Draft finally over, but work remains

RENTON – You come away from draft weekend asking one question first: How much better has a team made itself?

With the Seattle Seahawks, it seems that the degree is yet to be determined.

They’ve now added the NFL draft to their free-agency shopping, but there is more work ahead, and a large part of it is figuring out how linebacker Leroy Hill and his contract fit into their future.

General manager Tim Ruskell explained Sunday evening that taking the “franchise” tag off Hill – allowing him to become a free agent – didn’t mean they weren’t still hoping to sign him to a long-term deal.

“It gave us flexibility; it gave us options,” Ruskell said.

Options? Well, if they lose Hill, they’ll have that $8.3 million salary to spread around.

“There are a couple key (free agent) targets in our mind,” Ruskell said.

One of the most logical would be 14-year veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks, who was waived by Tampa Bay after his 11th Pro Bowl. Brooks goes back with Ruskell, and although 36, he could be a nice fit to come in for a season or two and teach top draft pick Aaron Curry the right approach to playing linebacker in the NFL.

Cornerback Ken Lucas, a former Seahawks draft pick, was cut by Carolina for salary-cap reasons. He’s got a bigger frame and more experience than Josh Wilson and Kelly Jennings, who could operate at corner along with veteran Marcus Trufant.

Fullback Justin Griffith, who was cut by Oakland, is another available free agent with ties to head coach Jim Mora and Ruskell (in Atlanta), and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (with the Raiders).

Ruskell and Mora didn’t close the door on trying to keep Hill. Even the biggest Hill supporters would have a hard time viewing him as worth more than $8 million a year that the franchise tag required. Hill reportedly turned down the Seahawks’ offer of $36 million over six seasons.

Risking the loss of Hill was made an option when the Seahawks drafted Curry with the fourth overall pick on Saturday. With the kind of money he’ll be paid, Curry will be expected to become one of the best the Seahawks have had at that position.

With the second pick, they got what might be a steal in Oregon center Max Unger, a versatile and talented lineman who could threaten to start at center or guard this season.

On top of that, they shuffled things around to end up with an extra first-round pick next season.

Predraft free-agent acquisitions had set them up well after they added a top receiver (T.J. Houshmandzadeh) and some talent on the defensive front (Colin Cole and Cory Redding).

But the Hill situation prompts questions and scrutiny.

Maybe he wasn’t worth the money, but he was a talented linebacker on a defense that finished 30th in the NFL. It would be hard to expect a rookie linebacker, even one such as Curry, to step in and account for a major reversal.

The highlight of the second day was the trading up to get Penn State receiver Deon Butler in the third round. Butler broke the school receiving record set by former Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram. He has rare sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, but weighs a wispy 182.

In the big picture, the work of surgeons alone should make the 2009 Seahawks better than the 2008 version that finished 4-12. The healing of 14 players who ended up on the injured-reserve list presumably will provide an important boost in available talent.

Every draft is important to a team. But this seems especially so for Seattle.

Yes, there have been injuries and it’s a short window, but of the 21 players picked by the Seahawks in the past three drafts, how many have proven themselves as big-time, 16-game starters?

Not many.

I’d offer that it would only be two certainties: tight end John Carlson and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. It’s not the only way to build a team, of course, and others are on the rise and developing.

But with such a high pick this draft, the Seahawks need to hit this one right.

And even then, there’s a lot of work remaining.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440