Free agency magnifies Thompson, Schneider differences
Could there be two more different general managers in the NFL than Ted Thompson and John Schneider?
It remains a wonder they learned the NFL's ropes from the same mentor, former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf.
The first few days of free agency this week underscored the gulf between the steady-as-she-goes Thompson and the anything-goes Schneider when it comes to building the respective rosters of the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks.
Thompson's activity has been limited to re-signing his own players, even if they were two big deals, receiver Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga. The money was significant, but as always Thompson's focus was solely on retaining his own, not pursuing players from another team. Is anyone surprised the Packers are the only team that hasn't signed a free agent yet this year?
Schneider, on the other hand, made one of this week's stunning moves with his trade for Jimmy Graham, who's probably the best receiving tight end in the NFL. Schneider sent New Orleans his late first-round draft pick (No. 31 overall) and respected starting center (Max Unger) for Graham and a fourth-round pick. The league still is saying wow.
That's business as usual for Schneider, who has been Seattle's GM since 2010. In the first few days of free agency, the Seahawks' meaningful changes include losing two starters (cornerback Byron Maxwell and guard James Carpenter) and two rotational players (defensive end O'Brien Schofield and linebacker Malcolm Smith); signing a starting cornerback (Cary Williams); and making the huge trade for Graham.
Consider this: In the 10 offseasons from 2005-14, Thompson signed 17 unrestricted and street free agents of note and made five trades in which he acquired a player, not a draft pick. Nine of those signings and two of the trades were in Thompson's first two seasons with the Packers. That means in the last eight years he's brought in 11 players via those routes.
Schneider, on the other hand, is almost a week into his fifth offseason with Seattle, and by best count based on research online he's signed a total of about 30 unrestricted and notable street free agents and traded for nine players.
The list includes several who played significant roles in Seattle's back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl: running back Marshawn Lynch (trade), and defensive linemen Chris Clemons (trade), Cliff Avril (free agent) and Michael Bennett (free agent).
It also includes some whiffs in quarterback Matt Flynn (signed), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (trade), and the biggest swing-and-miss of them all, Percy Harvin. In 2013 Schneider gave up first-, third-, and seventh-round picks for the mercurial Harvin and ended up paying him $19 million for 1¼ seasons (eight games played) before trading him last October for a midround draft pick.
Schneider's trade for Graham this year was his biggest move yet, though far less risky than the Harvin deal. The Seahawks' financial commitment to Graham is reasonable for a player of his quality and age (28) — they'll pay him $8 million in salary and bonuses this year, $9 million in 2016 and $10 million in 2017. The cost of a first-round pick and a solid starting center is significant, but it sure looks like Seattle got the best of that deal.
So whose way is better, Thompson's or Schneider's? So far it's been Schneider's, at least by a little, though that ultimately might be determined in the next few years as the teams' battle for supremacy in the NFC.
Thompson has a 98-61-1 record (.616 winning percentage), one Super Bowl win and is on a run of six straight playoff appearances. Schneider is 50-30-1 (.625), has won one Super Bowl, lost another and been to the playoffs the last three seasons.
I have to say I admire Thompson's temperament and in the end consider his hardline, draft-draft-draft-and-develop approach generally the best way to go. If no GM is immune to outside pressures and panic, he seems to be among the least flappable in the league. But I'd argue he still could protect his future salary caps from undue risk while also targeting a couple of strategic signings (or trades) a year. Not every move will work, but he has more room to maneuver than he's used.
Especially with how well his signing of Julius Peppers turned out last year, maybe Thompson will do that now that the spending frenzy of the first few days of free agency has passed. Inside linebacker is the position to watch.
Schneider, who is much more like Wolf, has built the Seahawks quickly by being ultra-aggressive, but unlike some other teams, it's actually worked, and he's done it without endangering the Seahawks' financial future.
Schneider has had to let good players walk — Clemons and cornerback Brandon Browning last year, Maxwell this year — but what team hasn't? And according to OverTheCap.com, Seattle doesn't have cap trouble lurking around the corner. Seattle's 2016 cap has 42 contracts and $106 million committed, with the cap likely to be closer to $160 million than $150 million.
However, Schneider's toughest test will come in the next few years, for two reasons: One, he'll have to pay quarterback Russell Wilson, and two, halfback Marshawn Lynch's play is likely to decline soon.
Wilson has been a windfall because he's provided franchise quarterback play while costing almost nothing. He counted only $817,302 on the Seahawks' '14 cap and for now costs only $1.696 million this year. But the Seahawks are preparing to extend his contract this year, and his cap numbers are going to balloon to the $20 million range.
That will cost Schneider much of the financial flexibility he's had the last three years. And he knows it.
"We're still going to be drafting young players and playing young players," Schneider said earlier this offseason regarding the ramifications of Wilson's impending contract. "So we might not be able to dip into free agency as much as you want to here and there, or compensate somebody else that's already on your team."
Lynch's decline will be critical too. The Seahawks' offense, and to some degree Wilson's success, have revolved around Lynch's punishing running the last three years. But Lynch turns 29 in April, and while he's delivered plenty of the punishment he's also sustained plenty too. He's already at an age where most running backs begin slowing down, and his slippage could begin any time in the next couple of years.
The Packers discovered how problematic the decline of one great player can be when defensive back Charles Woodson's play started sliding in 2011 and '12. Seattle could face similar difficulties replacing Lynch's impact on its offense.
Schneider's personality isn't going to change, so even after Wilson's new deal you can expect him to go after deals as aggressively as ever. He's fearless. But the hardest decisions are yet to come.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.