Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will be a free agent after the 2019 season and he’s issued an ultimatum to his franchise: either reach a new long-term contract by the end of April 15th, or Wilson will no longer be interested in signing with the Seahawks for the long-term.
There’s always a lot of bluster around contract negotiations, but what if this is the real deal There’s a chance that the Seahawks won’t reach a long-term deal with Wilson, according to Peter King in Football Morning in America. And it would shake the foundations and trajectory of the entire Seahawks franchise. Emphasis added.
Today’s a big day in the Pacific Northwest if you take Wilson and [Wilson’s agent Mark] Rodgers at their word, that—according to a source close to the talks—they say they won’t do a long-term deal with the Seahawks if it’s not done by tonight. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t mean they’d put off further talks on a new contract till 2020 if it’s not done by tonight. I meant Wilson and Rodgers don’t plan to negotiate further with the Seahawks, period. My source says they’ve told GM John Schneider it has to be done now, or not at all. [...]
If it does get done, my source says the contract would likely include devices to adjust future years of the deal based on how high the cap goes up year to year, or based on new revenue streams (gambling revenue, for example, or a TV contract that explodes). If it is not done, it means the Seahawks have determined Wilson isn’t worth setting such a precedent.
This means that the Seahawks could keep Wilson for future years if they’re willing to franchise him for multiple seasons in a row, but today is the final day to reach a long-term deal between the two parties.
Wilson wants a record- and norm-breaking contract from the Seahawks and, quite frankly, there’s no player more likely to receive such a deal over the next couple of seasons. Wilson is one of the five best quarterbacks in the league, a Super Bowl champion, and regularly carries the Seattle offense in ways that other less-mobile quarterbacks would not be able.
With the Chiefs and Texans still having three more years of control of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson respectively, and with Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Dak Prescott still having a lot to prove, and with the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and, uh, Eli Manning all in the last chapters of their careers (and, yes, all of these players could get new contracts after the 2019 season), Wilson finds himself in a unique scenario.
By age, the 30-year-old Wilson’s starting quarterback peers are Matthew Stafford (31), Andy Dalton (31), Kirk Cousins (31 in August), Nick Foles (30), Cam Newton (30 in May), Andrew Luck (30 in September), and Derek Carr (28). Of that group, Wilson earns more per year than only Dalton and Newton, and Wilson is joined by Cousins as the only two quarterbacks of that group outside of the top 10- and Cousins’ has a norm-breaking fully guaranteed contract with the Vikings.
By capability, none are in the same conversation as Wilson.
If any quarterback in the entire NFL is going to break the system for quarterback contracts over the next year, it’s going to be Wilson and Wilson alone.
So if Wilson were to receive a contract that provides him a certain percentage of the team’s salary cap, what would that look like? And how would that impact other quarterbacks around the league? And what would that mean for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, as Brady will be a free agent after the 2019 season.
Firstly, rooting a contract in a percentage of the cap is unprecedented, but also agnostic. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing for a team or a player since terms can always be modified. Perhaps Wilson would get a certain percentage of the cap for each game played, or a percentage of each statistical milestone. The only difference is the paperwork gives a percentage instead of a finalized figure.
And with the salary cap increasing each year (dating back to 2014, the salary cap has grown by a minimum of $10 million per year), and a new CBA likely to change the contract landscape, Wilson reasonably wants to be able to take a slice of that pie.
Where should Wilson start the negotiations? Well, let’s look at his last contract. Wilson signed a 4-year, $87.6 million extension with the Seahawks ahead of the 2015 season. The total salary cap over those four seasons from 2016-19 total $687.7 million. So Wilson’s contract over that span equaled 12.7% of the team’s salary cap. On a year-by-year basis, he’s accounted for 12.0%, 8.7%, 13.4%, and currently 13.3% of the salary cap.
