We may look back on this time as a golden era of young general managers in the NFL. The trend of first-time GMs not only has grown in recent years, but with so many members of this wave distinguishing themselves, it's not hard to see why.
But as this offseason transitions from free agency to full-bore draft preparation, one of these young bucks continues to stand out. John Schneider might be the most aggressive general manager in the NFL, and, in my estimation, no one has done a better job evaluating talent and manipulating the draft, trades and free agency since he took over the Seahawks in 2010.
This past month was no different. I realize full well that dominating in March by no means ensures success come September. But when you consider how strong Seattle was before the 2013 league year began, then look at what Schneider has done the past four-plus weeks, how can you not express optimism about the short- and long-term future of the Seahawks?
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As I assess this stage of the offseason, Schneider remains in elite company as the rich continue to get richer. I'll take what the Seahawks, Patriots, Ravens and Falcons have done -- keeping key players, being bold when necessary and prudent to avoid the pitfalls of the initial rush of free-agent dollars -- over what most of the rest of the league had to offer. This is a good pre-draft time to reflect, because in reality the free-agent period is over.
Yes, veterans like Dwight Freeney and Richard Seymour and Brian Urlacher remain on the open market, but at this point it makes more sense for many older players to wait until closer to the start of camps, when injuries can cause need among contending teams, because the value contracts teams are tossing around won't be increasing. And guys like this have done their share of OTAs over the years. They won't need the longer integration period that youngsters require.
Rosters are about to be flush with college kids -- draftees and undrafted free agents alike -- and evaluating that talent becomes the top priority. Free-agent money is mostly spent and the fertile trading frenzy has subsided (though there will obviously be deals done around the draft and Darrelle Revis is still available should the Bucs -- or anyone -- be able to dangle enough to entice the Jets to trigger the transaction).
Sizing up Schneider's moves
So, here in early April, I challenge anyone to find a team that made better calculated moves than Seattle and Schneider. I am a huge Percy Harvin guy, and felt he could be an absolute difference-maker, particularly if a team with a dynamic quarterback like Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick landed him. Turns out Harvin can now line up alongside Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Yes, the price in terms of draft picks was high -- but Schneider also did well to recoup picks and clear up budget space by spinning backup quarterback Matt Flynn to Oakland -- and there was no way the Seahawks were going to get a talent anything close to what Harvin provides picking where they were in this draft.
I love the move, and while I understand Harvin has warts, I don't see him clashing with Pete Carroll or being a persistent problem child in Seattle. He's making what he's worth, he's content and has been migraine free for quite some time. His versatility and game-breaking skills at several receiver spots, running back and on special teams cannot be overstated.
Seattle also had a need at pass rusher and landed Cliff Avril -- another player just hitting his prime and perhaps the best rusher on the market -- at a bargain-basement rate. They added Michael Bennett for good measure on a prove-it deal, wisely allowing the market to set before wading in. All the while, I continue to hear edge rusher Chris Clemons is making great progress recovering from knee surgery. When you consider this team was looking Super Bowl-worthy already, plus all of Wilson's upside, a big tip of the cap to Schneider.
Ravens' Newsome did what he had to
Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome is at the other end of the spectrum, a grizzled, old-school GM. No one absorbed more abuse than he did as the Ravens overhauled their title-winning roster and bid adieu to one fan favorite after another. It was a painful purge in some ways, but one Newsome knew had to happen. It is difficult enough to try to repeat, moreso with an aging roster at key spots. Ray Lewis and Matt Birk retired. The Ravens, always excellent at self-scouting, wisely refused to overspend to keep younger starters like Paul Kruger, Cary Williams and Dannell Ellerbe. They dealt Anquan Boldin rather than pay him $6 million, released others for cap space and kept a hard line in spending on future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.
Overall, Newsome should be applauded. Baltimore's cap situation was tight. Plus, he already had executed the single most significant transaction of this entire offseason: keeping quarterback Joe Flacco for the next six years. With two young tight ends in need of new deals soon enough, and able to man the slot, paying Boldin that much money to be in essence a tight end (lack of speed and ability to separate have been telling at times the past few years) didn't make sense. It's a stance the Patriots adhered to wisely with Wes Welker (more on them coming up).
Newsome then waited for the market to set, finding bargains like he always does. Baltimore's defense was suspect last season, Lombardi Trophy or not, and the additions of Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears greatly bolsters the depth and production of the front seven. Newsome spent precious little to add Michael Huff to help fill some of the void at safety. The Ravens still could pick up left tackle Bryant McKinnie on the cheap again at some point and they are rich with draft selections (and few take better advantage of comp picks) with the draft approaching. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it's Newsome.
You know Belichick is on it
Ditto for Bill Belichick. I'll take a significantly younger Danny Amendola in the Welker role, on a contract that protects the Pats should he continue to be injury prone, rather than Welker on a year-to-year basis. They get top tackle Sebastian Vollmer back on the cheap, too, allowing that subdued OT market to hit home before retaining him. It was time to end the Brandon Lloyd experiment, at least at that price, and the Pats will use the Tom Brady cap savings (as big a move as the Ravens signing Flacco, but seems to get lost amid all of the free-agent signings) to extend their youngsters.
Falcons' Dimitroff gets it right
Former Belichick protégé Thomas Dimitroff got it right in Atlanta, too. The Falcons have been burned a few times by overspending in free agency, but prudence was the rule this offseason. Keeping William Moore and Sam Baker were big moves. While letting tackle Tyson Clabo go wasn't ideal, the reality is their quarterback is going to be asking for $22 million a season pretty soon, and getting Matt Ryan into a Flacco-type deal is the single biggest issue facing the organization. They need to be fully prepared contractually and from a budgetary standpoint.
I like the Steven Jackson signing -- a big upgrade over Michael Turner -- and they get younger, and cheaper, with the Osi Umenyiora-for-John Abraham pass rusher exchange. And getting arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history to put off retirement one more year and try to get your franchise a Lombardi is pretty significant as well. Tony Gonzalez is still a go-to guy for Ryan. (Also, former Dimitroff top aide Les Snead had another excellent start to the offseason himself in St. Louis, in what is shaping up to be a ridiculous division).
And now, your less-than-stellar movers
So, yeah, I'll take all of that stuff over the millions the Titans and Dolphins spent right off the bat. By and large, I don't believe that cash will change their status in the standings (and will probably hasten even more changes in those organizations come 2014). I'll take it over the Colts seeming too eager to throw money at players who have yet to truly stand out (though the progress of Andrew Luck and their stellar 2012 draft class figure to keep that team surging up the standings).
When December and January come around, I figure we're talking an awful lot more about Harvin and Avril and Flacco and Dumervil and Amendola and Gonzalez than we are about Mike Wallace, Andy Levitre or Ellerbe or Gosder Cherilus. And I bet it's not all that long until Schneider gets his first ring as a team architect, something Newsome and Belichick already know plenty about.