Russell Wilson’s contract extension was supposed to be a paint-by-numbers deal.
After all, Seattle has made a habit of extending the contracts of its best young players before they become free agents. From Max Unger in 2012 to Kam Chancellor in 2013 to Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, (pause for a breath), K.J. Wright and Cliff Avril last year.
Now, it’s Wilson’s turn. The quarterback who has won more games than anyone at his position in his first three years is eligible to negotiate a new contract. Some speculated a $120 million total was possible, with Wilson guaranteed to receive half that total. Others wondered if the Seahawks would fully guarantee the sum of a contract, an idea as unprecedented as it was unrealistic.
Over the past few weeks, it has become possible to sketch the general shape of some of the negotiations, not to provide hard-and-fast negotiating points but to show some of the issues the two sides will need to work out in order to bridge a gap that right now can be counted in the millions. Actually, it’s closer to 10s of millions.
What follows is an attempt to answer some very basic questions based on discussions and information from various league sources familiar with the negotiations. The numbers mentioned here should be thought of as rough estimates more than exact negotiating points. The goal is not to define to the cent the monetary demands from Wilson or the offer from Seattle, but to show the bigger issues that are being discussed.
Q: Is Wilson going to be the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback?
A: Not based on the Seahawks’ opening offer. They’re willing to pay him more per year than contemporaries like Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, but they have not taken the dramatic step of vaulting him into the top tier of veteran quarterbacks in overall compensation.
Q: So what about this $120 million deal with half of that guaranteed that some were discussing?
A: Yeah, that’s not happening judging by the opening tenor of negotiations. In fact, the Seahawks haven’t put $100 million on the table right now. The offer of a four-year extension is believed to be worth closer to $80 million.
Q: That sounds like a $20-million-a-year raise.
A: Depends on how you count it. It would be $20 million a year in the four years being added to the deal. But what about the final year of Wilson’s rookie deal, in which he’s scheduled to make $1.5 million? If that’s still there, you’re talking about a five-year deal that will pay just over $80 million.
Q: Well, where would Wilson’s deal rank against those of other quarterbacks?
A: Right now, the gold standard for contracts at the position is Aaron Rodgers’ five-year, $110 million deal, which was signed in 2013. Ben Roethlisberger’s five-year, $99 million contract from earlier this year is also instructive. What complicates things is that neither guy is coming off a rookie contract.
Q: Why in the world would that matter?
A: Because Wilson is scheduled to make $1.5 million next season. NFL teams aren’t in the habit of giving raises out of the goodness of their hearts. In exchange for providing a significant raise down the road – and more importantly providing a huge signing bonus at the time of the extension – the team can leave that salary from the final year of the rookie deal in place. Sherman is a good example. He signed an extension last year and received a signing bonus of $11 million. His salary for last season – which would have been the final year of his rookie deal – was $1.4 million. He’ll make $10 million in salary this year as the extension kicks in.
Q: Is that the way it worked for other quarterbacks coming off rookie contracts?
A: Well, there’s not many quarterbacks with Wilson’s pedigree. Not any, in fact, when you consider he has two Super Bowl appearances in three seasons as a starter and has won more games than any other quarterback to start a career.
The two biggest extensions for quarterbacks under the new collective-bargaining agreement have been Dalton’s and Kaepernick’s. Both signed six-year extensions that were glued on to the final year of their respective rookie deals.
In Dalton’s case, it was a six-year, $96 million extension that he signed last year. For an apples-to-apples comparison to what is being discussed with Wilson, Dalton’s deal is scheduled to pay about $52 million from the time he signed it through the first four years of the extension.
Kaepernick’s is bigger, a six-year, $114 million deal that was signed last year. It will pay $72.8 million through those first four years of the extension, though more of that is tied to roster bonuses that won’t be paid if he’s not on the team.
It’s worth noting that a shorter-term extension – such as the four-year arrangements Seattle has used – gives the player more earning opportunity (i.e. Wilson would get back to the bargaining table two years before Kaepernick if he were to receive a four-year extension).
Q: So who’s right in this case?
A: Well, both sides have a point, which is why this negotiation isn’t as straightforward as most people expected it to be. On the one hand, Wilson can argue that he deserves to be paid a total over the next five years that puts him alongside top veteran quarterbacks. On the other, the Seahawks have a point that they’re using the same formula they’ve used with other elite players at their positions.
Q: What’s the worst-case scenario?
A: There’s no new deal, Wilson plays out the final year of his rookie contract with the expectation that he will be designated as Seattle’s franchise player next offseason. Seattle can keep him by using that tag each year through the 2018 season, at which point Wilson could become a free agent as he’s turning 30. No one wants that on either side, but you asked for worst-case.
Q: Does a deal get done?
A: I think so. There’s still plenty of time, and the most common window for extensions across the league is in July before training camp starts. But there’s no certainty.
More: Coach Pete Carroll, a guest on “Brock and Salk” Friday morning, said he likes what he’s seen as the team has gotten back to work following a most disappointing Super Bowl finish.