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Why the Seahawks must add a starting-caliber wide receiver this year

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NFL: San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, it was reported that the Chicago Bears will not be applying the franchise tag to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, meaning that unless they come to a long-term agreement with him, a top-end wide receiver is going to hit the free agent market. The Bears have more than enough cap space to give Jeffery a $70 million deal on par with the best at the position, but coming off of a 3-13 season may not be able to offer him the upside that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, or Tennessee Titans have at quarterback and elsewhere. That’s probably why Jeffery is as good as gone from Chicago, as he headlines an exceptional free agent market of receivers.

I do not see the Seattle Seahawks getting involved in the Jeffery talks whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to add a starting wide receiver. In fact, I think that has to be one of their priorities this offseason, despite it potentially not looking so obvious on the surface.

First of all, we know that the Seahawks have one of the best receivers in the NFL with Doug Baldwin. Over the last two seasons, Baldwin has caught over 75% of his targets, resulting in 172 receptions, 2,197 yards, 21 touchdowns (3rd-most in league), and 9.64 yards per target. Baldwin is signed long-term and set as Seattle’s most reliable and best receiver. However, he is also a slot receiver, and only one guy, so there are other clear needs for an offense that so far only has an elite slot player that I’ve identified so far.

Next up is Jimmy Graham. Though not technically a receiver, Graham’s job on the Seahawks is to receive passes from Russell Wilson. He did that to the tune of 65 catches and 923 yards last season, both franchise records for a tight end. Seattle should be set in 2017 with a 1-2 receiving punch led by Baldwin and Graham, but that duo has no future set in stone past next season; Graham is set to be a free agent in 2018 and the Seahawks will be set staring at a double-edged sword decision because if he has a great season, then he’s going to cost a lot to re-sign and if he has a medium or bad season, what are they willing to pay to retain him? Pete Carroll and John Schneider have never approached roster building with a “Next season only” mentality. They are always building the team with two, three years of planning ahead. Seattle drafted Nick Vannett in the third round in 2016, but that only figures to give them a replacement for free agent Luke Willson. They may still look to make a move that gives them insurance for a potential departure of Graham next year.

Another thing the Seahawks could, and probably should do is give Graham an extension. He will never be as vulnerable and willing to take a discounted rate as he would be right now; 30, a little more than a year removed from a devastating knee injury, and staring at the final year of his deal with $0 guaranteed. A three-year extension that gives him some guaranteed money upfront and potentially brings down his $10 million cap hit in 2017 seems like a win-win for both parties.

But it does not lessen the need for Seattle to add a starting receiver this year.

After Baldwin and Graham, the receiving options come with mega-huge asterisks, and I’m not talking about the ones that denote a Pro Bowl appearance on Pro-Football-Reference.com.

“Starter” Jermaine Kearse was one of the five worst starting receivers in the NFL last season. His catch rate plummeted from 72.1% in 2015 to 46.1% in 2016 and he was biggest red zone liability in the league. Wilson was 1-14 when throwing to Kearse in the red zone last season with one touchdown (Christmas Eve vs the Cardinals) and one interception (blowout loss to Packers). The Seahawks would save $2.2 million if they released Kearse with a post-June 1 designation, and that’s exactly what they should do. Perhaps they could convince him to take a paycut in order to stay on the roster, but no matter what they do, Kearse is not a starting-caliber receiver. He does not lessen the need for the offense to have two effective outside receivers.

Well they do have two of those, right? Technically, yes, but logistically they can’t afford to think that way.

Fan favorite Tyler Lockett has flashed Antonio Brown-like potential but through two seasons he’s been injured, inconsistent, and inconspicuously placed behind Kearse on the depth chart despite being obviously more talented. Against the Bucs in Week 12 last season, Lockett was targeted six times and he finished with zero catches. Over a 10-game stretch from the Jets game to the Packers game, Lockett averaged only 7.28 yards per target, caught 58.1% of said targets, and had zero touchdown receptions. I love Lockett and I’ll defend him till my dying day, but if you’re telling me you feel comfortable with Seattle going into 2017 with him as the surefire, won’t get injured, consistent threat as a starting receiver, then you have way more confidence in this team than most of the people on my Twitter feed.

Then there’s Paul Richardson, who seems to be an amalgamation of all four players:

He’s got great hands like Baldwin, he’s inconsistent but talented as hell like Lockett, he’s injured like Graham/Lockett, and he’s someone who many fans have been trying to push off the team for two years now like Kearse. There’s nothing but bonus points from here on out with Richardson though. He’ll only cost $1.5 million this season, and if he stays healthy that’s great, if he doesn’t, so be it. He could be a starting receiver in the league some day, for sure, but it’s not something anyone can seriously rely on. Which leaves the Seahawks with:

Doug Baldwin. Jimmy Graham. And a bunch of question marks. Does this front office strike you as one that wants to go into any season with a bunch of question marks at the skill positions?

In 2010, they drafted Golden Tate in the second round, signed Mike Williams, and traded for Marshawn Lynch.

In 2011, they signed Sidney Rice and Zach Miller, while giving Baldwin the biggest UDFA money of any player.

In 2013, they traded for Percy Harvin, drafted Christine Michael in the second round, drafted Luke Willson.

In 2014, they drafted Richardson in the second and Kevin Norwood in the fourth.

