The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots present a contrast of styles on the field in many ways. The same is true off the field as well. Their different paths to success show how successful teams can be built in the NFL in more than one way.
How Seattle Was Built
When general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle, they began a comprehensive overhaul of the roster. They relentlessly acquired players however they could, evaluated them to see if they were a fit for the team they wanted to build both on the field and off it, and ruthlessly chose which ones they wanted to develop and which ones they were willing to discard.
Applying that practice meant that when the Seahawks broke through in 2012, they were the youngest team in the league. The 2014 Seahawks are a more mature team, both on the field and in terms of the development cycle of a group of players, but many of the same methods still apply.
One thing that stands out about the Seahawks was the blank slate Carroll and Schneider acquired. Most franchises are driven by their old successful draft picks. When the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, many of their best, most important players were draft picks who were re-signed after their initial contracts expired. That included their four most prominent defensive players in Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs. The Seahawks only dressed two such players, Kam Chancellor and Max Unger, for the NFC championship game (a third, Brandon Mebane, is on injured reserve).
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That lack of financial commitments to other players has given the Seahawks room to make other moves. They have used their “extra” money in two ways. First, they have signed several stalwarts to second contracts before they were required to do so. That group includes Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and K.J. Wright. All three could still be playing on their original draft pick contracts, like Thomas’s fellow 2010 first-round selection Russell Okung, but Seattle has already paid all three players. Second, they have gone out and added multiple premium players in free agency. This is often a risky strategy, but the Seahawks handled Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett smartly. Both signed short-term contracts for reasonable sums and were subsequently extended for multiple years for more money.
Beyond getting a second contract, Chancellor, Mebane, Sherman, Thomas, Wright, Avril, and Bennett have something else in common: all of them play on the defensive side of the ball. That suggests the Seahawks are giving short shrift to the offense. Seattle has spent a little bit of money on the offense, trading for and paying wideout Percy Harvin and giving tight end Zach Miller a big free agent deal. Harvin is now a member of the Jets, though, while Miller has spent most of this season on injured reserve. Outside of the aforementioned Unger and Okung, plus Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks have a particularly inexpensive attack. According to Over The Cap, Seattle currently has over $25 million more in 2015 commitments to its defense than it does to its offense for the same number of players. That total, though, seems very likely to change very soon.
Russell Wilson’s level of performance and current contract as a third-round pick have made him one of the best values, if not the very best, in the NFL over the past three seasons. The Seahawks reportedly plan to give him a massive extension this offseason. That will balance out their offensive and defensive spending, but will also limit their flexibility and, unless they are careful, make it harder to move on from expensive mistakes like the Harvin contract.
Paying Wilson in addition to the defenders they have already paid will also make it essential for the Seahawks to keep exploiting the avenue they may have used better than any other team in the league during the Schneider-Carroll era, the undrafted free agent market. The Seahawks pitched their active use of undrafted free agents to players and their agents this past offseason, and their starting lineup for the NFC championship game backed up their claims. All three starting receivers — Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Ricardo Lockett — were acquired as undrafted free agents, as was right tackle Alvin Bailey, who may see time in place of the ailing Justin Britt. Baldwin is now on his second contract (like Sherman, Thomas, and Wright, re-signed before the Seahawks had to do so), but the other players represent essentially found resources getting paid a cheap salary. Schneider’s acumen identified them and Carroll’s competitiveness brought them out, but where potential long franchise runs fall apart is when it comes time to find the next generation of such players. That is much more likely an issue for 2016 and beyond than for 2015, though.
One avenue Schneider and Carroll used extensively in the past was trading for players. NFL trades are uncommon for a variety of generally good reasons, but last year’s Seahawks Super Bowl squad had four players on it who were acquired via trade. This year’s team, however, has only one player who was originally acquired via trade, Marshawn Lynch. This is more normal for a Super Bowl participant; last year’s foe, Denver, acquired only Champ Bailey via trade, while Anquan Boldin was the only player acquired via trade who was on a 53-man roster for Super Bowl XLVII. The Patriots actually have more players acquired via trade, two.
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How New England Was Built
While the Seahawks earned renown for their use of undrafted free agents, the Patriots are also more willing than the average team, particularly the average good team, to give them chances. Bill Belichick churns players for their potential fit on and off the field about as ruthlessly as Schneider and Carroll do, seeing if players who did not work out in another location can work in his scheme. Sometimes, it works out. Championship Game starters Julian Edelman and Ryan Wendell were originally acquired as undrafted free agents before eventually earning second contracts. Belichick is also very aggressive in evaluating non-rookies who may have bounced around the league, and retaining the ones who fit; defensive starters Kyle Arrington and Rob Ninkovich both struggled to find a home as young players before sticking their landings in Foxborough.
The Patriots do have more money than Seattle tied up in their old drafted players. They have six old draft picks who have been re-signed rather than allowed to depart. While Stephen Gostkowski and Matthew Slater are compensated like the fine special teams players they are, re-signed draft picks account for four of their five largest 2014 cap hits per Over The Cap. The biggest, of course, goes to Tom Brady, while the others belong to Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo (on injured reserve), and Vince Wilfork.
Comparatively speaking, though, the Patriots are closer to the Seahawks than they are to the Ravens or the 49ers in terms of flexibility to supplement their roster. Like the Seahawks, or the Broncos last year, they delved into the free agent market for key additions. Darrelle Revis is the best-compensated, most valuable, and most prominent. Danny Amendola is their (currently healthy) version of Zach Miller, a player whose impact never matched his dollar figure, but whose disappointing performance they were able to overcome through smart work elsewhere. More valuable at wide receiver has been Brandon LaFell, whose improved performance was part of the offensive rebound following their early struggles. Beyond Revis, their veteran free agency imports on defense include a couple more members of the secondary in ex-Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Patrick Chung, a Patriots draft choice who departed for Philadelphia in free agency before returning.
Like many teams, and unlike the Seahawks, the Patriots have yet to re-sign any recent draft picks still on their original contracts. That means they have upcoming decisions on players like starting safety Devin McCourty and committee back Shane Vereen. The good news for New England is that they are at least a year away from having to make big decisions on key young defenders like Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Chandler Jones. Like Seattle, they thus seem relatively well-positioned for future success. Their major financial decisions will be in the secondary, including whether to retain McCourty and how to handle Revis, whose 2015 compensation structure practically mandates the Patriots choose to either re-sign or release him. If they can successfully navigate that transition, then New England, like Seattle, should be one of the NFL’s top teams again in 2015.