A pretty predictable thing often happens when a good though not great quarterback signs a major contract. People lose their damn minds.
Most recently that happened with Jay Cutler earlier this fall when the pending free agent at the time agreed to a seven-year extension worth $126 million, $54 million of which is guaranteed. The subject of the ire and pitch fork slinging was the length, which proved yet again the football-watching public at large still doesn’t grasp that only one number matters if you want to know how much an NFL player is getting paid, and it’s the guaranteed number. A day or two later we learned the deal was, in reality, a three-year commitment for…$54 million.
But I digress (slightly). The other number that really matters for team building and structuring purposes in the salary cap era is the cap hit. Sticking with the Cutler example, even if the commitment is manageable in terms of length, and even if the guaranteed money is in line with current market value, at $22.5 million next year he still represents a rather daunting cap hit. Over the first three years of his contract (again, the part that matters), Cutler will average a cap hit of $18 million.
Russell Wilson’s cap hit next year? Oh, that’s just a cool $817,302, after he made only $526,217 during a Super Bowl season, which is the NFL equivalent of paying a quarterback in apples (old ones too). Remember those numbers and the one that follows in 2015 ($953,519), because the two-year window provided by Wilson’s highly affordable rookie contract offers unique financial flexibility from the quarterback position, all because Seahawks general manager John Schneider waited on drafting his golden arm, and nailed it in the third round.
Throughout the Super Bowl churning hypefest you heard repeatedly that the Seahawks and their front office led by Schneider and the keen eye of Pete Carroll did an excellent job of gem unearthing with either bargain free agency deals, or snatching up tumbling steals in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft. That praise really can’t be repeated enough, so allow me to sprinkle a little bit more. To see what’s ahead for Schneider we first have to appreciated what he’s done, and the framework in place that gives him an opportunity to keep all or most of the booming defense assembled. That’s rooted in Wilson.
The Seahawks scored five touchdowns this past Sunday night, and three of them came from guys who were discarded and passed on repeatedly. Malcolm Smith produced the game’s everlasting highlight with his 69-yard interception return touchdown, and he was later named the MVP. He did that after being a seventh-round pick, and even better, the 242nd overall pick, which means he was within reach of being Mr. Irrelevant.
Then there’s Jermaine Kearse, he of the 65 receiving yards and four catches, including a whirling and spinning touchdown. Kearse went undrafted in 2012, and yet this year for a championship-winning team he caught six of Russell Wilson’s 29 touchdown passes (including the playoffs). Lastly, Doug Baldwin finished with 66 yards in Super Bowl XLVIII, which included a key 37-yard deep ball. That came two weeks after Baldwin had a season high 106 receiving yards with a 51-yarder in the NFC Championship, and nearly three years after he went undrafted out of Stanford.
You see where this is headed. Marshawn Lynch scored too on a one-yard plunge, and he was originally acquired from Buffalo for measly fourth- and fifth-round picks. Then when we turn to the defensive side of the ball — the side that inflicted the pain, baffled Manning, and won the game — the brilliance continues. Of the Seahawks’ feared and historically talented secondary, only Earl Thomas was a high draft investment as a first rounder. This is becoming increasingly difficult to fathom, but Richard Sherman waited until the third day of the draft, and wasn’t selected until the fifth round.
Kam Chancellor? Also the fifth round. Byron Maxwell? Sixth round. Brandon Browner, the guy he replaced? Undrafted. Nickelback Walter Thurmond III? Fourth round. Up front Chris Clemons went undrafted, Brandon Mebane was a third rounder, and Red Bryant lasted until the fourth. Among their regular defensive contributors, only Thomas, Bruce Irvin, and Bobby Wagner were selected in the second round or higher. Then there’s Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, two key signings last offseason who were reeled in at far below their current market value. For a combined 16.5 sacks, the Seahawks paid them $8.55 million against the cap in 2013.
That’s economy, the sort which allowed Schneider to make his rare splash on Percy Harvin (six years at $67 million, $25.5 million of which is guaranteed). More importantly, it’ll allow him to keep his core together, an effort which starts with the money he’s not paying his quarterback.
Scroll upwards a touch to again look at what Seattle is set to pay Wilson over the next two years, and due to the terms of the CBA he can’t renegotiate until after next season (which right now is actually a problem, though a good problem to have). Now look at the current average annual salaries of the previous five Super Bowl winning quarterbacks:
- Joe Flacco: $20.1 million
- Eli Manning: $16.3 million
- Aaron Rodgers: $22 million
- Drew Brees: $20 million
- Ben Roethlisberger: $14.6 million
Even Roethlisberger on the low end is infinitely higher than Wilson, and that list of course doesn’t include the aforementioned Cutler, Tony Romo ($18 million), Matthew Stafford ($17.7 million), or Matt Ryan ($20.75). Schneider currently has an estimated $2.5 million of cap room to wiggle with, but much more can be created easily by cutting Sidney Rice and the $9.7 million he’s due to account for next year, along with the very expendable Zach Miller, who carries $7 million in cap baggage.
Right away, two replaceable pieces are then easily jettisoned and suddenly about $19.2 million is free. But that wouldn’t even be a cap chess move available to Schneider without Wilson, and the money stashed away with an affordable third-round pick at the most important offensive position. With that money and the over $13 million difference — at the very least — between Wilson and the names above, Schneider can now pursue dynasty aspirations by re-signing Bennett, hotly pursuing Earl Thomas as he enters the final year of his contract, and securing Sherman as he does the same.
Sherman will be the final frontier, as since he’s better than Darrelle Revis (ask him) he’ll surely seek something in the neighborhood of $16 million annually, but he could be retained through the franchise tag if a short-term solution is needed. But what’s important is that this year with the champs we won’t see a free agency dismantling similar to what happened with the Ravens a year ago, when they lost five defensive starters, and they were forced to trade Anquan Boldin for cap relief. Seattle has the ability to remain stable where it matters most because of the space gifted by Wilson.
Wilson is the cornerstone in the new franchise-building model designed by Schneider, one which is focussed on assembling a defense and then retaining all or most of the key parts, and doing it with a far lesser quarterback commitment. It’s a model which will require some large grapefruits to mimic, because a justified fear among general mangers is that while the quarterback who’s ready to walk may not deserve the $20 million or so annually he seeks, the alternative is the unknown, and the unknown is scary.
Schneider embraced that with his confidence in Wilson after he fell to the third round, and Matt Flynn as the safety net. Now he has a championship, and an opportunity for more.
Ed. note: I’m leaving on my yearly post-Super Bowl holiday migration south. So you, dearly dedicated reader (hi mom!) won’t be seeing me for a little over a week, and we’ll meet again on Feb. 18 just before the Combine.