Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks know what it will take to keep Russell Wilson. So what’s the holdup? Why his deadline?

If this was poker, Russell Wilson’s deadline to the Seahawks of getting a new contract by April 15 would be a call.

Wilson is calling Seattle’s hand, months early.

The franchise, Super Bowl and record-setting quarterback and his agent, Mark Rodgers, know what the Seahawks know: to keep him in Seattle, the team that drafted Wilson in 2012 will need to give him the NFL’s richest contract for 2020 and beyond.

This deadline, this call, is Wilson wanting to see the Seahawks’ best offer now, not this summer, not this coming season that is the last one of his current contract. Wilson wants to read now where they and his team are likely to go from here.

There remains no Plan B for the Seahawks. Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have staked their Seattle careers, and the most successful era in Seahawks’ history, on Wilson being their quarterback and face of the franchise for as long as they can fathom. They’ve been committed to, and dependent on, Wilson since he led the team to the franchise’s only Super Bowl victory, at the end of the 2013 season.

So if everyone knows what’s at stake, and what the cost is going to be, why isn’t this deal done already?

First, “already” really isn’t already. It’s only April. There’s still five months before Wilson begins playing the final season of his current contract. Seattle’s past foundational contracts, for Richard Sherman, for Kam Chancellor, for Wilson and Bobby Wagner four years ago, got done in the late spring and summer. In Wilson’s and Wagner’s cases of 2015, past the opening of training camp in late July.

Second, this isn’t a situation of an employer telling its employee: “We are offering you $35 million per year for four years. Sign here.”

If it was that simple, Wilson would have already re-signed.

No, the timing of Wilson’s contract ending give him the opportunity to change the NFL’s contractual landscape.

Just as his agent, Mark Rodgers, planned.

Four years ago when Wilson re-signed with Seattle for $87.6 million, it took all spring until training camp began past mid-summer to hammer out the deal. A main sticking point then was the four years Wilson wanted versus the five the Seahawks wanted. Teams always want to keep players in their prime under contract and club control for as long as possible. Elite players in their prime usually prefer shorter deals. They want to be eligible for free agency again as soon as they can, while they are still somewhere near their prime playing age and maximum marketability.

Unlike in Major League Baseball, which is agent Rodgers’ background, or in the NBA, NFL contracts have historically not been fully guaranteed. Maximizing guaranteed money up front, at signing and soon after, is the absolute top priority for NFL veterans. Especially those 30 years old, the age after which one major injury can change, or end, a career and cash flow.

Just ask Chancellor.

It’s the guaranteed money, the fact Wilson’s next deal is going to set a league precedent and everyone knows it, plus the Seahawks’ need to fit that into their overall team budget for years to come that complicates and delays these negotiations.

That’s why a league source with knowledge of the discussions said this Tuesday when I asked what the progress has been on the Wilson-Seahawks talks: “Talks?”

Wilson’s deadline is to accelerate progress on those talks, a spur more than an ultimatum.

The 30-year-old Wilson is the winningest quarterback in NFL history over the first seven years of a career. He has this year remaining on his contract, at $17 million in salary.

He said two days after the Seahawks’ past season ended with the playoff loss at Dallas Jan. 5 he would be willing to play out his contract to its end through the 2019 season without a new deal.

“Oh, yeah, I mean, if that’s what I’ve got to do,” he said Jan. 7. “It’s business, and everything else.

“I know, essentially after this (coming) season I could essentially be a free agent, and that kind of thing. I don’t think that way. I see myself being in Seattle, and I love Seattle. It’s a special place for me.

“I also understand it’s a business world, and everything else.”

Why is Wilson OK with no deal now? Because that could get him more than $31 million guaranteed to play for Seattle in 2020, alone.

If Wilson were to reject the Seahawks’ offers to him through this year and into next March when free agency is about to begin again, the team could use its franchise tag to keep the quarterback for 2020. As CBS Sports’ Joel Corry, a former agent, outlined, that exclusive franchise-tag cost, the version cornerstone quarterbacks get, is expected to be $31,211,000 next year. Then, based on the league-mandated 120-percent tag increase the following year, it would be $37.45 million in 2021 if the Seahawks wanted to go the tag route again to keep Wilson another year without a long-term agreement.

That’s $68.65 million guaranteed the next two years.

Looking for a starting estimate on what Wilson’s agent is likely asking for in average salary for a multiyear extension? Start with $34,325,000. That’s the average of what Wilson would get with the alternative of signing nothing and getting consecutive franchise tags.

