If the Seahawks’ offseason goes as smooth as it looks on paper, it would already be July.
Yes, at first glance, Seattle is in better salary-cap and roster shape than it was at this time last year. That was after the first of what became consecutive road losses in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
The Seahawks’ younger core remains intact, under contract for multiple years beyond 2017. That’s how franchises remain in the playoffs year after year — and the Seahawks just finished their fifth consecutive postseason.
But it’s the moves on the edges of that core that determine whether teams win championships. Just like last winter and spring, those edges are where Seattle’s most important offseason moves will be.
Never miss a local story.
This offseason, some of the Seahawks’ edges are especially rough.
Upgrading their much-maligned offensive line, finding a new starting cornerback for injured DeShawn Shead and adding depth on the defensive line are top priorities in the draft and free agency.
Now that the Legion of Boom’s best years seemed to have passed, better pass defense in general is a need.
In their final eight games beginning with the Nov. 27 loss at Tampa Bay that Earl Thomas missed, the Seahawks went 4-4. With the three-time All-Pro out for the season with a broken leg and Steven Terrell making his first career starts at free safety, Seattle’s pass defense allowed 149 completions in 239 attempts (a completion rate of 62.3 percent), 1,857 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an opposing passer rating of 101.8.
In the eight games before Thomas got hurt, Seattle went 6-1-1. Its pass defense allowed 193 completions in 308 attempts (62.7 percent), 2,145 yards, eight touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 79.8.
“We’ve got to get Earl back, get the corner thing squared away,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We will certainly be looking at that in the draft. We need some youth at the linebacker spot, now. Bobby (Wagner) and K.J. (Wright) played thousands of plays this year between the two of them and were extremely successful. But we need to address that. We didn’t get anybody that really made a difference in the last couple of years to really fight to take those guys’ jobs.
“Think if somebody could battle K.J. and Bobby for their starting time.”
We haven’t even gotten to the offense yet.
That unit’s inconsistency doomed much of the 2016 season. The running game was 25th in the league, after years of being ranked in the top four. Russell Wilson got sacked 41 times. He played through a high-ankle sprain and sprained knee ligament that doctors said should have sidelined him for a month. That kept him from running. That, plus a lack of lanes through which to rush, kept the running game in neutral.
“Offensive line will continue to be an area of focus. It will be,” Carroll said.
The first move of the offseason came last week: the signing of 30-year-old cornerback Perrish Cox to a one-year contract.
The Seahawks have about $32 million in space under the salary cap of $170 million for the 2017 season, according to overthecap.com. So there is room — and a need — to make moves.
Seattle has 14 players who could become unrestricted free agents in March, two fewer than this time last year. This year’s group is far less prominent than last year’s, which featured Bruce Irvin, Russell Okung, J.R. Sweezy and Jermaine Kearse.
Only one of Seattle’s potential free agents this offseason is a starter — strongside linebacker Mike Morgan. And he only starts when the Seahawks don’t begin games in a nickel defense with five defensive backs against passing teams.
Other prominent Seahawks with expired contracts are kicker Steven Hauschka and No. 2 tight end Luke Willson.
The bigger financial considerations are with two stars who are entering the final year of their deals.
Four-time Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor, who turns 29 in April, is the soul of the defense and a respected team leader. The Seahawks could save $7,125,000 of his $8,125,000 cap hit in 2017 by releasing him this offseason.
But the first player Carroll named moments after the season-ending playoff loss at Atlanta as a key leader going forward was Chancellor. Chances are he may be Seattle’s first big offseason move: a multiyear contract extension with a more team-friendly cap number for 2017.
Seattle could save $10 million — all of Jimmy Graham’s 2017 cap charge — by releasing the 30-year-old tight end.
Tempting? It seems unlikely. The team has yet to fully realize the scoring capabilities of a 6-foot-7 physical freak for whom the Seahawks traded a two-time Pro Bowl center (Max Unger) and first-round pick to New Orleans before the 2015 season.
Maybe if Seattle was feeling more of a financial squeeze than it is now.
“Our roster is pretty well set right now. We’re in pretty good shape,” Carroll said. “Money-wise we’re in good shape. We’re solid. We know where we are.
“We’re going to add a draft class to it and see how far those guys can take us again.”
Most casual fans think Carroll and general manager John Schneider should throw money at a free-agent offensive lineman. Or three.
Problem is, those linemen have become even more expensive relative to their quality and the league’s market, as teams from New England to Seattle cope with inadequate blockers unprepared by college spread offenses for NFL play. Plus, the draft on April 27-29 is widely viewed to have fewer top-quality offensive linemen than last year. That means tackles especially will be overvalued, and guys who are third- to fifth-round talent will go in the first and second rounds to teams desperate for bookend blockers.
Are the Seahawks desperate? After all, they started an undrafted rookie (George Fant) and a third-year player who got benched and won his job back (Garry Gilliam) at left and right tackles this past season.
“I don’t think that way. That’s not how we (think) — ‘OK, let’s take money and put it here and all of sudden you’re going to be better,’ ” Carroll said. “You’ve got to get guys that will play worthy of it, and when they demonstrate that, then they get paid. We’ve shown that we understand that and are committed to that mentality.
“I don’t think you can just buy your way to it. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to go out and spend a ton of money in free agency, on one guy, to try to save the day. That’s not how we function, at all. We bring the young guys up, developing them and make them a part of this program. Then as they go and they earn their opportunities, then we’ll reward them as we can.
“I hope that it’s really clear that that’s the way we’ve done this with a really clear intent. John has done a fantastic job of managing that.”
Asked about the overwhelming majority of Seattle’s salary cap being devoted to the core of Wilson and No. 1 wide receiver Doug Baldwin plus defensive stars Richard Sherman, Thomas, Michael Bennett and Wagner, Carroll said: “That’s the way it’s come out because the guys have been such impacting players, you know.
“It’s not about where the money’s going. It’s (that) we’ve got to make the right investments as we move forward. I think we have a really cool formula here, and I think we’ve demonstrated that. It’s demonstrated in consistency over years, that is pretty obvious.
“But this is a whole other one. Here we go again. We’ve got to keep going.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle