Tip O’ the Salary Cap: What to Do About Russell Wilson?

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After three seasons of unprecedented success together, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken. The fourth-year quarterback’s contract negotiations have made the leap from private and pleasant to public and contentious. It’s still difficult to imagine Wilson wearing another team’s uniform in 2016, but there have been enough public statements and leaked messaging — particularly from Wilson’s side — to suggest that an agreement isn’t the inevitability it seemed a few months ago. It’s a discussion that raises all kinds of questions about Wilson, his value to the team, and what kind of organization the Seahawks intend to be in the years to come.

There’s one thing all parties involved can agree upon: Wilson is due for a raise. Seattle’s star quarterback wasn’t at the top of the Trade Value columns I put together in 2013 and 2014 by accident. He hasn’t just been a bargain relative to other quarterbacks; he’s even been a bargain relative to other quarterbacks on rookie deals, as Wilson’s cap hit has amounted to 13.5 percent of Andrew Luck’s cap hit over the last three seasons. Swap out Luck for a veteran like Philip Rivers and that figure falls below 5 percent.

Wilson’s cumulative QBR since entering the league in 2012, 64.6, amounts to the seventh-best figure during that time frame. Compare Wilson to the quarterbacks within four spots of him — the guys ranked third through 11th — and the difference in compensation is staggering.

The only similar player who has been remotely as cheap as Wilson is his most notable rival, Colin Kaepernick, whose cap hit rises from $3.8 million to $15.3 million this season.1 And even Kaepernick was taking up more than three times as much cap space2 as his NFC West counterpart. Wilson, whose cap hit doubles from $817,302 in 2014 to a whopping $1,696,868 in 2015, has been a remarkable bargain for the last three seasons. But you already knew that.

Figuring out how much of a raise Wilson deserves is the problem. One leak out of the negotiations suggests that Wilson wants to become the highest-paid player in football. The man himself casually threw out a number last week, suggesting he would be happy to play for the Seahawks, regardless of whether he makes $25 million or $1.5 million. The second figure is close enough to what Wilson will make in 2015; the first would make him the second-highest-paid player in the league.

Both sides hold some leverage and have various arguments in their favor, although not to the same extent that I think they might believe. Let’s take each side of the debate, examine their negotiating positions, and see if we can come to a reasonable compromise.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Seattle SeahawksTom Pennington/Getty Images

Wilson’s Side

You can understand why it’s so important for Wilson to get paid. Imagine if you spent three years doing your job really well and constantly heard how underpaid you were without any recourse to getting a raise. Then imagine just about every other underpaid person you work with getting massive salary bumps before you. Oh, and pretend your job is incredibly dangerous and that you could lose the path you have to making life-changing money at just about any time. It’s no surprise Wilson took out a massive insurance policy for 2015. Even if he can’t come to a long-term agreement with the Seahawks and the team franchises him, Wilson’s salary would go from $1.5 million in 2015 to somewhere around $22.5 million in 2016. With an extension and a massive signing bonus, Wilson could double that figure.

At the moment, there are two types of quarterback contract extensions in the NFL. The first is the familiar full-ride, massive-signing-bonus deal given to the guys who aren’t ever going to be allowed to leave town. They last five or six years and they go to quarterbacks who are realistically expected to play those deals out, like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and more recently Cam Newton, who got a Ryanesque deal with the Panthers.

The second, which I wrote a bit about last year, is the sort of year-by-year deal given to the likes of Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Kaepernick, and Ryan Tannehill. It’s better to think of them as wait-and-see contracts; they’re deals with smaller signing bonuses and guaranteed base salaries over a two- or three-year stretch before a series of unguaranteed team options. If the quarterback further develops into a superstar, he gets a massive amount of money; if he fails to launch, the team can get out of the deal after two or three years with a clean cap.

