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Maintaining a Champion: Ten non-Blockbuster moves that helped the Seahawks return to the Super Bowl

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The Seattle Seahawks built a Championship roster from the ground up. Most celebrated are the mid- to lower-round draft picks, including Russell Wilson (3rd), Richard Sherman (5th), Kam Chancellor (5th), K.J. Wright (4th), and Byron Maxwell (6th); as well as undrafted players like Alvin Bailey and Pretty Much The Entire Receiving Corps. To this they added a few blockbuster trades (some more successful than others) and high-grade free agents (Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller).

But players age. Rookie contracts expire. Rivals swoop in with big-money offers for pending free agents. Complacency threatens, and mid-season injuries take a toll. While the core of talented players is enough to ensure some level of success, getting all the way back to Super Bowl requires a few more astute moves. You need quality patches for injury loss, the ability to maximize player value, and, most of all, a first-rate evaluation of your own talent when the time comes to make a tough decision. You've got to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold (release) 'em.

10: Seahawks sign Tight end Tony Moeaki. (November 2014)

With Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy on injured reserve, the Seahawks found a quality player who was available because of... frequent injuries. Although past injuries can be a serious concern, particularly if a joint or ligament is still weak, labeling a player as "injury prone" is a misleading generalization. Moeaki's injuries have been described as "more fluke than fate", and the Seahawks must have agreed, because they liked what they saw enough to add Moeaki to the roster.

Although Moeaki hasn't lit up the stat sheets, his availability has been vital for the Hawks' run-first, play-action offense. His per-target DVOA (+9.3%) would rank 17th among league tight ends if he had enough targets to qualify.

9: Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson get Lasik surgery to correct vision. (October 2013, June 2014)

One way to look at this is that Seattle does a good job figuring out what's wrong with a player. Alternatively, we could say they do a good job of figuring out what's right. Richardson was graded as the 14th receiver in his draft class, and Kearse went undrafted. But the Seahawks must have seen enough athleticism and competitiveness to acquire both, confident that the coaches and training staff could identify the details necessary for success in the NFL.

8: Will Tukuafu signed to replace injured fullback Derrick Coleman. (October 2014)

The now-31-year-old Tukuafu is the fourth-oldest active Seahawk, a bit of a departure from Seattle's typically youth-oriented approach to player acquisition.

Less surprising is the Seahawks' appreciation for versatility. The 280-pound fullback has played on all three squads, a triple-threat nightmare for opposing linebackers, running backs, and closed-captioning translators.

TukWafu

7: Doug Baldwin signs a 3-year, $13M extension. (May 2014)

Although Baldwin's contract had expired after the Super Bowl win, he was a restricted free agent with only three accrued seasons. The Seahawks could have easily given him a second-round RFA tender of $2.187M and enjoyed another low-cost season, one in which Baldwin would be playing with a lot of incentive for a new contract. But by paying him at the soonest opportunity, the team strengthened its reputation for keeping free agent money in-house and rewarding their own players (a message further reinforced by in-season extensions for K.J. Wright and Cliff Avril).

Once he got paid, Baldwin responded by leading the team with 66 receptions and 825 receiving yards, both career highs. Call him angry, call him passionate, but be sure that "Complacent Doug Baldwin" is never going to stick.

6: Cornerback Marcus Burley acquired from the Indianapolis Colts for a sixth-round draft pick. (September 2014)

Early-season injuries to Byron Maxwell (3 games), Jeremy Lane (9 games) and Tharold Simon (6 games) made the Legion of Boom dangerously thin. Burley jumped into action within a week of arriving in Seattle, played 184 snaps in a 4-game span, and made a critical interception in the Seahawks' 13-9 regular season win over the Carolina Panthers.

A curious aspect of this trade is that Burley had gone undrafted in 2013 and been released from the Jaguars practice squad later that season. So on the one hand, it seems that the Seahawks could have acquired him previously at a lower cost. But on the other hand, Pete Carroll said "a lot of effort" went into evaluating Burley; and indeed, the team was willing to give up a draft pick for him. This speaks not only to the quality of John Schneider's scouting reports, but to an impressive depth.

5: Seahawks re-sign Michael Bennett for 4 years, $28.5M. (March 2014)

At $7M a year, Bennett isn't exactly a bargain. Or is he? Veteran free agents get signed to big-money deals all the time, usually by the team which most egregiously overvalues their potential. Given that many fall short of expectations, and some are outright busts, a team that gets what they expected is doing pretty well. And Bennett has not only maintained his high level of play, he's done so with a bigger workload, playing 228 more snaps in 2014-- the equivalent of about three games-- than he played in 2013.

