In the offseason primer I pointed out (via other sources) that the Seahawks were likely to have around $2.5 million in cap space going into the 2014 offseason. In order to grow their flexibility, the team will have to cut players to create cap room. Flexibility may take its form in the retention of key players who are becoming free agents, but the more substantial impact on the 2014 cap and beyond is likely going to be created by likely extensions of the contracts of Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman in the 2014 offseason, and Russell Wilson in the 2015 offseason.
Thomas and Sherman are considered among, if not the best at their respective positions: safety and cornerback. Because of that they will likely be looking to cash in this offseason, an offseason that comes on the heels of perhaps the best season of each player’s respective, though brief to this point, careers.
The way the NFL often works is that contracts at positions take the frame of the highest paid player at the position in some form. Apart from Darrelle Revis, who will be discussed in a moment, Brandon Carr presently possesses the largest contract for a cornerback at five years, $50.1 million. In the span two years, Carr is among five cornerbacks to receive contracts between $48.75 million and $50.1 million. One of those contracts spans six years, and each has a unique guarantee structure, but each shares another common trait: none of these corners were considered the league’s best when they signed their respective contracts.
Prior to the 2010 season Dunta Robinson signed a contract worth $57 million over six years, and prior to the 2011 season Nnamdi Asomugha signed a contract worth $60 million over five years. Asomugha was considered the league’s best cornerback, and was going into his age 30 season.
Sherman shares the top-corner pedigree that Asomugha, but Sherman is going into only his age 26 season, giving him greater leverage, and ultimately greater expected value.
Darrelle Revis was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to the 2013 season, and signed a six-year, $96 million contract with the team going into his age 28 season. It’s important at this point to note that NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed. Guarantees come in the form of roster bonuses, early base salaries that are guaranteed for various conditions, and signing bonuses. Revis’ contract contained none of these guarantees.
A contract like the one Revis signed is basically unprecedented. He’s sacrificed all financial leverage in future years, betting on his performance, but at a very high cost of $16 million annually. For the Bucs, the Revis contract is like six consecutive one-year contracts. At the end of any season they can cut Revis with no penalty. For Revis, it’s a bold gamble on his own ability, as his own health.
Were the Bucs to cut Revis this offseason they’d be out a total of $16 million. After 2014, they’d be out $32 million, only $7 million more than the Eagle paid for Revis. If he remains productive, the Bucs can keep bringing Revis back.
The main point of clarification of the Revis contract is to point out that it isn’t a good comparison for Sherman. Not only is the deal a higher base salary than the Seahawks would like to pay – it would have a severe impact on their 2014 cap – but it doesn’t make a ton of sense for Sherman either, who is presently signed to a late-round rookie deal and hasn’t made several million dollars in his career. Signing for guaranteed money, usually structured in a way that makes a deal cap-friendly in its early years, is beneficial for players because it offers them financial security.
Because Sherman is still a year away from becoming a free agent, the Seahawks do have some leverage. Something in the middle of Revis and Asomugha seems the most likely, and Sherman may be seeking a signing bonus, and a bonus in the range of $15 million may be a starting point, considering Carr received $10 million. Add in a couple of base salary years that could be guaranteed, and it’s not irrational to think that Sherman could receive an extension in the neighborhood of five years, $65-70 million, with $35 million in guarantees of some sort. Either way, I’d expect Sherman to exceed Asomugha’s $12 million average, but likely remain well-below Revis’ $16 million average.
When the Seahawks drafted Earl Thomas in the 2010 draft he was considered something of a consolation price to the more prototypically-sized Eric Berry. Berry was considered to be perhaps the best safety prospect in the history of the NFL, and for his part, Berry has been pretty good since being drafted fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. A solid argument could be made that Thomas has been better, and his ability to cover ground in space, frequently making places at the line of scrimmage in the run game despite starting several yards behind the line of scrimmage, as well as to cover receivers and tight ends is quite unique. Though relatively diminutive, Thomas has played big, and has a pretty decent case as the best player on the Seahawks incredible defense.
But separate from any talent argument between Thomas and Sherman, that being the first-round contract Thomas signed with the Seahawks drafted him. Thomas has made more than $16 million to this point in his career. If Thomas is willing to wait until after 2014 to sign with a team, the Seahawks would be forced to franchise tag him, a one-year contract based on past top safety salaries, which will be $8.1 million in 2014. Considering Thomas’ cap number in 2014 is scheduled to be around $5.5 million, the Seahawks could conceivably sign Thomas to a contract with a very low base salary in the first year, but a signing bonus that combined with said base salary to compensate Thomas in a manner that his performance would dictate on the free market.
The largest contract for a safety in the NFL right now is the aforementioned Berry, who remains on his rookie deal of six years, $50.0 million. Alternatively, Troy Polamalu has the highest annual average, with a three-year contract with an annual average close to $9.9 million. Polamalu’s contract included $10.6 million in a signing bonus, a contract he signed going into his age 31 season.
