Percy Harvin: Risk, reward and implications

Percy Harvin was an MVP candidate with the Minnesota Vikings in mid-October, and then he was expendable five months later -- traded to the Seattle Seahawks at age 24.

The move made little sense on the surface. Teams generally do not trade uniquely talented players entering the primes of their careers.

There had to be more to this story, but how much more? How much risk did the Seahawks assume when they paid three draft choices to the Vikings and more than $25 million in guarantees to Harvin? Four days at the recent NFL owners meeting in Phoenix provided an opportunity to chase down answers. Not that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was much help.

"There are a lot of layers to this situation," Frazier said, "and one day, when [we] sit down and write this book, we'll divulge all the layers. But it's complicated."

The Seahawks have been much clearer about their motivations. They see Harvin as a unique talent and someone whose unrelenting competitiveness -- a source of trouble for Harvin, particularly in his youth -- mirrors the very essence of coach Pete Carroll's program. When they connected with Harvin over Skype immediately following the trade, the multidimensional receiver had a message for them: He couldn't wait to practice against a secondary featuring combative cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.

That kind of talk has obvious appeal for Carroll, who has made competition his mantra. But where the Seahawks see competitiveness, a general manager from another team saw risk.

"Harvin has been kicked out of programs his whole life," the GM said. "Not just in the NFL, but in high school and junior high. He has never proven to be sustainably coachable."

Harvin always had the talent. He won Virginia high school state championships in the long jump, triple jump, 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100-meter relay -- all in the same year. But his involvement in multiple heat-of-the-moment altercations led to repeated suspensions, an arrest and even his banishment from a high school sports league. A reported positive test for marijuana at the combine threw up another red flag.

Those incidents are ancient history. Harvin has never served an NFL suspension despite playing in an era when commissioner Roger Goodell has embraced a law-and-order approach to the role.

Harvin, drafted 22nd overall in 2009 after dominating at the University of Florida, has at times been as dynamic as any player in the NFL, scoring touchdowns as a receiver, runner and kickoff returner.

"The best all around player I ever seen or you'll ever see!" teammate and reigning MVP Adrian Peterson tweeted after the Vikings shipped Harvin to Seattle two weeks ago. "I feel like I just got kicked in the stomach."

Only injuries and spotty quarterback play have limited Harvin as a pro. But he was outspoken about his unhappiness in Minnesota last offseason. Reports of trade demands surfaced again more recently, strengthening perceptions of Harvin as difficult.

"I think that’s classic of a competitor that sometimes they push the limits," Carroll said. "You like that because that’s who they are. I don’t have any problem with that. I don’t have any problem with guys being highly, highly competitive. There’s an understanding that we had to come together on. We’ve already talked to Percy. I want him to be as competitive as he can be. We need to make sure it always helps our football team."

The teams drafting Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Aaron Maybin, Knowshon Moreno, Larry English and Robert Ayers ahead of Harvin would have been much better off selecting Harvin despite repeated warnings. The teams drafting those players never could have leveraged them into what the Vikings are getting from Seattle. Not even close.

Which leads back to the question at hand: How much risk is Seattle taking?

General managers polled at the NFL owners meeting raised a few concerns from a Seahawks perspective.

  • Financial risk: Committing $25 million guaranteed to an enigmatic, regularly injured player made some uncomfortable. The Vikings did not come right out and call Harvin uncoachable, but Frazier's comments certainly left that impression. Again, teams don't trade away supremely talented 24-year-old players without reason. The Seahawks are getting a player the Vikings couldn't manage. Not only that, they are empowering that player with all that guaranteed cash.

  • Questionable trade-off: Giving up premium draft choices was another issue for some. Seattle traded the 25th and 214th picks of the 2013 draft and a 2014 third-rounder to the Vikings. The players Seattle could have drafted in those slots would have played under team-friendly rookie contracts. For example, the deal Dont'a Hightower signed with the New England Patriots as the 25th pick in 2012 could count less than $8 million against the cap over its four-year life. Harvin's contract is scheduled to consume $67 million in salary-cap space over its life.

  • Locker-room implications: The Seahawks have a long list of young, talented players in line for new contracts over the next couple of years. They approach those negotiations having proved in spectacular fashion their willingness to pay absolute top dollar for a player who has never scored a touchdown or made a tackle for them. While it's debatable whether Seattle could have gotten hometown discounts from Kam Chancellor, Sherman, Earl Thomas or the others, they can forget about it now.

The Seahawks can answer the concerns pretty convincingly.

Carroll's ability to reach players is arguably unsurpassed in the NFL. Not many coaches could pull off piping hip-hop music into practices without coming off as phony, but Carroll does that and more. He is the antithesis in style and probably substance to Brad Childress, the uptight former Vikings coach. And with Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell signing off enthusiastically on the trade after coaching Harvin in Minnesota, the Seahawks proceeded without the reservations some teams would have brought to the deal.

"Darrell had a great relationship with Percy that I found out, after talking with Percy, was reciprocated," Carroll said. "They worked together really well. He raved about his competitiveness, raved about his work ethic, raved about his talent. It was just total positive, supportive perspective from Darrell on him. The best perspective that we could have called on was what Darrell told me. That cemented the idea, 'Let’s go for it.'"

The Seahawks, unlike the Vikings, also have a dynamic young quarterback to keep Harvin happy. Harvin flourished when Brett Favre was the Vikings' quarterback. Russell Wilson arrives at Seahawks headquarters around 6 a.m. during the offseason, demonstrating a competitive will that Harvin has said intrigued him.

"It just resonated with Percy," Carroll said.

Giving up high draft picks for the right to overpay a veteran prospect goes against what the Seahawks and most teams believe in philosophically. Seattle obviously felt as though the 25th pick in the draft wasn't likely to return a player with nearly the dynamism Harvin will offer from the beginning. The 2014 third-round pick that was part of the deal represents what Seattle would pay to move up five or six slots in the first round this year.

I was most interested in the potential fallout with Chancellor, Sherman, Thomas and the Seahawks' other Pro Bowl-caliber players working under cheap rookie deals. All will presumably welcome adding to their roster a playmaker with Harvin's credentials, but the dollar signs in their eyes had to grow in size as well.

"We are taking care of all of our guys, every single one of our guys," Carroll said. "We're working Kam right now and we're going to continue to work our guys."

Chancellor is scheduled to earn $1.3 million in 2013, the final year of his contract. Receiver Golden Tate is also scheduled for free agency in a year. Thomas and Sherman are signed through 2014. They're like planes circling over an airport, each eager to land a big-money deal.

One rival coach downplayed the consequences a Harvin-type contract will have in a locker room.

"Players understand the business side of the game," the St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher said. "The business side always sorts itself out. Guys go into that last year and tend to pick it up.

"Those things aren't a distraction. Maybe they are discussed off-campus, but not in a locker room."

The Seahawks' ongoing negotiations with Chancellor provide one test case. Recent history suggests Seattle could have other options as well. Chancellor was a fifth-round pick. So was Sherman. The Seahawks have a couple of fifth-round choices in the 2013 draft. Continuing to draft well would remove pressure from negotiations.

"We're not going to pay guys ahead of [schedule] just because we're working with their contracts," Carroll said, "but we know as our guys come up, those are all managed for the future and we have a big plan for all that.

"[GM] John [Schneider] has worked hard at it. And because we have worked so hard at it, we were in position where we had free-agency money to spend and hopefully we will continue to be able to manage it in that fashion."