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A closer look at the Seahawks’ rationale for letting Bruce Irvin walk

Bruce Irvin's departure was set in motion last offseason when Seattle didn't pick up his fifth-year option. (AP)

Bruce Irvin has a four-year deal in Oakland that will average more than the Seahawks would have paid him for one more season.

So did the Seahawks screw up? After all, the Raiders are going to fork over a total of $12.5 million in signing bonus and salary this year alone for a player that Seattle could have kept under contract for $7.8 million in 2016.

Except, Seattle’s rationale here is a bit more complicated than that, and while unraveling that rationale may be boringly steep in salary-cap minutiae, it will help you understand the Seahawks’ approach.

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It’s also technical and kind of laborious, so I’ll leave a short-hand version right here: Irvin would have had the fifth-highest salary-cap figure on the team had Seattle exercised its option to keep him for 2016. He wasn’t the fifth-most valuable player on the team, however, and not only that, but if the Seahawks watched him walk away as an unrestricted free agent, they would get a draft pick for their trouble. The end.

Still reading? That means you want the longer version, which will require a little more patience but no actual math. I promise.

Rewind one year ago when Seattle was deciding whether to exercise the fifth-year option on Irvin’s contract. This is a feature of the new collective-bargaining agreement enacted in 2011. When a team chooses a player in the first round, it gets the right to add a fifth year to that contract. The amount of that fifth-year salary operates on a sliding scale.

For players chosen in the top 10, it’s the transition-tag tender for their position, which is the average of the top 10 players at that position. For a player chosen No. 11 to 32, it’s the average of the top-25 players at the position, throwing out the two highest-paid players. (In essence, it’s the average made by the No. 3 through the No. 25 highest-paid players at the position).

Irvin was chosen No. 15. The price of the fifth-year option for a linebacker chosen between No. 11 and No. 32: $7.75 million. Even a year ago, that looked like a prohibitively high price for Irvin in Seattle given that the Seahawks had already extended K.J. Wright’s deal and still had to save room to do the same for Bobby Wagner.

In fact, had Seattle exercised the option and kept Irvin right now, he would have the fifth-highest salary-cap footprint on the team. Only Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Jimmy Graham count more against Seattle’s cap than Irvin would have.

But there’s another provision: That option is only guaranteed for injury. That means had Seattle picked up that option, the Seahawks wouldn’t necessarily have been on the hook for that money in 2016 unless Irvin were to be injured in 2015 and unable to play the following year. Had he been healthy, Seattle could have still cut Irvin before March 9 and owed him nothing.

For that reason, I initially expected the Seahawks to exercise the option, essentially covering themselves on the back end in case Irvin had a monstrous breakout season. If he recorded 12 sacks and intercepted four passes, nothing short of the franchise tag would have kept Irvin from free agency.

Here’s what I didn’t factor in: the importance of compensatory picks for Seattle.

By not exercising the option, Irvin became an unrestricted free agent, and Seattle is therefore eligible for a compensatory pick should he sign elsewhere. In fact, he signed a deal so large – reported at four years, $37 million – it might be a fourth- or even a third-round pick depending on the rest of the league’s activity.

Had Seattle exercised the option then released Irvin, the Seahawks would not be in line for a compensatory pick. In fact, that’s just the scenario that transpired with Quinton Coples, who was chosen by the Jets the pick after Seattle selected Irvin in 2012. The Jets exercised the option on Coples as a linebacker only to cut him in November. Claimed by Miami, Coples was released after failing to make much impact in the six games he played. No one will be getting any compensatory picks for him.

So when asking if Seattle screwed up in not exercising the option on Irvin, the comparison is not between what the Seahawks would have paid him and what he got from the Raiders. The question is would Seattle rather have had:

1) $7.8 million in 2016 salary-cap space and a third- or fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft, or:

2) One season from Irvin.

The Seahawks chose the first option. Now, we’ll have to see what they can make of it.

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