Even if you assume Wilson isn’t insisting upon being paid more than every quarterback except Drew Brees — that he’s using the $25 million figure as a baseline for negotiations — it’s pretty clear he wants the first sort of contract, the “true” franchise quarterback deal. He and agent Mark Rodgers just have to convince the Seahawks that he’s worth the full sticker price.

Rodgers represents an interesting third party in this discussion, even more so than a typical NFL agent. While he has dipped his toes in the NFL water before, the Florida-based attorney moved on from representing football clients in favor of focusing on baseball, even dropping his NFL certification in 2012. Wilson retained Rodgers during his foray into professional baseball, and while longtime agent Bus Cook represented Wilson during the simple post–NFL draft negotiation of Wilson’s rookie deal, Rodgers is the man behind Wilson as he approaches this far more difficult negotiation. As far as I can tell, Wilson is Rodgers’s only active NFL client.

Andrew Brandt, a former NFL executive and former agent, theorized for Sports Illustrated that Rodgers is approaching this with the perspective of a baseball agent who might be more comfortable allowing his player to hit the free-agent market, which is an interesting argument. Baseball contracts, of course, are markedly different from NFL deals in that they are almost always fully guaranteed.

More subtly, there’s the angle of creating and exploiting leverage that Rodgers has to hit just right. Crucially, there’s no franchise tag in baseball, and while Rodgers obviously knows that, it’s hard to underestimate just how critical of a driver that can be for teams getting desperate around the end of players’ contracts. If Wilson were an ace pitcher entering the final year of his contract for the Mariners, they would have little recourse to signing him if they weren’t able to come to terms on an extension before Wilson hit the market. As a quarterback, the franchise tag could keep Wilson in Seattle for at least one more season beyond the end of his deal, if not two.3 That drastically changes the Seahawks’ timeline in making a deal.

Speaking of baseball, there is one facet of Wilson’s negotiating stance that doesn’t pass muster: the idea that he might be about to change sports. Wilson was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies, and his rights are owned by the Texas Rangers, who have brought Wilson to spring training the past few years. Wilson suggested that the Rangers want him to play baseball, and suggested that he would consider playing both sports if it were feasible.

The problem, as FanGraphs’s Chris Mitchell noted in April, is that Wilson isn’t a realistic baseball prospect. He wasn’t an effective hitter during his two years in A-ball, combining an extraordinary strikeout rate with below-average power. Wilson had to ride a .380 BABIP during his final season in A-ball to get to a .228/.366/.342 line.

And of course, that was when he was 21 and 22, roughly the league-average age for the levels in question. Now, Wilson is 26 and hasn’t played baseball in four years. I understand that Wilson has basically made a career out of proving doubters wrong. If I were Wilson, I would get out of bed every day and assume I could fly until proved otherwise. But doubting Wilson as an NFL prospect after he was incredible at the highest possible level before turning pro is one thing. Wilson wasn’t even an average performer three levels below the major leagues as a baseball player. As a FanGraphs commenter put it, his stats look closer to Michael Jordan than Brian Jordan.

Getting beyond the unlikely path of a baseball career, Rodgers reduced the argument he’s making with the Seahawks to one simple consideration. “In baseball, there are so many numbers that really define the player to the minutest detail. In football, it’s a little simpler,” Rodgers said. “I don’t have to argue statistics with the Seattle Seahawks on the value of Russell Wilson. In football, the most important stat to me has always been ‘Does he win?’ It’s hard to argue that Russell Wilson doesn’t win.” I’m sure Rodgers knows that analytics also exist for football, but he’s right to say that they’re far more valuable — and far more commonly used among the people negotiating deals — in baseball.