Considering that Thomas is going into his age 25 season, a contract of decent length is to be expected, and something like a six-year, $55-60 million contract with some $20 million in guarantees, largely in a signing bonus may be a fair pact, and would usher Thomas and the NFL into the new paradigm for top safety contracts.
With Thomas and Sherman out-of-the-way, the extension candidates are limited to players with whom the Seahawks have a much lower breakeven point. While it’s conceivable that Sherman and Thomas could play at an elite level for upwards for another half-decade, and if they and the Seahawks are lucky even longer, extensions don’t have to be limited to the absolute upper crust of NFL talents.
Since being drafted, Byron Maxwell has shown a fair amount of promise. That he’s played has been nearly an accident, caused in large part by Walter Thurmond‘s history of injuries and recently his history of substance abuse. Maxwell replaced Thurmond and/or Brandon Browner late in the 2013 season, and arguably outperformed both, breaking up key passes and playing tight coverage on downs when he didn’t necessarily make contact with the ball.
Like Sherman, Maxwell will be going into his age 26 season, but hardly presents the Seahawks with the opportunity to retain an elite talent like a potential Sherman extension does. Because of that, Maxwell figures to be cheaper. Prior to the 2013 season the Detroit Lions signed Chris Houston to a five-year, $25 million contract with a $6.5 million signing bonus. Houston is not elite, but is certainly a quality cornerback, and may be a decent comparison for Maxwell.
The problem with the Seahawks signing Maxwell to an extension, however, has absolutely nothing to do with how well Maxwell compares to Houston, or any other non-elite corners who have received extensions. The problem has to do with the Seahawks impending re-distribution of funds. If the Seahawks devote a disproportionate amount of resources to the secondary – something that’s almost inevitable considering the contract that Kam Chancellor is already signed to and presumed extensions for Thomas and Sherman – they’ll lose much of the flexibility they’ll need to maintain a balanced, and ultimately effective defense.
Ultimately, Maxwell will probably have a very good year in 2014, but without a substantial discount or a substantial misread on Maxwell’s market on my part, the Seahawks will simply have a very hard time affording him, and may have to resign themselves to a fate of the fourth position in the Legion of Boom being a rotating cast of characters.
Take a look at the Seahawks linebacking corps: K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner have been amazing mid-round values, while Malcolm Smith‘s performance has been a huge coup for a team that has spent a lot of money on linebackers under past regimes. Add in Bruce Irvin‘s flashes of brilliance as a linebacker in 2014, and the Seahawks have a very cheap, effective linebacking corps.
They may need to keep it way.
With upwards of a potential $25-30 million devoted to three members of their secondary, paired with a defensive line that includes some pretty tough choices in Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Michael Bennett, and Cliff Avril in upcoming offseasons, the Seahawks will have to find talent for reduced costs at several positions on their defense in upcoming years.
That Smith played as well as he did may speak to both the fungible nature of the linebacker position in the NFL today, especially with the Seahawks, but also suppresses the Seahawks need to lock Wright up long-term. It’s not that Wright isn’t deserving of a multi-year deal with a relatively high base salary. It’s just that the free agent market is frequently flooded with relative talent at all linebacker positions, and that the team has had a high-success rate finding linebackers of some degree of roster-worthy quality well outside of the first round, and without spending a lot of money in free agency. That in mind, David Hawthorne is signed to a contract that may be a decent comparison for Wright, a pact he signed with the Saints that pays him an average of $3.8 million.
That number may sound pretty manageable, but probably eats up all the surplus value the Seahawks may gain from having Wright long-term compared to who they may replace him with.
While each of these players is being considered for an extension, the presumption is that each would receive a substantial pay increase. Conversely, the Seahawks may benefit from re-structuring some of their high-salary players that have been mentioned earlier this offseason.
Russell Okung has been very good when he’s been healthy, there’s not much doubt about that. He’s not elite, however, and has been prone to occasional missed assignments and penalties. When paired with Okung missing at least a single game in every season of his career, totaling 19 games over four years, Okung is unlikely to be paid like one of the NFL’s elite tackles. Okung may be receptive to a contract akin to William Beatty, a tackle whose five-year, $37.5 million extension was brought up in reference to Breno Giacomini in an earlier piece, but whose $12.5 million signing bonus may be enticing enough for Okung to accept a lower base salary that would reduce his $11.2 million cap number in 2014.
Zach Miller‘s career in Seattle may be the most misunderstood of all present Seahawks. He’s been limited more by the Seahawks porous offensive line that he’s been forced to supplement in pass protection than he has by opposing secondaries and linebackers. That said, the Seahawks have a legitimate threat in the passing game in Luke Willson, and can likely find a tight end who is a viable blocker late in the draft, if not in an undrafted free agent. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in finding both traits in the same player, but just that the roster spot saved by finding a more complete tight end isn’t worth more than the $5 million the Seahawks could stand to save by releasing Miller. Miller is going into his age 29 season, and while his production is misunderstood, not many teams are looking to sign a tight end who hasn’t surpassed 400 yards in three years to a large contract. If Wilson is willing to reduce his base salary, and ultimately his cap number, a multi-year pact isn’t out of the question.