The $13.5 million deal started going down early Wednesday afternoon. Jermaine Kearse got a call that prompted him to uncharacteristically cancel an appearance at a robotics event for grade-school-aged kids and up at Graham-Kapowsin High School.
The moment was finally at hand, the one for which Kearse had been playing football since he was growing up in Lakewood and his dad was an Army sergeant at Fort Lewis. And for which he starred for coach Dave Miller at Lakes High School in the 2000s and then at the University of Washington. Kearse was on the cusp of signing his second NFL contract, the big-money one for which anyone who wears a helmet and shoulder pads aspires.
Yet Kearse’s conscience bothered him about missing the robotics event in his native Pierce County. So he called a teacher who’d led the kids to the event.
“We’ve got some pretty resilient kids here who miss you,” the surprised teacher said on speakerphone to Kearse.
She passed her cellphone around a semicircle of giddy, even-more-surprised kids seated on a floor in the high school. One boy was wearing a blue Seahawks game jersey with “Kearse, 15” on the back.
“Where did you go?” the boy asked almost in a whisper, gasping that he was speaking to his hero.
“I wish I could be with you guys,” Kearse replied to him and all. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. I hope you guys do fantastically and have a great time.”
The teacher, hearing talk that Kearse was about to sign with the Chicago Bears, responded to him amid huge cheers from the kids through the cellphone: “We’ve totally got your back!”
One day later, they — and the Seahawks — totally had him back.
The call that pulled Kearse away from the kids and that robotics competition Wednesday started the events that ended with Thursday’s surprise agreement between the free-agent wide receiver from Lakewood and the Seahawks on a new, three-year contract. The deal worth a reported $13.5 million keeps Kearse from leaving Seattle and the only home he’s ever had as an unrestricted free agent.
“Mr. Clutch is back!!!” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted Thursday night. “Love it! @chopchop_15 #GoHawks”
After four days after gauging the market and two days of seeing other wide receivers around the league sign, Kearse realized the result he truly wanted all along.
“We’re on pins and needles,” Miller, Kearse’s coach at Lakes, said last month about Lakewood’s hope that his former player would stay with the Seahawks.
Seattle’s clutch receiver the last three postseasons played his first three years in the NFL at the league’s minimum salary. He stated repeatedly in the last couple of months that he wanted to find out what his value was on the open market.
He earned $2.356 million last season on a one-year tender offer as a restricted free agent. He is now earning an average of $4.5 million with this new deal. That’s $500,000 more than Seattle’s No. 1 receiver, Doug Baldwin, is set to earn this year, and Baldwin just set the franchise record and co-led the NFL in touchdown catches in a season.
So until Thursday it seemed the Seahawks wouldn’t be able to give Kearse market value without upsetting their wide-receiver salary structure.
Yet all through January and February, Kearse kept saying he hoped he could remain a Seahawk. The newlywed wanted to stay home with the team that gave him his chance as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
“I hope so ... God willing. We’ll see,” Kearse said last month at an event for his 15 to 1 Jermaine Kearse Foundation at Clover Park Technical College in his home city.
“I would love to be here,” Kearse said Jan. 17, in the locker room in Charlotte minutes after he had a career game in the Seahawks’ season-ending playoff loss at Carolina.
“I mean, I grew up in the state of Washington.”
Now he can grow his family here, too.
Also on the second day of NFL free agency the Seahawks were still trying to keep free-agent left tackle Russell Okung. They were exploring other, lower-priced free agents to import onto the offensive line.
And they were appreciating the right price they secured at cornerback.
Yes, relative to the wads of cash already thrown around the league through two days of free agency, what Seattle apparently paid to keep Jeremy Lane this week looks like a good deal for both sides.
In fact, if Lane does what the only pro team he’s known expects him to do — start at cornerback and be a trusted option as nickel back inside on third downs — this deal could be a steal.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported Thursday that Lane’s contract is worth $23 million for four years, with $11 million guaranteed. That average of $5.75 million per year would be the 29th-highest average pay for a cornerback in the league, according to overthecap.com.
That’s 29th-best for a home-grown, long-armed cover man who can play inside and outside on what’s been one of the league’s best defenses. Lane picked off Tom Brady in the end zone early in Super Bowl 49, and his broken arm and torn knee ligaments at the end of the return of that interception helped tilt the game in New England’s favor.
In today’s NFL market, in which quarterback Brock Osweiler just got $18 million per year from Houston despite having only seven career starts, Lane’s deal equals value.
USA Today’s Tom Pelissaro reported that Lane is getting $7 million fully guaranteed this year and will have his 2017 salary of $4 million guaranteed next February. With a $5 million signing bonus, that would be a charge of $3.25 million against Seattle’s 2016 salary cap — far from extravagant for a starting cornerback in the NFL.
Those numbers would mean the final two years of Lane’s contract has no guaranteed money, with base salaries of $6 million each in 2018 and 2019, according to multiple reports. That’s the same arrangement the Seahawks have in strong safety Kam Chancellor’s deal, which has two years remaining. The team is staying in its pattern of contracts with front-loaded guarantees and open back ends.
Such deals are how general manager John Schneider keeps Seattle’s young core intact. They are how the Seahawks can have three-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl selection Richard Sherman carry a 2016 salary-cap charge of nearly $14.8 million to start at the opposite cornerback spot. These deals are how the team balances mega contracts — committing $131 million combined to quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner in just over 24 hours last summer — with relatively middling ones.
The Seahawks, despite being in the bottom third of the league in available cap space for 2016, have nine of their 11 starters on defense under contract for the coming season. Last season, that unit led the NFL in fewest points allowed for the fourth consecutive year. The exceptions are the two players who left this week in free agency: linebacker Bruce Irvin to Oakland and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane to San Diego.
What’s attractive in this reported deal for Lane? The guaranteed money. The $11 million guaranteed would mean almost 50 percent (47.8 percent, to be exact) of his contract’s total value is guaranteed. Aside from the franchise tag on the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson, which will assure him all of his $13.9 million for 2106, only six of overthecap.com’s top-30 paid cornerbacks have at least 50 percent of their total values guaranteed.
In the NFL, it’s not the total contract money that talks loudest. It’s the guaranteed cash.
As for Okung, the Seahawks were thought to be a front-runner to sign him. But multiple national reports Thursday night said Okung has meetings scheduled with the New York Giants and Detroit Lions, and that the San Francisco 49ers also are pursuing him.
Okung had shoulder surgery last month. We’ll see if that keeps his market value within Seattle’s range — and prevent it from soaring, as it often does for available, veteran left tackles, especially a two-time Pro Bowl selection who’s played in two Super Bowls.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle