Lefko: New salary cap makes Seahawks’ decisions for QB and draft easy

Feb 1, 2023, 8:27 AM

Seahawks Geno Smith...

Seahawks QB Geno Smith stands in the tunnel prior to a playoff game against the 49ers on Jan. 14. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The NFL salary cap has been set for 2023, and with that hopefully some of the sticker shock wears off about what it costs to pay quarterbacks. Nothing makes for a compelling read like a bunch of numbers and contract logistics, right?

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We won’t burrow too deep into the minutiae of cap-hit percentages and salary cap increases, but it is important to realize that we are in an unprecedented era of spending in the NFL. The consistent and infallible growth of the league means that the salary cap will continue to go up each year.

Due to the pandemic, the cap had been relatively stagnant. Now, with the NFL back to full health and massive TV deals rolling in, the salary cap just saw massive growth at a scale that requires us to rethink preconceived notions of how cost-prohibitive a contract number in the $30-$35 million range for quarterback Geno Smith might feel for the Seahawks.

It is staggering to chart the course of the NFL’s financial prosperity over the last decade. In 2013, the salary cap was $123.6 million. The 2023 cap number was just set at $224.8 million, up from $208.2 million in 2022, which is the largest year-to-year growth ever according to Spotrac.

Here is where we won’t dig into the contract minutiae, because it’s truly impossible for anyone who isn’t involved in the contract proceedings to know how a team will structure a contract in order to free up cap space in any given year. You can backload, frontload, tinker with the guaranteed money, do any number of things in order to still operate after signing a player. The annual average value is a nice way for us laypeople to look at it, but there are people in front offices across the league who are paid to make it work.

A multi-year deal for Smith at a $30 million salary – heck, even $35 million per year – doesn’t handcuff a team like that number used to when it represented a significant percentage of the entire salary cap. Right now, before a massive class of quarterback free agents negotiates deals or faces franchise tags, the top 11 quarterback contracts for 2023 are all at least $30 million per year. That number isn’t exclusively for the elite quarterbacks anymore, it’s the requirement now for a capable quarterback.  For the Seahawks to do anything else runs a massive risk of setting the franchise back at least two seasons. Geno Smith threw all but one pass for the Seahawks this year (shout out DeeJay Dallas!), and with that stability at quarterback, the team made an unexpected playoff berth.

Seahawks should upgrade defense through draft

It might seem enticing to use all the cap space the Seahawks have on a defensive player or two instead of on Smith in free agency, but here’s the problem: if a player is a free agent, then his current team didn’t want him. It might be age, injury concern or expected decline in production relative to what the player expects to make, but there is a reason he is available. Take Von Miller for instance, who cashed in on a six-year, $120 million deal with the Bills last offseason. Miller is 33 years old and suffered a torn ACL this season. After the rehab and recovery, it’s likely he will miss parts of his first two seasons in Buffalo.

The Seahawks’ defense also has too many holes to fill for a free agent to make a difference this season. That’s the type of a move teams like the Rams in 2021 or the Bills in 2022 make when you are a piece or two away. The Seahawks are a piece or two away from being a piece or two away when it comes to building a dominant defense. This is where their plethora of draft picks can be wielded to reshape the front seven in order to complement a very good set of defensive backs.

Signing Geno Smith eliminates any uncertainty at quarterback and allows this Seahawks front office to utilize its first top-five draft pick of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era on a defensive linemen, a position that time and time again has shown to be the most valuable in the NFL. Chris Jones, Haason Reddick, Aaron Donald in the Super Bowl a year ago – teams don’t win on the biggest stage without a game-wrecking defensive lineman.

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The great folly in thinking Geno Smith is replaceable because of what the 49ers did this season is not seeing that it was possible in large part due to how good San Francisco’s defense is and how it was built. The 49ers’ front seven is the envy of the NFL and the majority of that talent came straight from the draft:

• Nick Bosa: First round (2019)
• Arik Armstead: First round (2015)
• Javon Kinlaw: First round (2020)
• Fred Warner: Third round (2018)
• Dre Greenlaw: Fifth round (2019)

When the Seahawks’ defense is that good – and maybe it happens in two or three years – then we can open up the discussion about whether to pay or draft a quarterback. Until then, though, the big bump to the salary cap has freed up enough space to give a manageable contract to Geno Smith and keep stability at the most important position on offense, while allowing the defense to grow with another crop of young, homegrown players.

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Lefko: New salary cap makes Seahawks’ decisions for QB and draft easy