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Danny O'Neil covers the Seahawks for The Seattle Times.

May 31, 2012 at 9:45 AM

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Seahawks' new free-agency format

RENTON -- Seattle's reliance upon free agency was one of the defining themes of Tim Ruskell's five-year tenure as Seahawks president.

He would see a need and he would spend to fill it whether it was bringing in Julian Peterson in 2006, Patrick Kerney in 2007 or T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2009.

Every one of those additions produced immediate results. Peterson made three Pro Bowls as a Seahawk, Kerney had 14 sacks and finished as runner-up for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in his first year in Seattle and Houshmandzadeh caught 79 passes for Seattle.

But that reliance upon free agency also turned Seattle into an older team. Kerney was 30 when he signed with Seattle and he underwent three surgeries and missed 10 games in his three years here. Houshmandzadeh was 31 when he was signed and after Pete Carroll took over, the receiver was deemed such a poor fit that Seattle decided it was better off paying him $6 million to go away by releasing him rather than let him hang around on the roster that year and collect the money he was guaranteed.

Throw in other free-agent additions like guard Mike Wahle, safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell, and it's clear that Seattle's reliance on acquiring veterans from other teams left the team vulnerable to age and erosion.

This was a lesson from the Ruskell era, and one which made Seattle's spending frenzy last year a little puzzling. The Seahawks went out and paid top-shelf contracts for another wide receiver (Sidney Rice) and a Pro Bowl tight end (Zach Miller) not to mention a not insignificant deal for another left guard in his 30s (Robert Gallery).

But we have three full offseasons now to evaluate the Seahawks' decision making in free agency under general manager John Schneider, and some themes have emerged, which are embodied in many ways by the addition of Jason Jones, the defensive lineman Seattle signed from Tennessee this offseason.

Seahawks' Jason Jones follows team's free-agent blueprint
By Danny O'Neil | The Seattle Times

Want a cheat sheet for Schneider's rationale? Well, here's our best guess at boiling down some of his rules:

thirtysomething was a TV show, not a free-agent program
Rice was 24 when he signed with Seattle last year, Miller 25. Defensive tackle Alan Branch was 26 when he was added last year, and Jones just turned 26 last week. The Seahawks aren't going to sink long-term money into players in their 30s. Gallery was 31 by the time last year started, and while he signed a three-year, $15 million deal, Seattle was able to cut him after a year and save more than $4.5 million in salary-cap space. This approach is the reason why -- despite all Leroy Hill's productivity last year -- he's back on a one-year deal with Seattle in 2012.

Look for promising draft picks who never truly blossomed with their first team
This rule doesn't apply to top-shelf additions like Rice and Miller, but it is a format Seattle followed with its other free-agent acquisitions like Charlie Whitehurst, a third-round pick who never got a chance to play in San Diego, and Branch, who started only three games in the four years after Arizona picked him in the second round. Jones was a starter the past two years in Tennessee, but surprisingly, his sack total actually fell. He had nine sacks his first two seasons with the Titans, and 6.5 the past two even though he had more playing time. Seattle believes that a new role will give Jones the opportunity to really emerge in the same way Branch did last year in his first season as a starter.

Keep it simple, keep it short
No player goes into free agency looking for a short-term deal. Not in a league where the actual value of a contract is measured by the amount of money that is guaranteed up front. But Seattle has looked to package an opportunity for a different role with a short-term contract to provide the most motivation. For someone like Branch, he's offered a different, more defined role than the one he had in Arizona with the caveat that if he performs the way he hopes to, he'll be back in the free-agent market with the chance at a bigger deal in two years. The team knows the player will be motivated by the reality of a short-term deal while not having money tied up long-term if things don't work out, which they didn't with Whitehurst.

When Schneider arrived in 2010, he inherited a team that was bearing the salary-cap burdens of players like Grant, Houshmandzadeh and Kerney, and while the Seahawks have spent millions in free agency since then, the deal for Jones shows that Seattle has changed not only the demographics of the players it targets in free agency, but also the way they're paying those players.

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