The day for which Jermaine Kearse has been waiting since he was growing up around Lakewood and Fort Lewis while he dad was an Army sergeant is less than a week away.
March 9 is the start of the unrestricted free agency for the Seahawks’ wide receiver and former Lakes High School and Washington Huskies standout.
So he’s not about to deny himself the opportunity to shop on the eve of the market swinging wide open.
That’s the bottom line to the national reports Thursday that said Kearse “reiterated” he does not plan to return to Seattle.
I spoke to Kearse two weeks ago at an event at Clover Park Technical College in his hometown of Lakewood. The day was to highlight the work he does for the children and families of military members through his 15 to 1 Jermaine Kearse Foundation, so he was understandably reluctant to talk free agency then. He said his agent had been in touch with the Seahawks. But it remained clear -- just as it was when this past season ended in mid-January -- he was going to be shopping to see what the market has available before he signs with anyone.
Great for him.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Kearse said that day when asked what he thought was going to happen for him in free agency.
Kearse has said publicly only that he won’t consider a so-called “hometown discount” to stay with the Seahawks (so not sure where the “reiterating” is coming from in the above tweet). And why should he take a discount? Kearse played three seasons tied as the NFL’s lowest-paid player after Seattle signed him in 2012 as an undrafted free agent.
Initially, he was just trying to make the roster as a special-teams player. Then he became the Seahawks’ clutch playoff receiver, a trusted target of 2012 rookie classmate Russell Wilson when the team’s most important games were at their biggest moments the last three postseasons. Many forget Kearse’s mind-boggling, juggling catch off his arms and legs while on his back late in Super Bowl 49 that got Seattle in position to win a second consecutive NFL title -- forget because Wilson then threw his infamous, unforgettable interception from the 1-yard line in the final seconds to give New England the Super Bowl title in February 2015 instead.
But those who offer the league’s free-agent contracts remember what Kearse did that day in Arizona. They also saw Kearse’s career-high 11 catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns Jan. 17. He sparked Seattle’s rally from 31-0 down in its 31-24 loss to the eventual NFC-champion Panthers.
Sure, Seahawks fans want the emotional pull of home to be enough keep Kearse with Seattle. That pull was apparent at that event for his foundation at Clover Park last month.
Dave Miller has been coaching football at Lakewood High for 30 years. He’s remained close to Kearse through his meteoric rise from UW to Seattle to being an NFL standout the hard way. Miller surprised Kearse when he attended Kearse’s event at Clover Park last month.
Miller said that day all of Lakewood is "on pins and needles" waiting to find out if Kearse stays a Seahawk or signs elsewhere.
But Miller knows as well as anyone this is the moment for which Kearse -- heck, every kid and collegian who’s worn a helmet -- have worked and sweated and trained and played through injuries for: the first free-agent contract in pro football. That’s where the life-setting money is, in the signing bonuses and guarantees beyond the rookie contract. Every football player’s goal is to get that first, big, free-agent deal.
Kearse just finished his Seattle contract that paid him $2,356,000 in 2015 as a restricted free agent. It was the first season of his four-year career he wasn’t at the league’s minimum salary. With his annual playoff heroics plus the facts he’s gone from three to 22 to 38 to 49 catches in each of his Seahawks regular seasons and just turned 26 last month, Kearse may command perhaps $3-4 million per year on the free-agent market. Or maybe more, given the league’s salary cap for 2016 has unexpectedly risen to $155.27 million per team. That’s up from $143.28 million last year.
The problem for the Seahawks with $4 million per year for Kearse is that would throw their salary structure at wide receiver out of whack and likely require on-the-fly sacrifices financially at other positions. Doug Baldwin is entering the final year of his contract; Seattle’s No. 1 receiver co-led the league in touchdown catches last season with a team-record 13. Baldwin is due to make $4 million in 2016. If the Seahawks give Kearse a raise to that level now, what more are they going to need to do for Baldwin in the next 12 months to keep him from free agency?
Plus, Seattle has more pressing needs among its 16 other free agents beyond Kearse, especially now that 2015 rookie phenom Tyler Lockett has proven he’ll be featured in the Seahawks’ passing game for years. Forty percent of the team’s already-iffy starting offensive line (left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy) and the two reasons its defense stonewalled the run the latter half of last season (stuffing tackles Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin) could also leave in free agency.
That’s why Kearse and the Seahawks are bracing for the hometown receiver’s departure perhaps as early next week, even though Kearse wishes deep down he could make it sensible financially to stay.
And that’s why you’ll see reports like this saying so between now and then.