He’s also right that Wilson is a winner. I’m just not sure if that’s enough of an argument on its own to justify a massive extension. Wilson has won a record 36 games over his first three professional seasons, three more than any other quarterback since 1920. The only quarterbacks with a higher winning percentage over their first three seasons (minimum 20 wins and 1,000 passes) than Wilson’s .750 mark are Dan Marino and Jay Schroeder. You wouldn’t ever have argued that the Dolphins should have moved on from Marino after his first three incredible seasons, and I certainly won’t, but something interesting happened after those first three years: That winning touch went away for a bit, and he wasn’t the only one. Of quarterbacks with at least six seasons played,4 here are the 15 with the highest win percentage in their first three seasons:

On average, these quarterbacks saw their teams lose about 1.5 more games per 16-game season during seasons 4-6 than they did during seasons 1-3. And while I’m sure you’re saying that Wilson is probably more like Tom Brady than he is, say, Neil O’Donnell, remember that Rodgers’s argument wasn’t about performance, merely wins. And if you consider these quarterbacks entirely as a function of winning, they weren’t able to keep up their impressive pace for their subsequent three seasons. In reality, it’s not Wilson who wins. It’s the Seattle Seahawks who win. Wilson is some indeterminate percentage of those victories, naturally more valuable in some games than others. (Hi, 2014 NFC Conference Championship!)

If there’s a statistics-free argument to be made about Wilson, I’m not sure the best one is simple wins and losses. Shouldn’t it revolve around the utter lack of a supporting cast around Seattle’s star quarterback? The only time Wilson’s really had a healthy, effective offense around him was 2012, when 10 of Seattle’s 11 offensive starters made it into 15 games or more, with only left guard as a problem spot during the regular season.

As Wilson has grown, he has not received much help. His two star linemen (Russell Okung and the now-traded Max Unger) each missed half of a season, Okung in 2013, Unger in 2014. Percy Harvin missed virtually the entire 2013 season before being jettisoned early in 2014. Sidney Rice tore his ACL in 2013 before being cut. Golden Tate left in free agency. 2014 second-rounder Paul Richardson spent most of his time as a reserve deep threat before tearing his ACL. Tight end Zach Miller missed nearly the entire 2014 campaign and was also cut this offseason. His replacement was a fifth-rounder, Luke Willson.

Wilson’s most targeted receivers over the last two seasons (including the playoffs) have been a pair of undrafted free agents, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. His top receiver in the Super Bowl was undrafted rookie Chris Matthews, who had never caught an NFL pass before torching Kyle Arrington. That fateful interception was intended for another undrafted free agent, Ricardo Lockette. Outside of Marshawn Lynch, Wilson didn’t throw a single pass in the Super Bowl to a player who had been considered worthy of a draft pick by an NFL team.

Sure, things will be different this year, now that Jimmy Graham is in the fold. And Wilson had the luxury of playing next to a healthy Lynch for the past three seasons. But if we’re trying to evaluate what Wilson has been able to do in the context of how Seattle has played up to now in an attempt to establish his value, doesn’t it matter that he’s managed to spend the bulk of his time — especially in the Super Bowl — throwing to one of the least-pedigreed receiving corps in football?

The reality is that Wilson is always going to be difficult to judge because so much of what he does is unlike any other quarterback. Take the simple fact that he extends broken plays where nobody is open more than anybody else. Wilson has thrown 112 passes after five or more seconds have elapsed from the snap over the last three seasons. The only other guy who has done that more than 70 times is Aaron Rodgers (86), and while Wilson is only seventh in QBR on those throws, think about who he’s throwing to in those broken situations and who Rodgers is targeting. We have no idea what Wilson would do with better receivers, and we have no idea how replaceable Wilson might be in Seattle’s offense. That should give any notion that the Seahawks can move on from their young starter significant pause.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Seattle SeahawksTom Pennington/Getty Images

Seattle’s Side

About 95 percent of NFL teams wouldn’t credibly be able to claim for a single second that they would be able to move on from Wilson after three (or more likely four) seasons at quarterback. Teams simply spend too much time trying to find a franchise quarterback to either trade or let one leave in the prime of his career. Regardless of salary demands, organizations find a way to keep their quarterbacks around, even if it means letting a key player at another position leave.

