Keeping Leroy Hill could be costly for SeaHawks

Published on January 22, 2009 by     Seahawk Fanatic

RENTON — One thing won’t change in the Seahawks’ head-coach transition from Mike Holmgren to Jim Mora: the team’s take-care-of-our-own-first approach to free agency.

The fifth in an eight-part series looking at the Seahawks’ needs for next season and the moves they might make.

This year, the first name on that priority list is linebacker Leroy Hill.

While Hill might be the Seahawks’ only starting linebacker who has not been voted to the Pro Bowl, there is no denying that he has Pro Bowl talent and potential.

“I’d say Leroy is our best linebacker,” said middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowl selection.

“It’s tough to say that. I’ve got a lot of pride. Julian (Peterson) has got a lot of pride. He probably wouldn’t admit it, but he’d be wrong in saying that Leroy isn’t our best linebacker.”

The club already has talked to Hill and his agent about signing a long-term deal, but all that did was show just how far apart the two sides are. And any time Hill has discussed the situation, he has sounded like a player who is eager to test free agency.

“I just hope to be here,” Hill said the day after the season-ending loss to the Arizona Cardinals, as the players were cleaning out their lockers.

But if I’m not, I’d love to thank Seattle. I loved playing in Seattle. We’ll see what happens.”

The Seahawks can prevent Hill from leaving, or at least make it difficult, by using either their franchise or transition tag on him. But that also would be a costly move because the franchise tag will only increase from the $8.065 million the Cardinals had to pay in designating linebacker Karlos Dansby last year.

The transition tag would carry a smaller price tag, but also less guarantees that Hill doesn’t escape by signing an offer sheet elsewhere (see the 2006 fiasco that cost the Seahawks all-pro left guard Steve Hutchinson).

Another option is allowing Hill to walk and replacing him with the top-rated linebacker in this year’s draft class — Wake Forest’s Aaron Curry.

It makes so much sense that many draft analysts already project the Seahawks selecting Curry with the No. 4 pick that came courtesy of the team’s 4-12 record in 2008.

Curry has the size (6 feet 2, 246 pounds), the stats (101 and 99 tackles the past two seasons, when he also combined for 5½ sacks and five interceptions) and the recognition (he won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, over USC’s Rey Manaluga and 2007 winner James Laurinaitis of Ohio State).

Curry draws solid grades for pursuit, tackling and his ability to rush the passer, and was a productive player in one of the top conferences in the nation.

So what’s the problem?

The same as breaking the bank to retain Hill, or sign one of the other top linebackers who could be available in free agent: money. Lots of it.

Last year, Darren McFadden was the fourth pick overall by the Oakland Raiders and the Arkansas running back got a six-year, $60 million contract. Ohio State’s Vernon Gholston was the top linebacker selected last year — No. 6 by the New York Jets — and his five-year deal will be worth between $32.5 million and $50 million depending on which incentives he achieves.

“All options will be open,” club president Tim Ruskell said when asked what the team might do with Hill. “Obviously we are starting talks again with his agent. Our priority is to have him back on the team.”

What to do with Hill, or who to replace him with, are just two of the concerns at linebacker as the team moves toward the 2009 season.

After three consecutive seasons of registering 100-plus tackles and being named to the Pro Bowl, Tatupu achieved neither in 2008. True, he was hampered by knee and thumb injuries. But scouts from other teams also are quick to point out that the Seahawks defensive tackles did not do as good a job of keeping blockers off the undersized middle linebacker as they have in the past.

Peterson, the outside linebacker who plays opposite Hill, is heading to his third Pro Bowl in as many seasons with the team — as an injury replacement. While Peterson’s tackles (86) were comparable to his first two seasons with the team, his big plays were down. He had five sacks, after collecting 10 in 2006 and 9½ in 2007. He also failed to intercept a pass for the first time since he signed with the Seahawks in free agency.

So whoever it is that plays alongside Tatupu and Peterson in 2009, the Seahawks also need more from the linebackers they know will be around.

A look at the position as Jim Mora takes over as head coach and the Seahawks move on without Mike Holmgren for the first time since 1998:

WHAT THEY HAVE: The Pro Bowl tandem of Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson, but also a rather large question mark when it comes to who starts alongside them. Leroy Hill is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and talking like someone who wants to test the market. Veteran D.D. Lewis started two games in 2008 and was a starter on the 2005 team that went to the Super Bowl. But he’s also scheduled to become a free agent. There’s also Will Herring, a fifth-round draft choice in 2007 who started the final two games in ’08 when Hill and Lewis were sidelined.

WHAT THEY CAN GET: The best linebacker in this year’s draft class in Wake Forest’s Aaron Curry, since they hold the No. 4 pick in the first round. Or, they could make a run at the best linebacker in this year’s free-agent class — the Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs, although he’s a hybrid player whose talents are better suited to playing in a 3-4 defense. Of course, either of those moves come with the same problem they face in trying to retain Hill: paying one player, regardless of how talented he is, too much money at a position where they’ve already made significant financial commitments to Tatupu and Peterson.

WHAT THEY NEED: First, to find better and more innovative ways to use the talents of Tatupu and Peterson in a defense that Mora is saying will be more aggressive and attacking. Second, find a creative way to prevent Hill from getting away — like using the transition tag on him, but also countering the potential for a poison-pill clause that prevented the Seahawks from retaining All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson in ’06. Finally, have a salary cap-friendly alternative if Hill does leave.

– Clare Farnsworth

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