In 2015, they traded for Graham and dealt three picks to move up for Lockett in the third round.

In 2016, they drafted three running backs, including C.J. Prosise in the third, plus Vannett.

Seattle’s least aggressive offseason for skill players was in 2012, which was also the year they drafted Wilson and signed Matt Flynn. Once the quarterback was set, building around him became even more important.

We know that Thomas Rawls and Prosise are the plan at running back, but with both of them dealing with significant injuries last year, the Seahawks must also continue to address that position as well. Alex Collins and Troymaine Pope serve as some insurance, but there will be talk of them taking a running back with their first pick (wherever that ends up being) in an especially deep class for backs. But I still wouldn’t put it past Carroll and Schneider to take a receiver in the first round instead, and it would be totally on-game for them to do it in the second.

Depending on how they approach the wide receivers in free agency and of course, through trades. Jeffery is the headliner but there are plenty more after him.

DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Kenny Stills, Terrelle Pryor, Kenny Britt, Terrance Williams, Vincent Jackson, Victor Cruz, Michael Floyd, Brandon LaFell, Kendall Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson, Andrew Hawkins, Anquan Boldin, Robert Woods, Brian Quick, and Ted Ginn will also be out there. Of those, Garcon and Pryor seem like the best options on a level where Seattle would spend a significant amount of money, while Cruz and Boldin could be the best bargains.

I’m sure that a lot of you are thinking this is not that exciting of a group of receivers, but when compared to other offseasons I’d actually say this is in the top-10% of FA wide receivers classes. My favorite player/contract/age/need of all of them though would be former Seattle quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

At 6’6, 240 lbs, Pryor fills the big body need at receiver that they lack with Baldwin, Lockett, and Richardson. Maybe they already have a “Terrelle Pryor” with Tanner McEvoy, there are so many comparisons to be made, but McEvoy is still a complete unknown whereas Pryor did have 77 catches for 1,007 yards while playing for the Cleveland Browns last season. I think the Seahawks would have loved to try Pryor out at receiver when he was with the team, but he was still deadset on being a QB at the time. Now it’s in the past and at 27, Pryor could still have a long career ahead of him and playing with Wilson, Baldwin, and Graham, it could give Seattle a threat at receiver unlike one they’ve had under Carroll.

That’s if the Browns let him go.

Cleveland has nothing if not money to spend (over $106 million under the cap even before they released Hawkins on Monday) and Pryor, despite only playing receiver effectively for one season, could definitely get a deal paying him a minimum of $11 million per season. If that came from the Seahawks, then they’d be paying Pryor, Baldiwn, and Graham a combined $32.5 million per season, with Graham coming off the books in 2018 barring an extension. Is that something a run-first, defense-forward organization wants to do?

[See Also: Josh Gordon is worth the risk for the Seahawks to sign him cheap]

It might be if it’s only for one season, with the expectation that Graham will be gone if he doesn’t sign a friendly extension. However, take note that Seattle isn’t paying Marshawn Lynch, or any running back for that matter, huge money. They’re going with Rawls, Prosise, Pope, Collins, and some rookies, I’d imagine. I don’t see them trying to make any moves for running backs outside of the draft and late-summer free agency. That Lynch money doesn’t have to go to a running back, it could go to a receiver. If it was to go to any receiver, I’d prefer it be Pryor.

Other potential trade or release targets include: Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith, Danny Amendola, Stevie Johnson, Nelson Agholor.

But there’s also the cheaper draft route in a class sure to have a few stars at the position. It’s still too early to tell what order the receivers in this class may go in, and which will be first round picks, but Mike Williams, Corey Davis, UW’s John Ross, and Zay Jones may be the headliners. On Day 2, maybe Day 3, I still have a lot of favoritism towards EWU’s Cooper Kupp. If the Seahawks don’t sign a starting caliber receiver, then I would actually be really surprised if they don’t take one with one of their first five picks (all in the top 106) and most likely I’d lean towards it being in the first or second round.

Either route they go, I think it’s clear that Seattle has a need for a starting wide receiver and a history of scratching that itch until it bleeds. It will become more obvious if/when Kearse is released, but it shouldn’t take that move in order to understand why Kearse is not an option as a starter anymore. The other players who could do it, Lockett and Richardson, are too unreliable with their injury histories, while McEvoy is still too raw and unknown. The only choice is to make a big move in free agency or trade, or at least using an early pick on a top prospect who the Seahawks feel is ready to contribute significantly as a rookie. That’s a lot to put on a first-year player, so I’m guessing it could come via free agency.

Maybe with someone they have prior experience with.

More 2017 NFL Free Agent News:

Ravens have big decision to make at right tackle

Da Bears have a corner who could interest Seattle

AFC East

Jets release Nick Mangold, others

Dolphins have pass rushers

Bills have a former Pete Carroll player looking for one more title shot

Patriots using cheat codes

NFC West

Rams could be making some key cuts

Cardinals have plethora of good defensive players hitting the market

49ers are starting over again

NFC East

Should the Redskins sign Kirk Cousins long-term?

Giants have offensive linemen

Cowboys may have best guard on the market

Eagles may have Seahawks next big FA signing

AFC West

Is Russell Okung going to be one of the Broncos free agents?

Chiefs are doomed to lose a star player

Chargers have a former Seahawks LB looking to get paid

Raiders have a very intriguing right tackle

Best from the AFC West