The arguments I’ve seen bandied about that would justify Seattle as one of the few franchises that could make this sort of move revolve around a couple of ideas, and I’m not sure either really makes sense. There’s the premise the Seahawks are built around their defense and don’t need a great quarterback to win, followed by the idea that the organizational model under which general manager John Schneider is operating relies on a relatively cheap weapon under center. I can’t reject both out of hand, but I’m not sure either represents what the Seahawks are doing in 2015.

Start with that idea about the Seattle model, because perception of how it has chosen to build its football team is lagging behind reality. The Seahawks of 2015 are very different from the team Wilson joined when he arrived in the spring of 2012.

That edition of the Seahawks didn’t just have Wilson on the books for cheap (a cap hit of $544,868). It had Earl Thomas ($1,848,215), Richard Sherman ($510,606), Bobby Wagner ($783,236), Kam Chancellor ($593,402), and Brandon Browner ($465,000) all making peanuts. Its largest cap hold was for a guy who wasn’t on the roster: Aaron Curry, who was responsible for $10.6 million in dead money after being dumped on the Raiders. Backup cornerback Marcus Trufant, who was responsible for $5.6 million in dead money in addition to $1.3 million in, well, “live” money after returning to the team, joined Okung, Rice, and Miller in the top five. Even if you wanted to plan around building with cheap, young talent, that’s insane. We may never see a cap situation like that again.

Seattle’s cap holds have shifted around over the ensuing seasons; now, besides Wilson and Wagner, the players at the top of their cap sheet are the team’s stars. The three holdovers in the Legion of Boom, who accounted for just 2.4 percent of Seattle’s cap in 2012, are now responsible for 17.0 percent of the cap in 2015. Seattle’s 15 most expensive active players accounted for only 55.2 percent of its cap in 2012; now, that figure is up to 63.8 percent, and it will grow only higher after the Wagner and/or Wilson deals finish. The 2015 Seahawks are more like the Peyton Manning–era Colts, who built around a few key stars and trusted their ability to draft and develop players at nonessential positions, than they are the 2012 Seahawks.

There’s another reason why they aren’t like the 2012 Seahawks: They simply aren’t drafting enough to make that comparison work. Schneider’s third draft at the helm was in 2012, and even if first-rounder Bruce Irvin hasn’t developed into the Aldon Smith clone the Seahawks were hoping to nab, grabbing Wagner and Wilson in the second and third rounds is enough to produce a Hall of Fame–caliber draft class.

Three years later, Irvin is the last first-round pick Schneider has made. He traded away his first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 in deals for Harvin and Graham, respectively, while trading down in 2014 as part of the deal that landed Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota. While Schneider traded down several times in 2014, he used the equivalent of a first-rounder’s worth of late picks in 2015 to move up and grab Kansas State wide receiver/returner Tyler Lockett in the third round.

Given the combination of those trades and the move down in draft order that came with Seattle’s on-field success, you can see that Schneider simply hasn’t had much draft capital make its way onto the Seahawks roster in recent years. Here’s where they ranked in terms of draft value (per Chase Stuart’s model) spent on picks over Schneider’s six-year run:

You can win with a star-heavy approach, but if you don’t have draft picks filling in those spots on the bottom of the roster, you’re stuck with street free agents and replacement-level talent playing meaningful roles. I have a lot of faith in Schneider’s ability to spot talent relative to other general managers, but there’s only so much you can do when you don’t have the picks to find cheap talent. In other words, it’s how you end up with Lockette needing to make a Super Bowl–winning catch.

The other issue in building around a cheap quarterback is that it’s awful difficult to find a cheap quarterback who is any good unless you have a top-five pick in a draft that happens to be full of quarterbacks. Again, while Schneider and Pete Carroll deserve tons of credit for drafting and developing Wilson into a star QB, their taste in passers has not always been so impressive. One of the first moves the duo made after arriving in Seattle was for Charlie Whitehurst, giving up what amounted to a second-rounder while immediately signing Whitehurst to a contract extension.

