This time last year here, John Schneider was in limbo as much as he was in Indiana.
Now, the Seahawks’ general manager is at the NFL’s annual scouting combine holding a first-round pick for the first time since 2012 — No. 26 overall — and in a position of power.
Buying power, specifically, at this time of the league year.
It’s yet another reason for Seattle to thank Marshawn Lynch.
The franchise’s lead running back and cornerstone of toughness and swag since 2010 did the Seahawks a favor by declaring he was retiring two weeks before the combine, rather than leaving the team waiting into the summer to learn his plans as he’d done the previous two offseasons.
“Marshawn helped us change the culture of our organization,” Schneider said Wednesday, Seattle’s first full day of interviews with college prospects and agents for available veterans. “So yeah, he definitely helped us doing it when he did it, in terms of being able to move forward and project for the season … how we can plan.”
Schneider and the Seahawks know they have an extra $6.5 million freed up under the 2016 salary cap because of Lynch’s retirement. That money is going to come in handy in the next month, and into the summer, given the GM’s news Wednesday:
▪ Linebacker Bruce Irvin knows the Seahawks are either going to be able to work out a mutually beneficial financial arrangement or — as seems more likely — the team and its top draft choice from 2012 will part ways amicably during free agency, which starts March 9.
▪ There’s no reason for Seattle to doubt running back Thomas Rawls will return from a broken ankle and torn ligaments in time for the start of the 2016 season. Yet the Seahawks are not going to anoint Rawls as Lynch’s full-time replacement — not yet. Not before bringing in more running backs to compete with him.
▪ Tight end Jimmy Graham is “doing great” in his rehabilitation from patellar tendon knee surgery Dec. 2, but the team does not yet know when he will return. Graham has two non-guaranteed years remaining on his $40 million contract the Seahawks inherited from New Orleans in their splashy trade 11 months ago. That deal cost Seattle its first-round draft choice for 2015.
Schneider has talked one-on-one with Irvin, who said the day after the team’s playoff loss at Carolina last month that he’d be willing to take below market value in free agency to stay with the Seahawks.
Minutes after that loss to the Panthers, Irvin said he will always appreciate Schneider and coach Pete Carroll for drafting him 15th overall out of West Virginia in 2012 and making him an every-down linebacker. Many others in the league saw him as a pass-rush-only guy with a checkered background worthy of a far lower draft choice.
Pass rushing has become the second-most valuable commodity in the pass-happy, blitz-heavy NFL behind top-level quarterbacking. So even though Irvin has gone from eight sacks his rookie season to two, 6 1/2 and 5 1/2 sacks the past three seasons, the unrestricted free agent-to-be could command a contract Seattle can’t afford.
The Seahawks have pressing needs on the offensive line and at defensive tackle this offseason.
“I love Bruce,” Schneider said. “It really, truly is a big puzzle we have to work through.
“I’ve met with Bruce individually. He knows how we feel about him as an organization. He knows that we are either going to be able to make it work — or we are just going to give him a big hug and congratulate him (on getting a rich deal elsewhere).
“That’s just the way this league is right now.”
Seattle has 18 free agents. Schneider said he’s also talked with another big unrestricted free agent, Russell Okung. He is recovering from shoulder surgery while representing himself without an agent.
The GM called those talks “a little odd. It can be a little awkward.”
Left tackle is another premium position, and the Seahawks seem destined to lose Okung to a higher bidder, too. Re-signing free agent J.R. Sweezy at the less-expensive position of right guard seems to be more of a priority this offseason.
“We’d love to have all of our guys back. Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to have them all back,” Schneider said. “We have to set up a pecking order.”
On Nov. 29 against Pittsburgh, Graham tore the patellar tendon in his right knee, a relatively rare injury compared with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Asked whether it is realistic to expect Graham back for the start of training camp at the end of July, or at least for the start of the 2016 regular season in early September, Schneider smiled.
“Uh … on Feb. 24? Uh … ,” the GM said, rolling his eyes and shrugging.
“I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. It was a very significant injury.”
Schneider was more bullish on Rawls returning for the start of next season. The GM said there is no reason, “not at this point,” for the team to think that its breakout star as an undrafted rookie last season won’t be ready for next season’s first game. He got hurt Dec. 13 at Baltimore.
“He’s doing a great job, working his tail off,” Schneider said.
The GM noted what a great mentor Rawls had in Lynch.
“I know he is attacking his rehab, just as Marshawn would if he was in that situation,” Schneider said.
But Schneider and the Seahawks aren’t going to proclaim Rawls as Lynch’s replacement as the lead back 6 1/2 months before the opener.
“We look at it like we’re going to try to add as many guys to that position as we can, much like we are (on the) offensive line. … We’re just going to keep bringing in as many guys as we possibly can,” Schneider said. “You hear me talk about being in as many deals as we possibly can. … It’s just an avenue of acquisition.”
As it always is for him and Carroll as they follow their Seahawks’ credo: “Always compete.”
This offseason, in competing with other teams to acquire talent, they are better positioned to do that.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle