Players took their exit physicals, packed cleats, signed helmets and swapped jerseys on their last day at the Seattle Seahawks’ facility on Monday.
Most remain hopeful that coach Pete Carroll will keep this young group intact, giving them an opportunity to make another run at the playoffs in 2012.
“This team took a turn this year from last year,” fullback Michael Robinson said. “It went from the coaches pretty much directing us to this year we kind of took ownership of the team, and it became our team. And that’s what you like to see at this level. Nothing else can motivate you more than your peers.”
The Seahawks finally figured out how to play together in the second half of the season, leaving some players ready to start the next season sooner rather than later.
“You wish everything could start right now because we’ve got so much to look forward to, we’ve got so many young guys,” Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said.
But Jackson and others will have to wait to see what kind of moves Seattle’s personnel department has in store.
The Seahawks have 22 free agents heading into the offseason, including 18 unrestricted free agents.
Defensive back Roy Lewis and kicker Steven Hauschka are restricted free agents, meaning the Seahawks have the right of first refusal for any offer they receive once free agency begins in early March.
And cornerback Kennard Cox and defensive lineman Clinton McDonald are exclusive-rights free agents – meaning Seattle is the only team that can sign those players if the team extends them a minimum qualifying offer.
According to cap specialist Brian McIntyre of Football Outsiders, the Seahawks are about $20 million under this year’s salary cap of more than $120 million.
The Seahawks’ top priority in free agency likely will be keeping their free agents, such as running back Marshawn Lynch. The former Cal player finished with a career-high 1,204 yards and 13 total touchdowns this season – the first time a Seattle player rushed for more than 1,000 yards since Shaun Alexander’s MVP season of 2005 (1,880 yards, 28 total TDs).
Lynch addressed his pending free agency while talking to reporters Monday.
“Everything’s going to fall into place,” Lynch said. “There’s not too much I can do about it but just wait.”
Lynch would like to stay in Seattle, but when asked about the possibility of reaching free agency if the two sides do not come to an agreement, he didn’t sound like someone willing to give in to a hometown discount either.
“Hopefully I don’t have to,” Lynch said about hitting the open market. “Hopefully I can get taken care of where I’m at. But I mean, if that’s the case, that would be the next step.”
Lynch said that one of the things he can take comfort in if he were to stay in Seattle is the way the team ran the ball in the second half of the season.
“It’s very encouraging,” he said. “Just to know that if we call a run play, we know we can run it and get success out of it. You got to be real pleased with that, being a running back, knowing that they’re going to get the job done. And they’re young and are going to get better.”
The Seahawks still can ensure Lynch staying in Seattle at least one more season by applying the franchise tag, which is projected to be about $8 million for running backs in 2012.
Fullback Robinson, who also will be an unrestricted free agent, is in wait-and-see mode as well.
“Obviously, I love it here,” he said. “I like the philosophy that Pete has going on here. I love the guys in this locker room most importantly. Like I expressed to them upstairs, I love this team. And how teams get good in this league is by keeping guys together for a period of time. So we’ll see. But I would love to be back.”
While Lynch and Robinson are two the mainstays on offense, middle linebacker David Hawthorne and defensive end Red Bryant, both unrestricted free agents, help anchor the defense.
Hawthorne has led the team in tackles the past three seasons, and likes the progress he’s seeing on the defensive side of the ball
Hawthorne said he believes that he’s improved every season, and that this was his best with the Seahawks, playing with a sprained knee in most of the games. Hawthorne said he wouldn’t mind returning to Seattle for another season.
“I’d love to,” he said. “And me and my agent are doing everything we can to get back.”
Bryant returned from season-ending knee surgery in 2010 to play all 16 games for the first time in his four-year career this season, finishing with 32 tackles, two interceptions, including one returned for a 20-yard touchdown, and a sack.
Bryant also blocked three field goals and an extra point, and proved a valuable part of a Seattle defense that finished No. 9 overall, holding teams to 332.2 yards a contest.
The son-in-law of Jacob Green, Seattle’s all-time sack leader, Bryant said he’s partial to remaining with the team that gave him a chance to earn a starting job in the league.
“I know what we have here,” Bryant said. “The people here are great, from the equipment managers to the trainers to the people that work in the cafeteria to the media. It’s a great culture around here that you really have an appreciation for the people here and what they do.
“Just talking to other guys, it’s not always greener on the other side. The Seahawks organization is first-class in everything they do so I have a desire to be here.”