After Whitehurst failed, the Seahawks went with a stopgap in Tarvaris Jackson before signing Packers backup Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million deal to serve as their starter. Flynn lost the training camp battle to Wilson. And really, it’s hard to say the Seahawks really thought that Wilson was going to turn into the player he’s become; I’m all for finding value in the draft, but if the Seahawks thought Wilson was a franchise quarterback, they would have taken him in the first round, regardless of whether they felt he would be around in the third. I don’t want to discount what they did by drafting Wilson, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that again if they move on from their current starter.

It’s just impossible to repeatedly cycle through talent at quarterback and expect to come away with a superstar each time. There’s one position where Seattle could have expected to get outlandish returns on modest investments, and that’s no longer possible. As I’ve mentioned many times, Carroll may very well be one of the best defensive backs coaches in football, and it’s no coincidence that he managed to mold a secondary with one highly pedigreed talent (Thomas), a pair of late-round picks (Sherman and Chancellor), and a CFL refugee (Browner) into a legendary foursome.

There’s no replacing Thomas, and I don’t think Carroll could have turned any fifth-round pick into the league’s best cornerback as he did with Sherman, but if Seattle wanted to try to repeatedly develop above-average talent with midround picks at one position, it probably should have been in the secondary. Not only can it no longer do that after signing Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor to extensions, but it even filled the final vacancy with an expensive veteran by replacing the departed Byron Maxwell (a sixth-rounder who replaced Browner comfortably) with Cary Williams. Seattle’s secondary is great, but the team might have been able to get 90 percent of its performance at 20 cents on the dollar with Carroll around.

The Seahawks can’t make that same exchange at quarterback. Even if Schneider and Carroll fall in love with one of the top quarterbacks in this upcoming draft class and deal Wilson for the first overall selection, they’ll have to hope that the same instincts that led them to Wilson win out over the ones that made Whitehurst and Flynn seem like good ideas. It’s an enormous amount of uncertainty in a league that dreads that in the quarterback position so much that it gives retreads like Matt Cassel and Chad Henne millions of dollars to serve as backups, even if their teams would have virtually no shot of competing if they ever had to step in and play.

There’s no reason for Seattle to embrace that uncertainty. And if it does lose Wilson and come away with a middling quarterback, it probably isn’t going to be good enough to compete at the highest level. We have about one full season of data to look at as a measure of how this Seahawks team played when it combined a great defense and middling work at quarterback.

Seattle’s pass defense drastically improved during the 2011 campaign; it ranked 22nd in DVOA during weeks 1-9 before improving to second during weeks 10-17, and it hasn’t let up since. We can combine that with the first half of the 2012 campaign, during which Wilson struggled to find his mark within the Seattle offense and adjust to the pro game. Wilson was 13th in QBR during the first eight weeks of his rookie campaign; afterward, his 84.2 mark was second to Peyton Manning’s 84.8, with nobody else above 74.9.

That’s a full season with a dominant defense and inconsistent quarterback play. Over those 16 games, the Seahawks went 9-7. They did outscore their opposition by 75 points over that time frame, producing the Pythagorean expectation of a 10.3-win team, but that’s still a step down from what they’ve done since the light turned on for Wilson. In the 40 ensuing games, the Seahawks were 32-8, and they outscored their opposition by 195 points per 16 games, making them the Pythagorean equivalent of a 12.8-win team. They would be good with a mediocre quarterback. They’ve only been great with Wilson.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Seattle SeahawksRonald Martinez/Getty Images

The Compromise

That’s why my best guess is that these contract negotiations will end up heading in Wilson’s favor, albeit not to the tune of $25 million per year. Reports have suggested that Wilson could seek a fully or mostly guaranteed contract in an attempt to set precedent, which fits Schneider’s acknowledged preference for shorter extensions, as witnessed by the four-year pacts signed by Sherman and Thomas.

