To Franchise or Not to Franchise

Leroy Hill

What to do about unrestricted free agent linebacker Leroy Hill is the biggest question facing the Seattle Seahawks in free agency.

“What to do about Leroy Hill?” is the one of the biggest questions Tim Ruskell faces this off-season.

On the one hand, Leroy Hill is arguably Seattle’s most complete linebacker. He’s 26 and entering the prime of his career. He’s fast, physical, and has been everything Tim Ruskell hoped he’d be when Seattle drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2005 NFL Draft.

On the other, Hill could draw plenty of interest on the free agent market, which means Seattle may have to use the franchise tag to keep exclusive negotiating rights and avoid losing him to another team without any compensation. The use of the franchise tag, combined with the cap numbers for Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson, would result in the Seahawks committing nearly $22 million dollars in ’09 cap room to their starting linebackers.

Considering the way Seattle has used Hill the last three years, spending $8 million dollars to use the franchise tag on him next season makes little sense.

In 2005, three NFL rookies posted 7+ quarterback sacks. San Diego’s Shawne Merriman, that season’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, lead all rookies with 10 sacks. Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware was second among rookies with 8 sacks.

The third guy on that list?

Leroy Hill with 7.5 sacks, despite starting just 9 games that season.

Obviously, San Diego and Dallas’ 3-4 schemes are much different than Seattle’s cover-2 defense, and outside linebackers in those systems generally get more opportunities to rush the quarterback. But in the three seasons since they were rookies in ‘05, Ware was 45.5 sacks, Merriman has 29.5 (in two season), and Hill has 6.

Did Hill lose his effectiveness as a blitzer, or did the free agent additions of Julian Peterson and Patrick Kerney take away Hill’s opportunities to rush the passer?

That’s a question only those inside the Seahawks facilities the last three years could answer with any certainty.

After rarely seeing Hill used as a pass rusher in 2008, though, and often seeing him on the sidelines whenever the opponent brought in a 4th wide receiver, no matter how pedestrian that receiver happened to be, it’s my opinion that Hill hasn’t had many chances to blitz, which he happens to do better than any linebacker presently on the Seahawks roster.

If Ruskell and Jim Mora, who is expected to bring a more aggressive approach to the defense, think Hill fits into the team’s long-term plans, the most financially prudent course of action would be to re-sign him to a long-term extension before he ever becomes a free agent.

With the way NFL teams structure big-money deals, a long-term extension with Hill this off-season would minimize his impact on the ’09 cap (Tatupu and Trufant’s ’08 cap numbers were both under $3M), with a guaranteed roster bonus increasing his 2010 cap figure. (Seattle stands to gain considerable cap room in 2010 by releasing or restructuring Julian Peterson’s contract.)

The Seahawks have a little over six weeks to decide what to do with Hill and the clock is ticking.