The Seahawks raised eyebrows and curiosity by making Bruce Irvin the 15th-overall draft choice out of West Virginia in 2012. He was supposedly a one-dimensional pass-rush specialist for whom most of the league thought Seattle reached way high to get.
The Seahawks then raised Irvin's profile and impact on the league's No. 1-ranked defense when they benched Super Bowl 48 MVP Malcolm Smith last season and made Irvin an every-down player: a strong-side linebacker on running downs and a rush end off the edge of the defensive line in passing situations.
Now, will they give him the raise that speaks the loudest?
The team has until May 3 to do what Indianapolis just did with another first-round pick from 2012, Andrew Luck: Exercise its built-in, fifth-year contract option on Irvin for 2016.
In 2011 the league's new collective bargaining agreement standardized rookie contracts. It mandated all first-round draft choices to four-year contracts with a team option for a fifth season. Where a player was drafted determines the amount of that option-year salary. For players drafted outside the top 10, such as Irvin, the league computes the option-year salary as the average of the league's third- through 25th highest-paid players at each position. In that regard it's something like a franchise-tag designation to determine a one-year salary.
Former agent Joel Corry explains all this in detail in this article for CBSSports.com.
For Irvin, that option-year salary for 2016 would be $7.75 million -- a nifty raise from the $1,663,935 he is due to make this year in the final, base year of his rookie contract.
The Seahawks had this option at this time last year with left guard James Carpenter and didn't exercise it. That allowed Carpenter to become a free agent at the end of last season. He signed as an unrestricted free agent last month with the New York Jets.
But Irvin plays a position where his speed and his job -- pressuring and dumping quarterbacks -- is more unique and highly valued in the league than blocking is at left guard. If you don't think so, watch how many outside linebacker/pass-rush specialists get drafted in the first two rounds April 30 and May 1.
Pressuring the quarterback is too integral to Seattle being the league's top-ranked defense the last three seasons. Look what happened after fellow rush end Cliff Avril left Super Bowl 49 in the second half with a concussion: New England had 14 points then. After Avril left, the Patriots focused more blockers on Irvin and Michael Bennett. Tom Brady had more time to throw and New England doubled its point total over the game's final 8 minutes to win the title 28-24.
Plus, Irvin is Seattle's only apparent strong-side linebacker option now that Smith is gone to Oakland on a free-agent deal. Unless, that is, Seattle wants to move rising second-year linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who is coming off a season-ending injury from last fall, from weakside linebacker.
That is why I sense the Seahawks and general manager John Schneider have already plotted a way to fit Irvin's option into their budget for next year, even with the contract extensions they want to get done with quarterback Russell Wilson and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Thus I'm sensing Seattle will pick up Irvin's option for 2016 before May 3. That will literally buy them time to prepare a long-term extension for him.
Yes, I know some of you don't feel he warrants that. But to me, Irvin's every-down playing time and key roles give him much the same, young, core-player status the Seahawks have given the other cornerstones they've extended beyond their rookie deals on defense, including Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, K.J. Wright and Avril.
Not only that, the team has already invested a healthy risk in him and nurtured a career growth few others were willing to take on so prominently in 2012, as I've written about recently. Can't see the Seahawks being excited about watching another team enjoy the fruits of their risk and development against them beyond 2016.
The Seahawks could still re-sign Irvin beyond this season without exercising that option, with a contract extension before next March or by giving him a new, multiyear offer once he would become a free agent in March 2016. But exercising the option in the next few weeks would limit their commitment to Irvin for now to a known cost for a fixed, one-year time, with the Seahawks then having subsequent time to find ways to fit an extension for him into future budgets -- or to find a replacement for him beyond 2016, if the team so chooses.