattle sustaining its success.

Draft picks are the one renewable resource in a league that limits spending. A championship team may not be able to afford to outbid everyone to keep all its players, but there’s no reason that a team that has drafted well won’t continue to draft well.

And honestly, the yield from the draft has declined in Seattle over the past three years. It hasn’t helped that the Seahawks haven’t picked in the first round in that time, trading away two picks outright in deals for veterans Percy Harvin and then Jimmy Graham and also sliding back in the draft to pick Paul Richardson in the second round. There’s also the reality that it’s harder to make Seattle’s team now than it was back in 2011, when a player like Maxwell could develop in the background for a couple of years.

Seattle isn’t going to be better off having lost Irvin. The potential departure of Sweezy would hurt, too. And Russell Okung, Brandon Mebane and whoever else leaves for more money elsewhere will be setbacks.

The challenge for Seattle is to make the most of what compensation the league does offer for free-agent departures.

When you have a team as talented as Seattle has been, sustaining success doesn’t come down to retaining every one so much as it boils down to being able to successfully replace some of them.

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Bruce Irvin’s departure brings Seahawks’ challenge into focus