Why Russell Wilson is now the NFL’s most important QB

Interesting strategy by Russell Wilson, giving the Seattle Seahawks an April 15 deadline to do a contract extension with one year left on his current deal. If it works out, he’ll probably be the highest-paid player in the league by Easter. If it doesn’t, then a year from now, he could be the most exciting free agent in NFL history.

Because of where he is in his career, how badly the Seahawks need him and the league’s current economic landscape, Wilson’s contract situation makes him the most important quarterback in the league right now. He has a chance to set a new standard for contract guarantees at a time when that’s a hot-button issue with players. If the Seahawks decide not to sign him and go year-to-year with franchise tags, he could turn out to be Kirk Cousins with a better résumé.

Let’s take a look at Wilson’s contract situation, what’s going on behind the scenes and how it’s likely to turn out.

The motivation behind the deadline

The April 15 deadline seems arbitrary and makes Wilson seem unnecessarily eager. The ostensible reason he wants the deal done before the Seahawks start their offseason program is to avoid “distraction” — that ever-present, overused, ephemeral NFL hobgoblin that always plays big with the fans even though it’s usually a bunch of baloney. Surely Wilson, a college transfer and a third-round pick who won a Super Bowl at age 25 and came within a yard of winning another at age 26, has fought through more distracting challenges than wondering when his, let’s say, $35-million-a-year contract will be finalized.

The more likely reason is to prod the Seahawks into revealing their long-term intentions for Wilson and for their team. He has made it clear to the Seahawks that he’d be OK with playing out this season without an extension, which would force them to use the franchise tag on him next year (at a cost of about $30.3 million) or let him leave as a free agent. If they aren’t willing to sign him long-term, it might be helpful for Wilson to know that now. It could potentially even allow him and the team to look into sending him to a team that is interested in locking him up. And if that sounds crazy, please recall that Antonio Brown is now on the Oakland Raiders and that Odell Beckham Jr. is a Cleveland Brown.

Of course, those guys are receivers and Wilson is a quarterback, as vital to his team as any player in the league. He has started every game of every Seattle season over his seven-year career and has shown an ability to carry the Seahawks to winning seasons with little in the way of supporting casts. Two seasons ago, he led them in rushing by 346 yards because the team couldn’t find a running back who could top 250. Seattle has averaged 10.7 wins per season with Wilson at quarterback, has reached the postseason in six of his seven years and has not had a single losing season in that time.

So obviously, you give him what he wants, right? Well, it’s complicated.

The potential hurdles

Wilson has every right to expect to be the highest-paid player in the league. That title belongs to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is five years older than Wilson, has won the same number of Super Bowl titles and is 9-7 in playoff games while Wilson (again, five years younger) is 8-5. Rodgers signed his deal last offseason, prices go up, and Wilson should come out of this the highest paid.

There are a few different ways to make history with a quarterback contract. Wilson could insist on averaging more per year than Rodgers’ $33.5 million. He could insist on topping Matt Ryan‘s record of $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. He could try the Cousins route and secure a short-term, fully guaranteed deal, with Wilson garnering something like three years, $99 million — well more than Cousins got, a tick under Rodgers’ AAV but with more guaranteed dough than anyone has ever had at signing.

The trouble comes when you examine the way the Seahawks do contracts. Their long-term veteran deals don’t guarantee any money (other than for injury) beyond the first year of the deal. The extensions Duane Brown and Tyler Lockett got last summer didn’t guarantee 2019 money at signing. The extension Wilson signed in 2017 didn’t guarantee money beyond the first year. The Seahawks use what they call “rolling guarantees,” meaning each year of the deal becomes fully guaranteed in March of that particular calendar year. Which is better than nothing but still allows the team to cut a healthy player before they have to pay him.

Players, as you might imagine, do not love such a structure. Teams, you may or may not already know, don’t like to deviate. Do not underestimate the stubbornness of NFL teams when it comes to their contract structures. The Pittsburgh Steelers‘ refusal to guarantee salaries beyond the first year is a decent-sized chunk of the reason Brown and Le’Veon Bell aren’t there anymore. Teams don’t like to make exceptions, out of fear that other players will demand they do the same for them when their time comes.

Still, you’d have to think a player as important to the Seahawks as Wilson could convince them to negotiate outside their comfort zone. If they don’t, they run the real risk of not having him in 2021 or maybe even 2020.

What should Wilson get?

If the deal is to be a long-term contract in the style of Rodgers and Ryan, Wilson would be within his rights to look for something along the lines of five years, $180 million with $101 million fully guaranteed at signing. That would beat Rodgers’ average and Ryan’s guarantee.

If Wilson doesn’t want to top Rodgers and Ryan (or if the Seahawks won’t do it), he could target the Cousins deal, sign for three years and hit free agency again at age 33 or 34 (depending on whether this is an extension to his current deal or a tear-up of 2019). This could help make Wilson a historic figure who, along with Cousins, used his leverage to help establish guaranteed contracts as something NFL players can ask for and expect. That’s how players from MLB and the NBA got guaranteed contracts — not via collective bargaining agreement negotiations but by players and agents with leverage insisting and establishing guarantees as the norm.

One potential compromise would be a structure that mimics what Drew Brees has done with the New Orleans Saints in recent years — add “dummy years” on the back end of the deal to help the team defray salary-cap charges with signing bonuses and option bonuses. Say the Seahawks gave Wilson $180 million for eight years on a deal with the final three years voided automatically. That makes it, in reality, a five-year, $180 million deal but allows the team to claim it didn’t set a record and to spread out the salary-cap hits in future years.

The hang-up here, again, is that the Seahawks would have to break away completely from their normal contract structure to do such a deal. But franchise quarterbacks are special cases, and the team might have to make an exception if it wants to keep this very important player.

How will it end?

The odds are the Seahawks find a way to make Wilson happy, even if it forces them to do a contract they wouldn’t normally do. He’s just too important to their team for them to risk losing. A Wilson departure — now, next offseason or even the one after that — would force the Seahawks to completely overhaul every plan they have for their organization going forward. Coach Pete Carroll turns 68 in September, and Seattle is in the midst of an on-the-fly retooling promising enough that the team made the playoffs in 2018 when most were writing them off. Wilson isn’t likely to find a team that has established the same culture of success he has led in Seattle.

Team and player have been very good for each other here, and something should get done — maybe even by April 15. The question will be what kind of history this deal makes, and whether it represents the latest example of an NFL player realizing, utilizing and maximizing his leverage in a way we never used to see.

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