John Schneider has repeatedly said he loves the "challenges" his Seahawks have this offseason.
Here's another one: The shedding of stars Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett then signing of what they could afford — second-tier free agents — to leave the Seahawks exiting March the way they entered it.
Up hard against the NFL's salary cap.
With the secondary waves of free agency slowing to an end, the NFL Players' Association's official payroll database for each team showed Seattle with just under $10 million ($9,928,606) in cap space entering Wednesday. That was the least amount of cap room in the NFC West.
The 49ers have $47.4 million to spend, the most in the division. That's why they could offer Sherman the guaranteed money for 2018 the Seahawks wouldn't even consider with him turning 30 coming off an Achilles tear and second ankle surgery.
The Seahawks' $9.9 million in cap space doesn't include the at least $6 million the Seahawks need to allocate for the eight draft choices they are currently scheduled to have in next month's draft — pending Schneider's characteristic trades to acquire more picks he makes just about every year. So in terms of spending power, Seattle really has about $4 million in cap space, per the NFLPA.
The Seahawks entered March and the days before the free-agent market opened at about $12 million under the salary cap. That was hardly enough to shop for any of their many needs to answer their first non-playoff season in six years. So they traded away Bennett and the Pro Bowl defensive end's $2.2 million cap charge for this year to Philadelphia. They waived Sherman. He had the second-highest salary on the team for 2018 behind franchise quarterback Russell Wilson. Shedding Sherman alone saved them $11 million.
Seattle doubled their cap space with those two moves. Then they waived veteran defensive backs Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead. That saved another $5.95 million. They went from $12 million to $31 million in cap space in time for free agency to begin. Now they could shop.
But not at the Neiman Marcus or Saks of top-drawer free agents. More like Target.
They re-signed Bradley McDougald with a $1.5 million guaranteed salary for 2018 and a $4 million signing bonus in his three-year deal. He is insurance for Kam Chancellor not returning from his career-threatening neck injury to play strong safety. They tendered offers to restricted free agents Dion Jordan (for $1.9 million), an edge pass rusher they need this year, and nickel defensive back Justin Coleman ($2.9 million); the Seahawks announced on Wednesday Coleman had signed his tender. They re-signed their own free agents: defensive end Marcus Smith (one year, $2.7 million) and running back Mike Davis (one year, $800,000 salary with $443,000 in signing and roster bonuses).
And they imported seven free agents, all with short-term, low-cost contracts: pass rusher Barkevious Mingo (a $2.55 million cap charge for this year), tight end Ed Dickson ($1.9 million cap hit in 2018), safety Maurice Alexander ($720,000), wide receiver Jaron Brown ($1.78 million) and guard D.J. Fluker ($1.37 million). While the defending division-champion Rams got defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for one year at $14 million, the Seahawks couldn't spend even half that to keep Sheldon Richardson from leaving and signing with Minnesota for a base pay of $8 million this year. So Seattle signed former Vikings defensive tackles Tom Johnson ($2.1 million), who turns 34 in August, and Shamar Stephen ($2.1 million) instead.
Seattle signed Dickson for three years to replace departed free agent Jimmy Graham (to Green Bay, for $10 million) as its lead tight end, and far more of a blocking one. The team signed Mingo, a first-round draft choice in 2013, for two seasons and Brown from Arizona for two years. All the Seahawks' other free-agent imports are one-year deals.
We can debate theory of wanting a quieter locker room, of Bennett's activism, of Sherman yelling at coaches, and whatever some more if you'd like. The bottom line for why the Seahawks did what they did and didn't do in March is, in fact, their bottom line.
Seattle saved $19 million getting rid of four former starters and seven combined Pro Bowl selections on defense. They re-signed five players from last year's team plus imported seven veterans. It's eight counting Marcus Johnson, the wide receiver the Seahawks got from the Eagles in the Bennett trade.
That's essentially a four-for-13 swap. That's a favorable ratio this undoubtedly transitioning team had to have to fill its many holes. Those 13 players signed or brought back have a combined salary-cap charge in 2018 of $22.8 million — or just $3 million more than Sherman, Bennett, Lane and Shead would have cost Seattle this year.
In the Seahawks' cost-conscientious minds, that's value.
We'll find out this fall and winter what the value of these budget signings are on the field, how adequately they fill those holes. But this is what the Seahawks could afford. The entered the month with the seventh-worst cap situation in the league. They are leaving it with the 11th-worst.
The Seahawks are letting Cliff Avril decide, on his own terms and timetable, if and when to announce his retirment from a neck injury and surgery. If that happens, as expected, Seattle saves $7.1 million against the cap.
Even if that occurs, expect any further signings — the team needs a backup quarterback, if you haven't heard, was reportedly hosting former Jets starter Geno Smith and has hosted free-agent running back Demarco Murray, for instance — to be at or near veteran-minimum deals for one year. There are reasons guys are still available in free agency in April, May and June. And they aren't great reasons, either.
Schneider made it clear this week at the NFL owners' meetings in Orlando, Fla., the Seahawks are still open to trade offers for Earl Thomas that might floor him. None have happened. Schneider also said talks with agents for the three-time All-Pro safety on an extension past this last year of his contract have stopped for now.
The draft is always important, but next month's is especially so for Seattle. The team is still reeling somewhat from last year's top pick, defensive lineman Malik McDowell, still not having practiced even once since head injuries from a mysterious ATV accident last summer. His status remains unknown for 2018 and beyond.
Schneider acknowledged at this month's scouting combine he and his Seahawks haven't exactly smashed home runs in the draft recently.
"It's like a reset: OK, how did we get here? We got here drafting players and putting guys on the field," the GM said. "I think it's been hard over the last several drafts ... don't get me wrong, we haven't made some great decisions, the best decisions we could possibly make in certain situations. I don't think anybody does."
The Seahawks can't afford to miss again at the top of this draft; the 18th-overall choice is their highest first-round pick in six years. Seattle is still without a second- or a third-round pick, the result of trading for Sheldon Richardson and Duane Brown during last season.
The team has six of its eight picks in rounds five (four choices) and seven (two picks). Those gaps from rounds two through four are huge on any draft board, especially one for a team trying to rebuild with young, affordable talent.
"Right now, we’re sitting here specifically without a two and a three, which is a really fun challenge for us," Schneider said, invoking his word of the offseason again.
"Like, 'All right, how do we figure out how to compensate for those openings?' "
It's almost impossible to imagine Schneider, renowned in the NFL for draft maneuvering, standing pat and idle through the entire second day of the draft without a pick. Him trading down from 18 in the first round to get more picks remains a viable if not likely scenario.
Thing is, because of their cap situation and how it affected their free-agent shopping, the Seahawks need youth that can play this year. That means top rookie picks. Or 2010-12-esque steals in the later rounds, such as Sherman and Chancellor, that set up Seattle for consecutive Super Bowls. Those franchise-shaping steals haven't happened for the Seahawks since, not that they ever will again.
All that means the Seahawks could use an April that is more successful and positive than their tumultuous, then minimal, March.
"Now, do we have some challenges this year? Absolutely," Schneider said entering this month. "We’re pretty disappointed the way (last) season ended. We went 9-7 and you would have thought that we won two games.
"It’s a pit that sits in your stomach and really fuels you. We’re excited about the challenges ahead, because we feel like we want to get rolling on this thing."