Seattle Seahawks

Why Frank Clark isn’t going DeMarcus Lawrence and Le’Veon Bell over Seahawks’ franchise tag

The franchise tag, tyrannical tool of the team. The enemy of the player.

Just ask Le’Veon Bell and DeMarcus Lawrence.

Bell never did sign his franchise-tag tender last year from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He skipped the entire 2018 season and forfeited $14.5 million guaranteed. The Steelers gave up and this week did not franchise their star running back for a third consecutive year, so Bell is now a free agent.

Lawrence got a franchise tag from Dallas for the second straight year on Monday, a day before the NFL deadline to designate franchise and transition tags for 2019. The prized defensive end is not happy about about the Cowboys denying him free agency again. No one expects him to sign the one-year tag guarantee of $20.5 million, McClatchy’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Monday.

Frank Clark is the anti-Bell and anti-Lawrence.

In the hours after the Seahawks designated Clark as their franchise player for 2019 on Monday, the first time Seattle had used that hammer in nine year, the 14-sack defensive end from last season did not indicate he wouldn’t sign. He didn’t rail against the system keeping him from free-agent riches.

Just the opposite.

“Looking forward to what the future holds,” Clark posted on his Twitter account Monday night. “Very blessed and thankful.”

Why is Clark “blessed and thankful” at what Bell and Lawrence despise, being denied free agency?

For starters, unlike with those impasses, Clark franchise tag represents a massive, life-changing raise.

Clark grew up the Baldwin Village section of Los Angeles, depicted by Denzel Washington in the film “The Jungle.” He has said that as a boy he was sometimes homeless and hungry. In 2014, after moving to be with family in Cleveland for a better life, he got kicked out of Michigan’s college program after he was arrested and briefly jailed in a much-debated domestic-violence case.

With the franchise tag Clark will earn almost 20 times more this year than last with Seattle. He goes from $943,000 in salary in 2018 to $17,128,000 in 2019.

Tough for him to despise that.

Bell got $12.1 million guaranteed from the Steelers’ franchise tag in 2017 before he refused to sign the tag for $14.5 million last year. Lawrence got $17.1 million last year with Dallas’ franchise tag before getting ticked at another one this week.

So unlike Clark, those two are coming from the penthouse of NFL salary to merely seeking an upgraded penthouse. You know, on a higher floor with an even more spectacular view.

Clark is the youngest of the three tagged stars, still just 25. He can be a free agent next year still at the prime age of 26.

Plus, Clark and the Seahawks’ negotiating team led by general manager John Schneider and vice president of football administration Matt Thomas have been working for months toward a long-term extension. Monday’s tagging of Clark buys the team four more months to get a multiyear deal done with him before a league deadline of July 15.

And unlike in Bell’s case with the Steelers and Lawrence’s with the Cowboys, Clark owns almost all the leverage in the both near and longer term with his team.

Clark doesn’t have to agree to any extension not exactly of his liking, and he could still get $37,678,000 guaranteed from the Seahawks the next two years. That’s without even going to free agency.

Say he doesn’t sign an extension by July 15, then has another starring season in 2019 leading a Seattle pass rush that lacks any proven outside sack man besides him, and still hasn’t signed an extension he likes by this time next year. The Seahawks could franchise him for a second consecutive year in 2020. The league’s collective bargaining agreement specifies a player getting a franchise tag for a second year in a row is mandated a 120-percent raise above his tag number the previous year. That would be $20.55 million next year for Clark with another tag.

Add that to what Clark will get this year if he doesn’t agree to sign an extension within the next four months, and that’s $37,678,000. That’s more than 10 times the total money he earned in his first four seasons in the NFL with Seattle, combined ($3.73 million through this past season).

That’s why Clark and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, have been willing to wait and be picky on the Seahawks’ contract offers. For them, as long as Clark keeps peforming, tagging is terrific.

Monday franchise tag sets the floor of what Clark and Burkhardt will now be seeking in an extension at $38 million guaranteed and likely $14 million or more per year. That’s about the Eric Berry-like contract Earl Thomas was demanding this past year-plus from the Seahawks as the league’s highest-paid safety, a demand that has three-time All-Pro leaving Seattle and entering free agency next week. Schneider confirmed that last week from the NFL combine.

