If you want to have some fun with an NFL scout, ask him this: Who’s the Seattle Seahawks’ most important defensive player?
Coach Pete Carroll’s defense has more playmakers than any team in the NFL save for perhaps the St. Louis Rams. He’s had the NFL’s top defense, by far, the last two seasons and fields at least one difference maker at every alignment level: the line, linebacker, cornerback and safety.
But who is the most important player? Is it middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a second-team All-Pro last year? Cornerback Richard Sherman, a first-team All-Pro? Safety Earl Thomas, another first team All-Pro? The team’s best defensive lineman, the disruptive Michael Bennett?
Or, is it Kam Chancellor, the holdout safety who was second-team All-Pro last season and may be the most influential player in the Seahawks’ locker room?
This week I posed the question to three scouts from the Seahawks’ NFC West Division rivals. Two picked Bennett as the most important and one Wagner. Those details are for another time
The exercise had a more immediate point because of its relevance both to Sunday night’s rematch of last January’s NFC championship game between the Green Bay Packers’ and Seattle Seahawks, and to the NFC title chase overall. The real question is, how much do the Seahawks miss Chancellor, whose holdout has no end in sight and appears on track for an unsatisfactory ending for both sides?
When asked about Chancellor specifically, one of the scouts said he’d put the safety second on the list. The other two didn’t place him in the pecking order, but all three described him similarly: A huge (6-feet-3, 232 pounds), punishing enforcer in the secondary who’s a coach on the field and glue in the locker room.
“I don’t think Kam is a difference maker on every team in the league,” one of the scouts said, “but for what they do and what they ask him to do he is. He’s a perfect fit.”
Said another scout: “What they miss is his leadership and his ability to orchestrate things. He’s the quarterback on defense. He has a lot of things from a leadership standpoint that you can’t teach. Players just migrate to him.”
Whether Chancellor’s absence might be the difference in Sunday night’s game or significantly reduce Seattle’s chances for a third straight trip to the Super Bowl, none could answer with any surety. But Chancellor is a significant loss if he doesn’t play all season for the Seahawks team that opened last week with an overtime defeat at St. Louis.
“(Last week) the guy that replaced him said, ‘I welcome you to throw over here,’ and a tight end ran right by him for a touchdown,” said one of the scouts. “(Chancellor) is worth every penny he wants.”
Chancellor’s holdout is a rarity in today’s NFL, because few players are willing to risk losing the money. According to ProFootballTalk.com, Chancellor’s holdout already has cost him $1.87 million in fines and lost wages, and each game he misses adds $267,000.
Here’s the thumbnail sketch of the holdout:
In April of 2013 Chancellor signed an extension that added four years to the remaining season on his contract. Many reports looked only at the new money and called it a four-year deal worth $28 million, but that $7 million average is bogus NFL-speak that inflates numbers to make agents and teams happy. In reality, he’d signed a five-year deal worth $30.825 million, or an average of $6.165 million a season. It included $7.825 million in fully guaranteed money. His salary this year is $4.725 million; next year, $5.1 million; and in 2017, $6.8 million.
Only two years later, and with three years remaining on his deal, Chancellor wants his contract improved. He reportedly has asked the team to move $4 million from 2017 to 2016.
It’s not hard to see his thinking. He’s had surgery after each of his first four seasons in the NFL, then spent much of this past offseason recovering from the torn MCL he played through in the Super Bowl. He’s an old 27.
“His body is like it’s 30, 31,” one scout said. “That’s why he wants the guaranteed money. That’s why he wants money moved up into this year and next year. Those might be his last couple years.”
Seven weeks into his holdout, Chancellor appears to be the rare player willing to go the mat for a new deal. And he’s presented Carroll and general manager John Schneider a dilemma.
Chancellor’s a difference maker and the Seahawks are a Super Bowl contender, so they badly want him on the field. But if they renegotiate his contract with more than one year remaining, they open the door to other players holding out in similar circumstances.
Carroll and Schneider also appear willing to hold their line to avoid problems down the road.
However, they could face another problem in the relatively near future: blowback in the locker room. The Seahawks already had an internal protest one day last week when halfback Marshawn Lynch wore Chancellor’s No. 31 jersey to practice in a show of solidarity.
Carroll brushed off the gesture publicly, but it was a stinging rebuke of his administration.
The only way to minimize problems is winning, and a loss to the Packers would leave the Seahawks 0-2. The Packers are 3 1/2-point favorites.
“When their friends start getting cut, (players think), ‘Hey it’s just a business decision,’” one of the scouts said. “But if they start losing and there’s a guy they know can help them sitting at home, that’s when it gets to be a little bit of cancer from within. And those (Seahawks stars) are very outspoken.”
One of the scouts predicted the holdout now has only two possible outcomes: Chancellor reports in Week 10, which is the deadline to have this year count as an accrued season contractually; or a trade. The NFL’s trading deadline is Nov. 3.
A trade probably is unattractive for the Seahawks because Chancellor’s age and injury history might limit his value, even though he’s one of the best safeties in the league.
“I don’t think (the Seahawks) get much,” one scout said. “… Is he going to give you two more (good) years? Is that worth $8 million (a year)? It’s hard to gauge on the open market how many draft picks you’d give up. Would they be high-medium, or medium to low? Would you trade a player and a draft pick?”
Regardless, the Seahawks will not have Chancellor for the marquee matchup against the Packers. That diminishes a Seahawks secondary that in the offseason lost starting cornerback Byron Maxwell to Philadelphia in free agency and is without No. 3 cornerback Jeremy Lane, who is on PUP while recovering from a torn ACL sustained in the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks didn’t have the money to pay Maxwell mainly because they signed quarterback Russell Wilson to a huge contract ($31 million guaranteed, $17.82 million average) after getting him for his first three years at the salary of a third-round draft pick. They in effect traded Maxwell to the Eagles for 30-year-old Cary Williams, a free agent they paid $7 million guaranteed and who will count $4.66 million against this year’s cap.
“He’s not as good as Maxwell last year,” one scout said. “They’re just not quite the same team.”
The Seahawks replaced Lane with fourth-year pro DeShawn Shead, a prototypical Seattle cornerback with great length (6-2) and size (220) but minimal playing time (two passes defended in his career). Their secondary still has Sherman and Thomas, but it is not the Legion of Boom of the last two years.
“The front seven is where that defense is,” one scout said.
Chancellor’s replacement is Dion Bailey (6-0, 211), a converted linebacker from USC who spent most of his rookie season last year on the Seahawks’ practice squad. He’s the player who Rams tight end Lance Kendricks ran past for the game-tying 37-yard touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter that tied last week’s game.
Also, Carroll has acknowledged that the Seahawks were lined up incorrectly when receiver Tavon Austin lined up in the backfield and scored on a 16-yard run earlier in the game. Some Seahawks players surely are wondering if that would have happened had Chancellor been on the field.
As to the bottom-line question: Yes, the Seahawks are weaker team without Chancellor. But how much weaker?
All three scouts watched video of the Seahawks-Rams game from last week. Two said Chancellor’s absence was a big factor in the defeat; the other said it wasn’t and pointed to the Seahawks’ losses at St. Louis the previous three years with Chancellor.
The first two said they’d meet Chancellor’s contract demands.
“Pay him,” one said. “I understand (the team’s) side of it. But you’ve got to pick your battles, and I think this is the wrong one.”
The third said he wouldn’t set the precedent.
“You’ve got good enough players to win without Kam that you have to buckle down and get it done,” he said. “If they’d have won in St. Louis on Sunday nobody would be talking about Kam Chancellor. Right now they are because it’s the question: If he was there would they have won? I don’t think so.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.