The Seattle Seahawks Have a Salary Cap Problem: What Should They Do?
The Seattle Seahawks have a salary cap problem. Now, it’s not the way normal teams have a salary cap problem since Seattle hasn’t been giving out big contracts to players who won’t return that value (see: New Orleans). Instead, the Seahawks have too many good players who were -- or are -- cheap, and either will or have gotten massive raises.
Within the next year, both Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner will see their rookie contracts expire. Two impactful players hitting free agency at the same time is nothing new for a team, especially one as successful as the Seahawks have been.
But neither Wilson nor Wagner will make count for more than $2 million on Seattle’s cap in 2015. And both are in line to make significantly more on his next contract. That’s all tacked on to the money used up from the extension signed by Marshawn Lynch earlier in the offseason and the addition of Jimmy Graham in a trade from New Orleans.
Seattle has five players with a cap hit of $8 million or more in 2015, with those five taking up over 30 percent of the 2015 cap. The Seahawks have fit the other roughly 90 percent of the roster in the remaining 60 percent of cap space. And it’s not as if the Seahawks are a stars and scrubs type team, so this problem could keep getting worse.
Russell Wilson’s War
Of main concern to the Seahawks is the next contract for Wilson. That’s not to belittle the other players on the roster, but the quarterback is kind of a big deal. We can take rumors of Wilson wanting to be paid as the top quarterback in the league or whether he’s worth that type of money however we want. Realistically, Wilson deserves to get paid, and he will.
Wilson’s three years in the league have been somewhat unique. He’s been given the support of an effective running game and the league’s best defense. Those two points have been used as an argument against Wilson’s worth, but in reality, Wilson has been among the league’s top quarterbacks since that 2012 season, at least by our Net Expected Points metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. It helps show how a player performs versus how he’s expected to perform. You can read more about it in our glossary.
Wilson may not be asked to throw the ball 50 times a game, but he has thrown the ball he’s been efficient. In his rookie season, Wilson ranked sixth among quarterbacks with a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.20. He was still a top-10 quarterback in 2013 when he ranked seventh at 0.17.
His passing efficiency dropped last season -- tied for 15th at 0.10 -- but so did his receiving talent, and the numbers still placed him among the top half of quarterbacks throwing the ball. But what was lost in passing efficiency was gained with his legs, as Wilson was overwhelming the best running quarterback in the league last season. Wilson’s Rushing NEP was more than 1.5 times the next leading rusher, Cam Newton, on the same number of attempts. Wilson’s ability to run was also a leading reason why the Seahawks were able to win some games, like the NFC Championship against the Packers.
Maybe that still doesn’t equate to deserving the biggest contract in the NFL, but maybe it might not matter. The reported posturing of Wilson’s team to command something that beats Aaron Rodgers' deal is really quite silly. Regardless of what Wilson gets paid, it’s likely to be beaten by Andrew Luck’s extension next season.
What the Seahawks could do is emulate what the New England Patriots have done with Tom Brady. Wilson might not be Brady yet, but his first three years have been well above Brady on a per play basis. Brady’s first three seasons saw a Passing NEP of -0.49, 0.04 and 0.02. Of course, the passing landscape of the league has changed even from when Brady entered the league. But that shouldn’t dissuade the Seahawks from taking a similar approach.
Brady has never seen the last year of any deal he’s had in his NFL career. Before that year approaches, Brady and the Patriots agree to an extension, restructure or both, which keeps new money continuously flowing to Brady. This basically serves as rolling three- to four-year contracts, which keeps Brady’s salary at around market value each year instead of locking the quarterback into high cap hits for seven years at a time, especially as the cap increases over the next few years. This would take some understanding from both the Seahawks and Wilson, but it could be preferable for both sides and leave additional room for other players on the roster.
Wilson’s going to get paid in some way, and that leaves the interesting Seattle decisions on the defensive side of the ball. Bobby Wagner is also up for a new deal, and reports suggest he’s looking for $10 per year for his next contract. That would place him as either the highest or second-highest paid inside linebacker in the league, depending on how you would categorize Clay Matthews and pending a new deal for Luke Kuechly in Carolina.
Wagner has been a big part of the Seattle defense patrolling the middle of the field, helping the Seahawks to fifth in schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP last season. Unlike the quarterback position, middle linebackers aren’t valued as highly in today’s NFL. The highest paid pure inside linebacker by AAV is San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman at $9.05 million per year. Wagner might not be worth $1 million more per year over a player like Bowman, but as the MIKE in Seattle’s defense responsible for many play calls and adjustments, Wagner is also likely to receive a top of the market deal.
But there can be a case made for so many players on the Seahawks to be paid at the top of the market and there lies the problem. With at least $9 million going to Wagner and $20 going to Wilson, the Seahawks could have nearly $75 million tied to their top six players in 2016, pending how cap hits are spread out. Sure, it’s unlikely to be the $75 million number, but with all but two of those contracts already set, there’s only so much pushing back money in Wilson’s and Wagner’s deals can do. This also comes on the heels of Kam Chancellor threatening to hold out of training camp for a better deal than his current three-years and nearly $20 million left on his contract.
Meanwhile, Doug Baldwin is scheduled to make $5.6 million in 2016, and cutting ties would give the Seahawks $4 million in savings. That could be a viable option if Tyler Lockett or one of Seattle's recent draft picks at wide receiver like Kevin Norwood or Paul Richardson can provide value.
Seattle has already started to make some moves on the defensive side of the ball for the future, declining the fifth-year option for Bruce Irvin. Other players who could provide cap relief with a release just signed extensions, like defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Both are integral parts of the pass rush, but both were also underrated before -- and possibly still are -- coming to Seattle, something the team could target elsewhere.
The Seahawks were put in this position by drafting incredibly well since John Schneider and Pete Carroll joined forces, but now those players are getting expensive. As the cap increases, the Seahawks may be aided in keeping many of these players under contract, but it might not be surprising to see a few changes made next offseason. Seattle’s window certainly isn’t closing -- we have them as the number-one team in the league, with the highest odds of making the Super Bowl -- but it will be interesting to see how the team continues to maneuver going forward.