Why Russell Wilson Shouldn't Be the NFL's Highest-Paid Quarterback
[Update: Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks have agreed to a four-year, $87.6 million extension, according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated. The deal includes a $31 million signing bonus and $60 million in guaranteed money.]
Russell Wilson deserves a new contract, and now that he's three years into his rookie deal, negotiations can begin.
The Seattle Seahawks -- despite chatter about their willingness to make him the league's highest-paid quarterback -- think he's asking for too much.
The difference of opinion isn't just a few bucks. It looks like it's at least tens of millions if not more, according to Danny O'Neil of 710 ESPN Seattle.
Wilson surely doesn't have the persona of a top-dollar diva, but is he really asking for a fair price for his production?
Let's dig in and find out.
Plenty of factors go into an NFL contract -- age, position, talent level, and so on -- but rookie contracts have been instrumental in keeping teams afloat when securing high draft picks or relying on youth. The problem is that, when stars emerge, they're often performing above and beyond their salary until a new deal is in place.
As for Wilson, his base salary in 2015 is set to be just more than $1.5 million, according to Spotrac.com. That would make him just the 29th-highest paid quarterback in 2015. Or put another way, that's Bruce Gradkowski money.
Even factoring in his signing bonus, the cap hit for Wilson is just $1.7 million next year, 44th among all quarterbacks.
Now, I'd be willing to bet that even his biggest detractors can admit that he's at least "good," but with our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can figure out just what his on-field impact has been. NEP contextualizes a player's performance and indicates how many points above or below expectation level a player added to his team's overall scoring chances.
Think of it like this: a 10-yard pass isn't as beneficial on 3rd-and-25 as it is on 3rd-and-5. NEP accounts for that.
So what happens when we check out Wilson's 2014 Total NEP (his expected points added with his passing and rushing) in the context of his 2015 cap hit and compare it to other 59 quarterbacks who both attempted a drop back in 2014 and have a current cap hit for a team in 2015?
|Rank||Player||2015 Cap Hit||2014 Total NEP||Dollar per NEP|
Wilson is undoubtedly the biggest bargain among the 60-quarterback subset in terms of 2014 production and 2015 money, but that doesn't really even tell the full story.
Of the 60 passers, 20 of them -- a full third -- finished the 2014 season with a negative Total NEP, which means that they took points off the board for their teams. Further, only 24 quarterbacks ended the season with a Total NEP greater than 20 points.
Wilson was just one of 11 passers to add at least 100 total points above expectation to his team.
And, of course, it's more logical to compare 2014 production to 2014 money, but when we're looking at re-upping for the future, it's worthwhile to look at whether Wilson's asking price is justified.
What price might be right for Wilson -- even though Seattle doesn't have to pay it in 2015?
Fair Wages for Fair Work
It appears as though the Seahawks are offering Wilson a four-year, $80 million contract, according to O'Neil, which would pay him an average of $20 million a season once the contract actually comes into effect, roughly equivalent to the top-dollar contracts in the NFL. The Seahawks, though, have just about every reason to tack on 2015, the final year in Wilson's rookie deal, at the current price to any deal the two parties agree upon.
If Wilson agreed to a four-year deal at $80 million to begin in 2016, then during the five seasons between 2015 and 2019, he'd average just more than $16 million. For context, Andy Dalton's six-year, $96 million deal pays him, on average, $16 million per season.
Dalton's career Total NEP is 149.60, and he's topped 34.67 points just once (in 2013 when he added 72.17 points to the Bengals). Wilson, on the other hand, has managed a Total NEP of at least 96.85 in each of his three seasons.
So what, then, is the right "value?" That's, obviously, the biggest hang up any negotiation, but if Wilson did agree to a four-year, $80 million deal that began in 2015, would he actually be getting too much at $20 million per year?
Here are the Total NEP scores since 2012 of the five quarterbacks who earn an average of $20 million or more.
|Player||Average||T NEP 14||T NEP 13||T NEP 12||Average|
Wilson stacks up with both Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in average Total NEP -- but hasn't shown their single-season upside yet in his career. And for as great as Wilson has been, he hasn't been nearly as impactful as Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers have been.
As for Joe Flacco, well, at least his 2014 was promising.
The primary reason why Wilson hasn't shown absolutely elite on-field upside is that his passing has been limited. In 2014, his Passing NEP of 47.65 ranked just 15th among quarterbacks. And pointing out his relatively modest volume (his 494 drop backs ranked 19th) isn't really valid. His Passing NEP per drop back (0.10) was actually a bit worse, ranking 16th among the 37 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs in 2014.
Then again, this was his worst passing season to date, and his Passing NEP of 74.66 ranked seventh in 2013. His rookie season score (84.01) ranked eighth. A single-season decline in Passing NEP within a player's first three years has been pretty typical for some of the league's current solid starting quarterbacks, but a declining Passing NEP year after year is a bad sign for Wilson's future.
If not for literally the third best rushing season by any player since 2000 (Wilson secured 60.50 Rushing NEP but topped out at 28.81 in his first two seasons), everyone involved might be viewing his 2014 season entirely differently. Considering his declining Passing NEP and seemingly plateaued Total NEP, $20 million a year might be pretty generous.
It's fairly obvious that both sides have reasons to think the way that they do. Wilson, indeed, has been a solid, consistent contributor for the Seahawks even before factoring in the postseason success.
He has shown top-10 passing potential without elite targets, but his declining metrics indicate cause for concern. He made up for that this year with one of the greatest rushing seasons ever, but is it safe to bank on that again? Maybe. He's had two of the 22 best Rushing NEP seasons since 2000 among quarterbacks.
But maybe not. Only two players have more than two top-20 seasons (Michael Vick has five and Cam Newton has four). That's not to suggest that Wilson can't do it a third time, but rushing without passing is capped upside (Newton and Vick combined for just three seasons with a Total NEP greater than 100).
The impasse between Wilson and Seattle is both justified and fascinating. Wilson clearly is criminally underpaid, and there's no denying that.
But Wilson's early passing metrics suggest he may have already peaked, and that makes a deal comparable to Roethlisberger or Ryan (let alone Rodgers or some unprecedented $130 million deal) hard to justify -- unless the Seahawks are offering reparations for what Wilson has done while on his rookie contract.