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NFL Salary Cap: How the Seahawks revolutionary cap management transformed the league, and what it means for 2016

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's salary cap is a popular and often times divisive topic among fans. The reason? The cap effects every NFL team. No player or franchise is exempt from its limitations. Back in December, teams were informed by league officials that the 2016 spending cap limit would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $150M and $153.4M. In order to provide teams with a reasonable financial buffer, league officials often lowball teams with their cap projections.

In 2015, the NFL's salary cap was $143.28M. Back in December of 2014, teams were given cap projections for the 2015 year: somewhere in the range of $138.6M and $141.8M. When the time came for the hard numbers to be released, the cap-spending limit was nearly $2M more than early projections. As a result of historical trends, it would not be unrealistic to project a salary cap of $155M in 2016, if not more. Kevin Seifert of ESPN details the recent drastic growth of the NFL's salary cap:

"What you might not realize, however, is the cumulative effect of that growth and how it could change NFL free agency -- if all corners of the industry catch on. Here's the bottom line: Give or take, there will be $1 billion in salary-cap space available when the market opens on March 9.

That's a massive and unprecedented number, enough to pay the rosters of six full teams and an amount that will gift market-blowing contracts to the second- and third-tier players typically available. As the chart shows, ESPN Stats & Information projects six teams having more than $50 million in cap space, and the median team will have $25 million based on a cap estimate of $154 million per team. (The precise cap limit might not be finalized for another two weeks.)"

This is good news for the Seattle Seahawks.

Strong coaching, revolutionary drafting styles, and a unique salary cap structure have established Seattle as one of the best teams in the NFL. With most of their core locked in through 2018, Seattle will be tested by the parity-like-nature of the NFL. Many pundits doubted Seattle's front office and their ability to keep their core -- claiming their cap situation would lead to their inevitable demise. They were wrong. Not only that, I believe the Seahawks are in relatively healthy cap position -- and in this article, I hope to provide ample reasoning for my belief.

I'm going to give you a full cap analysis for the Seahawks in 2016: current space, contract breakdowns, upcoming extensions, and highlighting the key practices that will keep Seattle dominant for a very long time.

Let's Look at the Basics

With an estimated $155M cap limit for all NFL teams in 2016, the Seahawks will have around $20-$21M to spend on free agency and on re-signing their own players. You'll see a lot of numbers floating around from Over the CapSpotrac, or whatever the source may be. The reason you'll see higher numbers is because those numbers being displayed don't account for many other factors like: dead money, the practice squad, IR, PUP, 2016 rookie contracts, and other unique team expenditures. So in reality, Seattle has about $17-$18M in true cap space (and potentially even more).

If Seattle wanted to, they could open more cap space through several methods. In terms of an extension, the Seahawks could extend a player and lower his cap hit in 2016 by providing him with a decently sized signing bonus. Doug Baldwin or Michael Bennett are potential options for this workaround. In terms of a restructure, Seattle could re-work one of their star's contracts. A common trick by many NFL teams to provide immediate cap relief is converting a player's P5 salary (base salary) into signing bonus money, spread out over future years. Signing bonus money is fully guaranteed money paid typically paid immediately to the player, but spread out over the cap. If Seattle were to execute this option (which I believe is unlikely), Jimmy Graham would be an obvious potential designee. Of course, this is also assuming Jimmy returns fully healthy from his devastating knee injury.

However, I do believe this option is unlikely to occur - as the Seattle front office tends to make cap moves that don't leverage their future flexibility. Despite the negative futuristic effects, if Seattle wanted to, they could make a move to open up space with a Jimmy Graham restructure -- opening up around $7M of cap space.

Space vs. Flexibility

The Seahawks don't have a great amount cap space in 2016 (about $17-18M) and they also don't have a strong amount of cap flexibility either. Cap flexibility is one of the less talked about concepts in regards to the NFL salary cap -- mainly because its fairly revolutionary. Bryce Johnston from Over the Cap wrote a phenomenal three-part series describing this concept in detail, which can be found here.

The Seahawks currently find themselves probably a bit below average in terms of cap flexibility. As of February 13th, several large base salaries became guaranteed as part of the vesting nature of their contracts. As a result, Seattle's cap flexibility is probably slightly below average (more guarantees = less flexibility). Richard Sherman's entire 2016 base salary ($12.569M) is fully guaranteed as of today. Russell Wilson's entire 2016 base salary ($12.342M) is also fully guaranteed as of today.  Cliff Avril's 2016 base salary ($6M) is fully guaranteed as of today. K.J. Wright's entire 2016 base salary of $5.25M is fully guaranteed as of today. And finally, $6M of Earl Thomas' $8M base salary is fully guaranteed as of today. These numbers are all courtesy of our friend, Joel Corry.

