Salary cap expert Joel Corry: Why Seahawks would be better off extending Russell Wilson now

Mar 18, 2019, 4:18 PM
russell wilson, seahawks...
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw for a career-high 35 touchdowns in 2018. (AP)

Salary cap expert Joel Corry joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s John Clayton Monday to talk about the biggest upcoming contract decisions facing the Seahawks.

Clayton: Seahawks take steps forward, but what do they do next?

Here are a few quick takeaways:

Seattle need to sign one of its three big-contract players this offseason

There are three key Seahawks in line for a new deal either this offseason or in 2020: quarterback Russell Wilson, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and defensive end Frank Clark. The Seahawks have already franchise tagged Clark, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent this year, buying Seattle an extra year of Clark if they can’t agree to an extension (the two sides have until July to reach an agreement on a new contract). Meanwhile, Wagner and Wilson will become free agents next March.

Thanks to an expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement, though, Seattle could tag two of those three players next year.

“You have to get one of three guys done before next year,” Corry explained. “(Their deals expire in) the last year of the CBA, 2020, (when) you have two designations available: one franchise and one transition. You can restrict two of those guys. So you need one done.”

Each year, teams have the option to use either a transition tag or franchise tag. But if no new agreement is struck this year between the NFL and the league Player’s Association, teams can use both the franchise and the transition tag in 2020. So theoretically, getting a deal done for either Wilson, Wagner or Clark this year would allow the Seahawks to retain all three players for at least one more season.

Seattle would be better off extending Russell Wilson now

Could Russell Wilson become the league’s highest-paid player? Seattle’s quarterback brushed off a question about a potential pay day during a recent “Tonight Show” appearance, but a mega-extension is looking all the more likely.

Wilson will presumably want a bigger deal than the one Aaron Rodgers recently signed with the Green Bay Packers, a four-year, $134 million contract that averages about $33 million per year.

Paying Wilson up to $35 million per year would be a huge hit to Seattle’s salary cap flexibility. But according to Corry, upcoming extensions for Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes will only push that average higher. Even then, that could be more team-friendly than a franchise tag.

“With Russell, the calculus has always been, ‘Well, if you’re going to franchise me and you go non-exclusive, you’re already at almost $30.4 million,’ because of (the Seahawks) re-doing his contract with the restructure and pushing up his 2019 cap number a couple years ago, and it’s going to go 120 percent off of that,” Corry said.

“But typically, you give an exclusive tag. So that’s going to be right around $31 million. His agent is no dummy, he’s going to go, ‘Oh, $31 million times 120 percent, that’s basically $37 million. I can make $68 million…’. So he’s already got (that) in the bank in 2020 and 2021 (if you take that route). You’re going to have to make him the highest-paid player in the league – probably the first 35 million per year guy – to avoid him going the year to year route and then being like Kirk Cousins.

“This is going to be a deal which re-sets the landscape temporarily. Because you’re going to see a deal, maybe in 2021, if Patrick Mahomes is remotely close to what he was this past season, he could be the first, I don’t know, $40 million per year guy. So the sooner you do Russell, the better it’s going to be from a cap-planning standpoint. And also it’ll be cheaper, because the longer you wait, there will be other deals which come into play. You get a healthy Carson Wentz, who if the Eagles (extend) is going to be way up there… so those deals will affect the marketplace as well.”

Teams can afford an elite QB and an elite pass rusher – if they’re careful

As the cost of a franchise quarterback has sky-rocketed, so too has the cost of an elite pass rusher who can contain him. Defensive end remains the most expensive position behind quarterback, with a franchise tag value of just over $17 million in 2019.

Recent deals for top-tier pass rushers have eye-popping numbers. The Rams signed Aaron Donald to a six-year, $135 million deal in August 2018. Just one month later, edge-rusher Khalil Mack signed a six-year, $141 million deal with Chicago. Trey Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal with Detroit last week.

But will teams be able to stay competitive while also paying both a franchise quarterback and a top pass rusher? Corry says it’s possible with some careful planning.

“Ultimately, you’re going to see that happen someplace,” Corry said. “It just means that you’re going to have to hit on your draft picks, and have low-cost vets to fill in your roster in other spots, using that minimum salary benefit contract to get the cap break for vets. But yeah, it can be done. Because an edge rusher is the second-most valuable position in football behind quarterback.

“But if there was ever a year to hedge your bets in anticipation of Frank Clark not being around long-term, and you’re just renting him for the time being, it’s this year. (It’s a) deep draft for defensive linemen and you could potentially get a guy in the second round that’s a first-round talent because you have so much depth at the defensive line, particularly edge rusher, that I haven’t seen in quite some time.”

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Salary cap expert Joel Corry: Why Seahawks would be better off extending Russell Wilson now