That’s the route Kirk Cousins took with Washington a few years ago. He refused to take any of his team’s offers on a multiyear deal. He bet on himself and played two years in a row at a high level for the Redskins with the guaranteed money of a franchise tag. He won. Last year he signed the first fully guaranteed multiyear contract in NFL history, for $84 million, with Minnesota.

And Cousins is nowhere near Wilson in accomplishments or ability at quarterback.

Cousins remains the exception. Yet the trend in megabucks NFL deals since Wilson signed his $87.6 million extension with Seattle in the summer of 2015 is for more second and even third years to be guaranteed at or soon after signing.

Last year Matt Ryan got a record $94.5 million guaranteed at signing in an extension with Atlanta. Then Aaron Rodgers, 35, re-set the market with his four-year deal last summer to remain with Green Bay. It averages $33.5 million per year, with $98.2 million guaranteed. Of that, $78.7 million of Rodgers’ money was guaranteed at signing, according details Corry obtained. Rodgers’ other $19.5 million became guaranteed this spring, applied to his 2020 pay. So that’s $98.2 million guaranteed within the first year for Rodgers.

Wilson is five years younger than Rodgers, with as many Super Bowl rings.

Ryan, 33, got another $5.5 million guaranteed from the Falcons last month, from a contract clause adding to his pay for 2021. So that’s $100 million guaranteed within the first year of signing for Ryan in Atlanta.

Wilson is three years younger than Ryan, who has yet to win a Super Bowl.

Ryan’s $100 million guaranteed within one year of signing could be the baseline for what Wilson is seeking from Seattle in guaranteed cash.

Thing is, Schneider and Carroll do not typically guarantee second years of Seahawks extensions at the time of signing.

Wilson got $61.5 million guaranteed in his second Seahawks contract four years ago. About half of that was up-front guarantees at signing. The rest were Seattle’s typical guarantees-as-you-go, future guarantees for injury. Those clauses did not become fully guaranteed for Wilson until each March of the last three years of his current four-year deal.

Wide receiver Tyler Lockett re-signed with Seattle for three years and $31.8 million last summer. Only $11 million of his money was fully guaranteed at signing. Like Wilson’s current deal, Lockett’s guarantees for subsequent seasons became fully guaranteed in March of 2019 and will again in March of 2020.

Same with Duane Brown. The left tackle also re-signed with the Seahawks last summer. His deal is three years, $34.5 million, with a total of $16 million guaranteed. Brown got an $8 million signing bonus and his 2018 salary of $6.25 million was also fully guaranteed at signing. His remaining $1.75 million in guarantees were against future injury. Those didn’t become fully guaranteed for 2019 until February.

The Seahawks know all this. They knew when they re-signed Wilson the first time in 2015 that Rodgers would re-set the market with Green Bay before Wilson’s deal expired. They knew then that Wilson’s third deal is likely to set a new standard for contracts in the league, and that they may have to make an exception to how they’ve guaranteed contracts to re-sign Wilson again.

The trick Schneider and Matt Thomas, Seattle’s salary-cap and contract expert, are trying to pull off? Fitting $34 million-plus per year and at least $100 million guaranteed for Wilson, perhaps all up front, into the team’s overall financial plan for 2020 and beyond. Do all that without becoming a 4-12 team. That is, one with a star quarterback taking up way too much of their salary cap, and the rest of the roster full of minimum-salary guys who can’t catch the passes Wilson throws, nor block or play defense for him.

The Seahawks have 52 other players to pay and stay competitive each year they are planning to pay Wilson.

They have Frank Clark under a franchise tag at $17,128,000 for this year. They are still trying to beat a hard, real league deadline of July 15 to get a multiyear deal done with their 25-year-old top pass rusher at a more cap-friendly cost for the future.

Seattle also has Bobby Wagner’s contract ending the same time Wilson’s does, at the end of 2019. The All-Pro linebacker is also going to cost the top salary at his position to keep. The Seahawks are starting down that negotiation road with him, too.

Oh, and Jarran Reed, the Seahawks’ breakout star of 2018 with 10 1/2 sacks at defensive tackle, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The team doesn’t want to let his Aaron Donald-like production by an inside pass rusher walk into free agency next spring.

To do all that in a salary-capped league? On top of uncertainty of what the contract and cap rules will be after the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2020 season? Yes, it’s far more complicated than, “sign here.”

That’s why the Seahawks haven’t gotten a new deal done with Wilson yet.

And that’s why Wilson set this otherwise arbitrary deadline of April 15, as an attempt to see the Seahawks’ best offer now, amid all else they have going on, and not this summer or season.

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.
Support my work with a digital subscription