The title of this piece is misnamed. On one level there is no case against Richard Sherman, not from me. Sherman is one of the most interesting, inspiring, and flat-out balling Seahawks to ever wear the blue and green in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, this is the case against re-signing Richard Sherman to a long-term deal. It is not a position I argue lightly. I’m personally not even convinced it is the best route to take. Most fans will not see it as a remotely sane route to take. And I’m pretty sure the Seahawks’ organization wouldn’t consider it a preferred route to take. There’s a reason why I don’t work in the NFL.
However, this team under John Schneider and Pete Carroll has shown that it is necessary to consider all scenarios, to look under every rock, and to plan for multiple contingencies. Schneider and Carroll must make some hard decisions, starting this off-season. And in weighing all the moving parts that go into the Seahawks’ organization, I can see a few good reasons to NOT sign Richard Sherman to a long-term deal next year.
Now please note: I am a fan, not a coach, and not a front office guru. What follows is based upon the responsibilities of the base defense normally. I know schemes are far more complicated that as I have laid them out here. And I realize that salary-cap wizards can get far more bang for the buck than the averages and rough estimates I am putting out here. My assumptions here are to provide broad strokes, not specific, detailed predictions.
In Pete Carroll’s defensive scheme, the safeties run the show. The cover-3 defense that is the unit’s base look needs a hard-hitting strong safety to play in the box, and (especially) a fast-as-hell free safety to cover the deep middle of the field. Earl Thomas is the indispensable man on this team. Take him away, and there is simply no substitute. He will be re-signed to a long-term deal this offseason. He must. And the nice thing about all of this is that safeties as a position do not command huge salaries (compared to other premium positions). Using the franchise tag as a rough estimate, a top safety commands just under $7 million per year. I would comfortably pay Thomas $10 million, and I imagine everyone would be happy—Thomas, the Seahawks, the fans, everybody.
Now, the Legion of Boom requires two press corners (and a nickel cover corner for certain sets, but that’s another story). In Carroll’s system, tall, rangy, physical corners take precedence. The scheme requires the corners to funnel receivers to the sideline, and underneath. Dare the quarterback to throw the fade over a tall, physical corner. In fact, dare Richard Sherman by throwing a fade anywhere in his direction.
One might say that Carroll’s system creates the circumstances for corners to excel. In the Carroll/Schneider era the Seahawks have drafted five corners—Walter Thurmond, Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane, and Tharold Simon. (They also picked up this Brandon Browner fellow from the CFL, I heard he’s pretty good.) Only Simon has not proven anything yet, due to injury and arriving at a time that the roster was stacked, but I bet the odds are good that he will.
And as an aside, in comparison, it appears that it is harder to groom good safeties in the system. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas have been wonderful, miraculous even, but the other two safeties Carroll and Schneider drafted—Mark LeGree in round 5 of 2011 and Winston Guy in round 6 of 2012—did not prove to be quite as successful, as neither are with the Seahawks today.
Sherman is the Seahawks’ best corner. But in this system he’s not indispensable. He doesn’t shadow the opponent’s best receiver. He shuts down the offense’s right side of the field, even while conceding some throws underneath and being susceptible to some seam routes. The corners get help in this system; even when pressing they’ll have hand-offs and zone responsibilities that make their jobs easier. The fact that Byron Maxwell held quarterbacks to an under-50 passing rating, even as quarterbacks were throwing his way and not Sherman’s, attests to this quality.
This does not mean I don’t value him. I do. There’s probably no other corner in this league that gets a full hand on Colin Kaepernick’s pass at the end of the NFC championship game, let alone tip it to a streaking Malcolm Smith. And I don’t know how you quantify his scheme smarts; maybe it’s Sherman who makes the whole Legion of Boom better, as a teacher, a guru. But the question is, do you pay him what you must pay him to keep him? And if so, what do you lose in the process?
Cover corners are expensive. The best, Darrelle Revis, commands north of $15 million per year. Outside of Revis Island, the norm is about $10 million a year, for players like Champ Bailey in his prime (and that actually is confirmed with the franchise tag number of about $10.7 million). Let us even assume that Sherman, who engaged in a Twitter battle with Revis, would be content with about $10 million per year (I don’t think he will). Then you have committed the same salary to a corner, a position you have been able to groom and grow with some regularity, and one that does not roam the field and shut down the opponent’s best, as to your field general, that free safety that makes everything go.
But the biggest problem with signing Sherman to the big bucks is the opportunity cost of losing out on the pass rush. In 2012 the Seahawks’ defense was great, but not outstanding, or historic, as it was in 2013. The difference was the pass rush. Chris Clemons was fantastic at the Leo rush position, and Bruce Irvin showed flashes, but the inconsistency of the pass rush in 2012 probably cost the Seahawks their playoff game against Atlanta. Adding Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to Chris Clemons on the end, and getting career years from Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald, created a relentless package that allowed the Legion of Boom on the back end to not just shine, but flat out dispirit and destroy every offense that wandered onto the field.
The problem is, unlike the Seahawks’ scheme-built corners, it has been harder to get front-line pressure through the draft. Carroll has gotten a new level of success out of Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant, who were holdovers from the previous regime. And Chris Clemons was a fantastic trade. After those guys, however, came the following defensive linemen in the draft: E. J. Wilson, Dexter Davis, Pep Livingston, Bruce Irvin, Jaye Howard, Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill, Jesse Williams, Ty Powell, and Jared Smith. Of those, Irvin has played an important role, but now is mostly a coverage/shadowing linebacker (this doesn’t discount that he may return to a joker-type role with more rushing responsibilities). Scruggs has shown flashes, and along with Hill and Williams we can all hope that those three recover from injuries and continue to develop.
What made 2013’s defense special was pressure from more than Clemons’s Leo position. The Avril-Bennett combo proved irresistible on numerous occasions. But paying for that pressure, getting it from multiple locations, will cost a bit. The defensive end franchise tag stands at just a shade under $11 million; the defensive tackle tag, at $8.3. (The linebacker tag, which applies mostly to sack-specialist rushing linebackers, is at $9.4.) What this means is that one premium rusher at the top of his game may cost a little less what a top shut-down corner will. But you need more than one good rusher to succeed. Re-signing Bennett is probably a priority with this office, and a start toward keeping this momentum going.
There are obviously a lot of moving parts to this equation, and John Schneider has been playing chess when the rest of the league has been playing checkers. I would not be completely surprised, however, if Richard Sherman does not get re-signed to the deal he wants with the Seahawks. If that day happens, I only hope he does not go over to a division rival with a chip on his shoulder. We all saw what happens then.