Wilson is more likely to receive a five-year deal, and it seems logical to use the five-year contract extension recently inked by Newton as a baseline. Like Wilson, Newton has been forced to produce without much in the way of offensive help, although Newton’s problems have been more with his offensive line. A reasonable chunk of Newton’s value, like Wilson’s, also comes as a runner. Wilson has been more productive across the board than Newton, and while Cam deserves a lot of credit for winning with a flawed team, Wilson has won far more than Newton has as a pro.

Newton’s contract pays him $68 million over its first three seasons, the 2016-18 campaigns. There are various permutations of how Seattle might structure a Wilson extension,5 but my guess is that he will end up re-signing with a deal that exceeds $70 million in new money — without making it to $75 million — over those first three years. Would Seattle really move on to an uncertain future under center over what amounts to a few million dollars over four or five years?

The other reason I can’t fathom the Seahawks moving on from Wilson is that they’ve been preparing for this moment for the last two seasons. The decision to get rid of Harvin early last year unquestionably had something to do with clearing out cap space in the seasons to come for Wilson’s extension. The team wouldn’t have traded Harvin if there weren’t on-field issues, but by making the change before the 2015 season, the Seahawks were able to ensure that the brunt of the financial burden of the Harvin deal would fall before they had to pay Wilson. Seattle will have $7.2 million in dead money for Harvin on its cap this season, but it’s free of any Harvin penalties in 2016 and beyond.

And Harvin is not the only one. The long-term extensions given to Sherman and Thomas can be easily restructured in 2016 and 2017 to create immediate cap space. Cliff Avril’s deal has no guaranteed money after 2016. Michael Bennett has no guaranteed money after this season, which is one of the reasons why he’s been angling for a new contract after 12 months. The same is true for Graham, and while the Seahawks aren’t likely to move on from their new receiver after one season (again), they could give Graham a new extension to create easy cap space.

There will be consequences for the Seahawks, of course; it’s nearly impossible to have as deep of a team as they’ve had in years past with this many players at the top of their roster getting paid significant sums of money. Given how dramatically the team improved after Wagner returned from injury in Week 12 last year, it seems likely that Seattle will give him an extension making him something close to the highest-paid middle linebacker in football.

That leaves little in the way of wriggle room for the rest of Seattle’s 2016 free-agent class. Irvin is as good as gone. Three-quarters of the team’s defensive tackle rotation — Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, and Ahtyba Rubin — will be on the way out. The team will probably need to cut bait on veterans Steven Hauschka and Baldwin, which would combine to clear nearly $7 million in cap space. And incredibly named guard J.R. Sweezy is one of two starting offensive linemen whose contracts will be due, with the other lineman looming as a far more meaningful loss.

Okung’s six-year, $48.5 million rookie contract expires at the end of this season, and given the sheer amount of money Schneider is going to commit elsewhere over the next 12 months, there doesn’t appear to be much space left for paying the team’s Pro Bowl left tackle. It’s not a good sign for his future with the team that Okung hasn’t already signed an extension, and if he hits the free-agent market, Seattle will likely be priced out of a deal. The left tackle market is set to be relatively loaded, with Trent Williams, Nate Solder, Anthony Castonzo, and Andrew Whitworth due to become free agents, but too many teams need tackles to let Okung slip back to Seattle on a below-market deal.

My best guess is that the Seahawks can sign only two of their big three 2016 free agents to extensions. Of the three, they’re probably right to move on from Okung, even given the relative positional scarcity of a left tackle, because Okung hasn’t played at as dominant of a level as Wagner and is yet to complete a single 16-game season. I could even understand re-signing Okung and letting Wagner leave, given how much Seattle has already invested on the defensive side and how frequently quality middle linebackers can fall to the second and third rounds on draft day. With Wilson, though, both sides simply have too much to lose by parting ways.

Filed Under: NFL, Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell