Sheldon Richardson may be too valuable for the Seahawks to keep.
Too valuable meaning too expensive.
Tuesday began a two-week period that NFL teams can apply franchise and transition tags to players with expiring contracts. The tags are one-year contracts at the top-of-market value to keep such players from free agency next month. This tag-designation period ends March 6.
Richardson is a former Pro Bowl defensive lineman whose contract has expired. He is poised to enter unrestricted free agency for the first time. He’s an athletic, versatile defensive tackle who also played end as an end pass rusher and even covered receivers outside while with the New York Jets from 2013 until September. That’s when the Seahawks traded a second-round pick in this spring’s draft plus wide receiver Jermaine Kearse to get Richardson.
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He was a three-gap tackle in his Seattle debut season, stationed in the guard-tackle gap. Forget the number most people look at for productivity by defensive linemen; Richardson had 44 tackles and one sack in 15 games for the Seahawks. Those weren’t his jobs.
He was at times huge in overlooked ways. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Richardson often occupied opposing guards, centers and sometimes tackles. He freed All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to make so many plays he was a candidate for the NFL’s defensive player of the year award until Wagner’s hamstring injury in December.
Seattle’s win at San Francisco in November was indicative of Richardson’s value to the defense. He rag-dolled the 49ers’ interior three offensive linemen and consistently blew up plays in the backfield. He especially dominated the first half, when San Francisco tried to establish Carlos Hyde’s runs to help rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard. Hyde and Beathard kept running into Richardson, or into the blockers Richardson had just violently shoved into them.
Richardson set his tone with a hit on Beathard on the San Francisco’s second play. That forced a third and 11. In the second quarter, he smacked Beathard as he rushed a forced throw outside to Hyde, who wasn’t open. Wagner immediately nailed Hyde for a 7-yard loss. Richardson was the primary reason San Francisco had a third and 11, second and 21, third and 20, third and 15. And that was just in the first half. Seattle won easily.
“He is a forceful player. He is in the backfield,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He wins a lot in his one-on-ones in the running game. If you watch him play in the run game, he will disengage really well to make tackles. He has done that consistently.
“He is a really good fundamental, technique guy, and it works out for him in the run game as well as in his pass rushes. But he has been more effective, I think forcing issues, forcing the pocket, forcing pressure and getting in the way, and so he has really made it available for other guys to make their plays, too.”
Defensive end Michael Bennett had 8 1/2 sacks in 2017 despite playing through three injuries. He was often lined up next to Richardson, who frequently excelled on running and passing downs.
Last season then-defensive coordinator Kris Richard called Richardson “a difference maker.”
Sound like one the Seahawks should keep, eh?
As Seattle was finishing its first season without a playoff appearance in six years in December, Richardson said the team was interested in bringing him back, and that he was interested in returning.
But--and this is the essential question for the Seahawks--at what cost?
Richardson earned $8,069,000 in 2017, the final, fifth-year option on his rookie contract Seattle inherited from the Jets. Entering the prime of his career at age 27, he’s going to want to at least shop in the always lucrative free-agent market that opens March 14. If he didn’t, he likely would have re-signed in an extension with the Seahawks by now.
Logic and cash dictate Richardson will seek a multiyear deal worth at least the $8 million he just got from Seattle in 2017. The value placed upon defensive tackles around the league has soared in recent years. The franchise-tag cost for them in 2018, which is largely based on the average of the top five salaries at the position, is expected to be above $14 million. That would be an almost 6-percent rise from the 2017 tag number for defensive tackles, the third-highest increase behind quarterbacks and cornerbacks. The exact figures for franchise tags will depend on how far above the estimated $178 million the salary cap ends up settling at next month.
The transition tag costs less--the average of the top 10 salaries at each position--but leaves open the possibility of a team getting no compensation should the player sign with another team that offers more than the transition-tag number. That’s why the transition tag is rare in the NFL.
Any tag is rare in Seattle. The Seahawks have not used one since 2010, when kicker Olindo Mare got the franchise tag in the first months of Carroll and general manager John Schneider running the team.
As of right now, the Seahawks don’t have $14 million to spend on a defensive tackle in 2018. Not with questions on Richard Sherman coming off a torn Achilles and second surgery, plus he and fellow three-time All-Pro defensive back Earl Thomas entering the final years of their contracts while pushing 30 years old. Not with Carroll’s plan to remake the offense back into a run-based one, which will take more and better blockers and running backs. Not with Kam Chancellor’s career-threatening neck injury making re-signing his 2017 fill-in, free agent Bradley McDougald, a priority. Not with Byron Maxwell, who ended last season starting at cornerback for Sherman, and wide receiver Paul Richardson also needing offers to prevent them leaving in free agency next month. And so on.
The Seahawks are 25th in the league in available salary-cap space for 2018 at $14.1 million, according to overthecap.com. They will need approximately $6 million for their rookie pool, the money to sign what for now are seven draft choices in April. That number would be the fewest picks of the Carroll-Schneider era, so Schneider is likely to acquire more selections through trades between now and the draft.
To save money, the Seahawks seem almost certain to cut veteran defensive back Jeremy Lane. How expendable is he? Seattle demoted him out of the starting right cornerback and nickel back jobs last season. The team tried to trade him to Houston then had to take him back when he failed his physical with the Texans. Cutting Lane will save the Seahawks $4.75 million against this year’s cap. So they’d then have about $13 million in usable cap space.
Cliff Avil may not play again. The Pro Bowl defensive end’s neck injury from November and surgery has put his career in serious doubt to the point Carroll said in early January Avril and safety Chancellor “are going to have a hard time playing football again.” Avril retiring or being released would free another $7.1 million of cap space. Seattle then would have $20 million to spend without Lane or Avril.
That would be enough to consider re-signing Richardson, to retain his value to Wagner and the rest of the defense that is full of questions.
The Seahawks could, in theory anyway, use the franchise tag on Richardson between now and March 6, then trade him. Yes, that would buy time until the start of the season to work out a trade. But that would be a risky plan for a team with scant cap space.
Doing that would force the Seahawks to choose between two bad options: 1.) accepting a trade offer at some other team’s optimal price, not theirs, or 2.) if they don’t get a trade offer they like keeping Richardson at that expected franchise-tag cost of $14-plus million. That would be the second-most expensive contract Seattle would have in 2018, behind only franchise quarterback Russell Wilson’s cap number of $23.8 million for this year.
Any team making this would-be offer to trade for Richardson would be boxed in by that $14 million tag cost in 2018, which the player would likely use as a negotiating point for any new, multiyear contract a team trading for him would want to get done. That alone could thwart such a deal.
The most likely reason the Seahawks would use the tag on Richardson is to buy time and keep him from leaving in free agency on the premise of signing him to an extension that’s already in the works. That new extension would be at a more team-friendly cap charge for 2018 with a signing bonus and guarantees now that would convince him to stay.
If they don’t do that, Richardson seems destined to shop in free agency. And if he shops, he likely walks. Because the Seahawks have more pressing needs for their limited funds.