I looked at the existing veteran contracts and found, based on imperfect math and projections for the salary cap, that only a few players exceed 14% of the cap: Aaron Rodgers (15.6%), Kirk Cousins (14.9%), and Matt Ryan (14.3%). Jimmy Garoppolo (13.8%), Matthew Stafford (13.6%), and Andrew Luck (13.1%) are good comparables, too. Drew Brees (13.7%) and Tom Brady (13.4%) are also in the 13+ club, but on short-term deals, while Joe Flacco (13.8%) is an albatross.
Why not just lock Wilson in for, say, an increased 14% of the salary cap for the next five years, with a portion of that 14% tied to a signing bonus and incentives like games played, accolades, and statistical production?
Other teams could also borrow this same model. All Pro caliber quarterbacks can get 14%, the remaining top 10 can get 13%, and the other franchise quarterbacks get 12%. This is a spectrum, of course, with lots of room for negotiation between those points.
Only four veteran quarterbacks fall below a projected 12%: Cam Newton at 11.7%; Alex Smith is at 11.5%; Nick Foles is at 10.8%; and Andy Dalton at 9.3%. This sounds about right.
It should be noted that there is not a great track record of postseason success among teams that invest a high percentage of their salary cap in their quarterback, although there’s always room to massage the cap to reduce the impact.
Dating back to 2011, the first year of the new CBA, there are four categories of quarterbacks to reach the final four (what I consider to be “postseason success”). There are players on rookie contracts, veterans on super cheap deals, veterans on super expensive deals, and Tom Brady.
There are 10 quarterbacks on cheap rookie deals, with Matt Ryan’s 2012 season an exception because his rookie deal pre-dated the new CBA, that account for less than 7% of the cap. These cheap rookies average 3.1% of the cap.
For the cheap veterans, there’s the 2011-12 49ers that had Alex Smith on a cheap veteran deal before yielding to Colin Kaepernick’s rookie deal; Carson Palmer with the 2015 Cardinals at 5.0%; there’s 2015 Cam Newton who was in the first year of his veteran contract at 8.7%; and there’s the 2017 Vikings with Sam Bradford and Case Keenum combining for 11.7% of the cap. This group averages out to 7.1% of the cap.
The eight veterans on expensive deals range from Eli Manning as 11.6% of the Giants’ cap in 2011 to Ben Roethlisberger getting 15.2% of the Steelers cap in 2016. This categories averages out to nearly 13% of the cap.
And then there’s Tom Brady, who has reached the postseason in every year of the new CBA, averaging 9.6% of the Patriots cap over these years. He’s been as cheap as 6.6% in 2012 and as expensive as 12.2% this past season, but the majority of his seasons are within spitting distance on 9.6%.
What does this mean? Teams can be successful with a wide variety of cap expenditures on quarterbacks, but only three of these 32 teams reached the final four spending more than 12.5% of their cap on the quarterback (2016 Steelers, 2016 Falcons, 2018 Saints). Only one team won the Super Bowl spending more than 12% of their quarterback (2018 Patriots).
If the Patriots and Brady are interested in reaching a long-term contract based on a percentage of the salary cap, then a nice 10% would make a lot of sense for both sides.
Because the biggest concern the Seahawks should have paying Wilson a percentage of the cap is not different from their concern if they paid him a fixed amount over the next five seasons.
The real concern is that investing so much cap space in a single player reduces the opportunity to bolster other positions on the roster and makes the team more reliant on a singular player. The best teams at the end of the year are the ones that are the healthiest, and there’s no reliable way to predict for injury- so building for depth is often the smartest option.
The Seahawks are in a tough place because a player like Wilson isn’t easily replaceable, but paying him his market value impacts how they can flesh out the rest of the roster. This is the problem that every team with a franchise quarterback has to face, unless that quarterback is willing to take less than market value, like Tom Brady in New England. This is the problem that makes dynasties in the NFL nearly impossible.
Wilson deserves a top five contract for his position, whether that’s through a percentage of the salary cap or a raw figure, like Matt Ryan’s $150 million. The Seahawks are also right to hesitate.
I expect the two sides to reach an agreement that doesn’t involve a percentage of the cap, but makes Wilson one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. It might be groundbreaking, but probably not in the way Wilson would have hoped.