Would the Seahawks play Thomas-like hardball with Clark on an extension? Unlikely.

It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Clark is five years younger than Thomas, without the two broken legs in three years from which Thomas is currently trying to rebound. Clark plays a premier-value position with elite skill in today’s passer-and-sack-the-passer league, edge rusher. Safeties are not as directly integral to stopping a quarterback, and thus aren’t as highly paid, as pass rushers.

For example: the franchise-tag value for safeties this year, determined by the average of the NFL’s top salaries at the position from the previous year, is $12,037,000. That’s over $5 million less than for defensive ends.

If the Seahawks don’t pay Clark beyond this year, they don’t have a proven edge pass rusher beyond this year. That will ruin their, anybody’s, defense in today’s NFL.

Does Clark have any of the animosity Thomas still does toward the Seahawks? No.

The team took a chance on Clark four years ago. Months after Michigan kicked him out of its program, some NFL teams dropping him from their draft boards that year. Even though critics were howling across the Pacific Northwest about bringing society’s epidemic of domestic violence into their locker room, the Seahawks made Clark the first player it drafted in 2015, in the second round.

“Frank and I, we have a great relationship,” Schneider said last week at the combine in Indianapolis. “Communications have been great. There’s a strong level of trust between the two of us.”

There are other factors in Clark’s favor negotiating with the Seahawks.

The team’s urgency to get a long-term deal with Clark isn’t only about the July 15 deadline for tagged players. The Seahawks have the contracts of their two remaining foundational players ending after 2019, quarterback Russell Wilson and All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner. There are no Plan Bs to anchor Seattle’s offense and defense for 2020 and beyond.

Wilson and Wagner are going to command the highest salaries in the league at their positions. In Wilson’s case highest it will be the richest deal in the entire NFL, at $35 million or more per year. That’s based on what Aaron Rodgers got from Green Bay last summer.

Rodgers is five years older than Wilson with as many Super Bowl rings. So Rodgers’ four-year, $134 million extension with the Packers (average annual value: $33.5 million) with $98.2 million in guarantees likely will be the baseline that Wilson’s agent, Mark Rodgers, sets in talks with the Seahawks. Schneider and coach Pete Carroll have said those are happening this offseason.

Wagner is likely to want to eclipse the average annual value of $12.36 million in the contract of Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, the middle linebacker to whom he is most often compared as the NFL’s best. Wagner is earning $10.5 million this year, the final one of the $43 million extension he signed in the summer of 2015. He signed days after Wilson signed with $87.6 million, four-year extension with the Seahawks.

Of course, this is a salary-capped league. The Seahawks can’t keep everyone and pay everyone top dollar. Extending Clark, then Wilson and Wagner, will make those three the pillars of the team around which the rest of the roster, and the team’s cap money, will revolve.

All signs are Seattle wants Wilson, Wagner and Clark as the successors to Thomas’ departed “Legion of Boom” secondary as the franchise’s pillars beyond this year. Committing more than $17 million this week guaranteed to Clark, the second-high cap number on the team this year only to Wilson, underlines that fact.

There is one other complicating factor to all this. The league’s CBA, and thus the current way of salary caps and NFL economics with its players, expires after the 2020 season.

What impact with a new CBA have on this situation?

“That’s a great question. Great question. That’s awesome,” Schneider said last week, off the podium at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. “That’s going to factor in. That’s definitely a factor.”

Asked if he had any read on what might change in the CBA affecting how he does business beyond 2020, the Seahawks’ GM said: “No, that’s still part of the negotiation that is going on with the CEC (NFL management council’s executive committee) and the (players’) union. That’s going to be a continual process.”

Schneider said he had a working-group meeting with the management council’s executive committee last week in Indianapolis.

Is there a chance the franchise tag goes away in the new CBA?

“I have no idea,” Schneider said. “No idea.”

For now, the tag is alive and well.

And unlike some of his ticked-off, tagged colleagues around the league, Clark is uniquely thankful for that.
Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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