4: Seahawks sign 5-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams to a one-year contract. ( June 2014)

Proving once again that youth rules are only guidelines, the 34-year-old Williams instantly became the oldest Seahawk, a full five years older than any other player if you exclude the punter and backup quarterback. His $2M contract no doubt included a "contender discount"; Williams' other major suitor was the New England Patriots.

The signing of Williams is especially critical in hindsight. After injuries to Brandon Mebane and Jordan Hill, the Seahawks were down to just two defensive tackles.

3: Kam Chancellor signed to a 4-year, $28M extension. (April 2013)

Some Seahawk fans were excited by this. Vernon Davis reportedly wept. My own response at the time was, "Well, that's nice, but I hope to hell they're putting aside the money they need to keep Thomas and Sherman." After all, Chancellor could be described as something of a "tweener"-- too big for a conventional safety and too lean for a linebacker-- making him low-demand on the free agent market and (if it should come to it) easy enough to replace.

On top of that, he was having a down year. The statistical drop-off may have been small, but for a player going from his second to third year as a pro (first to second year as a full-time starter) it appeared that Chancellor had already reached his ceiling. Nonetheless, the Hawks paid him. And Chancellor... well, you know the punch line.

Season Tackles Assists Passes
Defensed
Interceptions Approx
Value
2011 73 22 12 4 9
2012 69 22 4 0 8
contract
2013 80 54 12 3 11
2014 73 21 7 1 ?
playoffs
2013-14
28 23 7 3 n/a

Not only did Chancellor have a career year in the regular season after getting paid, he's been an absolute monster in the playoffs. And without the foresight to pay Chancellor at the first opporrtunity, his market cost after 2013 would have further limited the Seahawks' options in acquiring and keeping players.

2: Percy Harvin traded to the Jets. (October 19, 2014)

Schneider and Carroll showed that "it doesn't matter how you got here" works both ways. Harvin was reportedly "a bad fit" (which is saying something on a Pete Carroll team), causing a disruption to team chemistry that outweighed any on-field contribution. Ignoring the sunk cost of draft picks that had been given up to acquire Harvin, they decided to unload the talented wide receiver.

At that time, the Seahawks had just come off a home loss in which they produced an anemic 206 yards of total offense, and were sitting in third place in the NFC West at 3-2. To outsiders this seemed like a house-cleaning move with an eye towards the future, the first step in giving up on a realistic chance of defending their title. CBS's Jason La Canfora wrote:

"Harvin also had a strong base of support on the team, and several of his former teammates are upset by the trade, which does nothing to help a struggling offense in the short term this season... there could be some fallout and tension caused by his exodus."

With Harvin on the team, the Seahawks had an offensive DVOA of +12.9% (9th) and were 3-2.

With Harvin gone, the Seahawk offense rose to +16.7% DVOA by season's end (5th) and they've gone 11-2, winning eight straight games on the way to a second Super Bowl appearance.

Correlation does not equal causation; the return of healthy defensive starters was likely the biggest factor in the team's turnaround; but with a lack of bad results, it's fair to say the Harvin trade was a step forward and not a step backwards.

1: Marshawn Lynch signed to a 4-year, $30M contract extension. (March 2012)

In 2011, Lynch rushed for 1204 yards at a rate of 4.2 yards/carry. Eleven running backs that season had a at least 1000 rushing yards with a higher average, and 13 running backs topped Lynch's 1416 total yards from scrimmage.

Lynch still had a year remaining on his original contract. He had a history of off-field problems. He hadn't fit in well with the Bills, who couldn't get drum up much trade interest despite holding out to the deadline. Conventional wisdom clearly dictates waiting, especially for a position where players age most rapidly and are most easily replaced in the draft; it does not dictate offering up a franchise-tag-level yearly salary to a guy who'd played 16 games only once in his 5-year career.

Stats and convention be damned, the Seahawks relied on their up close and personal knowledge of Lynch, signing him to a four-year contract. From 2012-2014, Marshawn Lynch leads the NFL in rush attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and cumulative AV (approximate value), all at a healthy 4.64 yards/carry.

Given that this was a 2012 contract extension, one might argue that it's more of a championship-building move than a maintenance move. But the foresight in locking up Lynch cannot be understated. Lynch held out of training camp at the beginning of 2014, recognizing his exceptional value, before finally reporting with a minimal adjustment to his contract. If the Seahawks hadn't given Lynch a chunk of guaranteed money back in 2012 in exchange for locking him up long-term, the team would now be playing either without Lynch or without some other key player in the $2-$4M salary range (Doug Baldwin, Tony McDaniel, Stephen Hauschka, Kevin Williams, etc.).

Lynch the person remains an enigma, but whatever his feelings towards the organization, he does everything right on the field. He runs, he hits, he catches footballs, and he's an outstanding pass blocker. As for how the team feels about Lynch...

(content removed)

I think they're behind him.