As the deadline for franchise tags passed Monday with the Seahawks leaving star defensive lineman Michael Bennett unprotected, the speculation will now really heat up about his future.
There are certainly teams out there with more salary cap space than Seattle, but would they be willing to spend a big chunk of it on Bennett (unlike last year)?
The Hawks are already engaged in contract talks with his agent, and Bennett told SiriusXM NFL radio that negotiations were going well.
But the Seahawks are going to go only so far (probably $8 million a year) to re-sign him. Rather than re-sign for less than $10 million a year, he might decide to find out what he is worth on the open market come March 11.
"Everything plays into the numbers," he told Sirius (per The Seattle Times). "Have to make sure everything is right."
If it isn't, how much would Bennett's departure hurt the Seahawks? For that matter, how much would they be hurt if/when any of their 15 unrestricted free agents signed elsewhere?
The answer: Beyond Bennett, they really wouldn’t lose much even if every free agent left. That includes wide receiver Golden Tate and kicker Steven Hauschka.
If the Hawks did not re-sign a single one of their free agents or add any new ones (other than a kicker, of course), they would still be a contender next season.
Positions that will not get worse – or will improve based on experience or better depth through the draft – are quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, linebacker and the secondary (see charts at top).
This assumes that the Seahawks will tender restricted free agent receiver Doug Baldwin (a certainty), that receiver Percy Harvin will be healthy in 2014 (we can only hope) and offset the possible loss of Tate, and that everyone is wrong (we can only hope) about tight end Zach Miller possibly being released.
The only units that will be impacted significantly by the loss of free agents are the lines and special teams, but the Hawks could fill in the blanks at those spots – with the possible exception of Bennett.
The Hawks have ostensible replacements for Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald and could find one for Tony McDaniel.
Bennett would be a tough one to replace. He is basically two players in one, and the Hawks would need a group effort from Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill and others (rookies or 2013 practice players) to make up for his absence.
On the offensive line, the Hawks are scheduled to lose left guard Paul McQuistan and right tackle Breno Giacomini. It would be surprising if the team wanted to bring back the 30-year-old McQuistan, an average player who doesn't seem useful to Seattle anymore, and the team might decide to go younger and cheaper at right tackle as well by letting Michael Bowie and perhaps a rookie battle for the job.
After getting shut out of offensive linemen in the early rounds last year, it seems very likely that the team will try hard to draft at least one lineman in the first three rounds and another on the third day of the draft (May 8-11).
Even in the unlikely event they cannot get that done, they have options. Alvin Bailey and perhaps Greg Van Roten could push James Carpenter at left guard, and Bowie could take over right tackle.
The special teams, meanwhile, might take a hit if Hauschka, Tate, Chris Maragos, O'Brien Schofield and Walter Thurmond left. But the Hawks could use younger guys to replace them.
Of course, the Hawks are not going to lose all 15 free agents, and they obviously will have the option of signing free agents to replace any they lose (you can bet general manager John Schneider already has his eyes on possible replacements and even upgrades).
But here's the point: Even if they had to rely on young players to replace their free agents, the Hawks still have a roster that is good enough to contend.