However, little space and a moderate amount of cap flexibility shouldn't scare people. It's kind of a weird media-induced-narrative to scare fans if their team doesn't have space or flexibility. The Seahawks have their core locked up - and they're mostly healthy.

Paying your star players a lot of money is not a bad thing. Many teams are still trying to find star players. You WANT talented and durable players you can pay.

Tons of teams would love the privilege of paying star players. It's important to note that the teams with the most amount of space and flexibility are not good teams: Oakland, Jacksonville, Chicago, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco. If you take away anything from this article, remember this:

Having more or less cap space and flexibility are not automatic indicators to a healthy cap condition. Some of the worst teams have the most space and flexibility -- because they're not spending money on talented players. Franchises able to pay and maintain a talented roster while winning football games are symptoms of a healthy cap situation. And the Seahawks are doing just that.

How much are we paying these dudes?!

Note: Yes, I know cap hits ≠ amount paid out to a player for that respective year. For simplicity's sake, we are equalizing the two.

For the first time in the John Schneider era, the Seahawks have several players with significant cap hits. Most notably, franchise quarterback Russell Wilson will have the first large cap hit of his contract. This is the first year Pete Carroll and John Schneider will have managed the team with a significant amount of their cap allocated towards the quarterback position.

Russell is slated to have an $18.5M cap hit in 2016 - the 12th highest cap hit for a quarterback in 2016. Quarterbacks with higher cap hits than Russell Wilson in 2016 include Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and several others. The next highest paid Seahawk is Richard Sherman, with the largest cap hit of his contract. Every year on out, Sherman will have a progressively lower cap hit. Sherman is due $14.7M cap hit in 2016. Additionally, 100% of Sherman's base salary is fully guaranteed.

Following up Sherman, Seattle has two players in the $9M range: Earl Thomas and Jimmy Graham. Earl is slated for a $9.9M cap hit and Jimmy a $9M cap hit.

The next tier is the $6-7M range. Seattle has five players in this category: Michael Bennett ($7M), Cliff Avril ($6.5M), KJ Wright ($6.25M), Kam Chancellor ($6.1M), and Bobby Wagner ($6M).

Doug Baldwin is then at $5.6M and Hauschka at $3.6M. Everyone else is below $1.5M.

Notice the near complete absence of "middle tier talent" in the $2-5M range. This gap is a reflection of the ideology behind Seattle's cap management - and will be expounded upon shortly.

Who should the Seahawks re-sign?

With 16 unrestricted free agents and a limited amount of cap space, Seattle is going to have to choose wisely in whom they attempt to sign long-term deals with. Players like Sweezy, Okung, Rubin, Kearse, Bruce, Lane, Jon Ryan, and others will ultimately decide if they want to remain in Seattle or not. With free agency quickly approaching, Seattle's offensive line has once again been put under the microscope. Following the loss to the Panthers in the playoffs, Pete Carroll had this to say regarding the group:

"I think it's still a work in progress," Carroll said. "I don't think we've nailed it yet. I think this needs to be a really competitive spot again, and we're going to work really hard to build it up. For the course of the season, we weren't consistent enough. We found a real good rhythm, but we can't start and go through that again. We don't want to have to experience that if we don't have to, if we can avoid it."

Everyone wants the offensive line to improve. Pete does. John does. Paul Allen does. Russell Wilson obviously does. In terms of committing to a path of improvement, what does this look like? Does this mean letting J.R. Sweezy and Russell Okung walk? Does it mean re-signing both players and hoping for drastic improvement? Does it mean making a big splash in free agency? Does it mean re-signing one of them? Does it mean making structural changes to your scouting and development process? Does it mean making changes to your coaching staff? Does it mean not re-signing players like Ahtyba Rubin and Jermaine Kearse in an attempt to throw darts at the line in free agency?

Carroll and Schneider are going to have to make some tough decisions in an attempt to ensure the protection of their franchise quarterback. With the 30th ranked pass protection in 2015, Russell Wilson threw for 34 touchdowns in 2015. It would be wise to invest resources around the player central to your franchise's future success.

However, it's important to remember the style in which Seattle chooses to manage their cap. For better or for worse, it's the ideology that Seattle has committed to and found success with. Truly, the approach Seattle takes to player management is unique -- and many other franchises are starting to take notice. Seattle believes in a star-heavy approach. With a noticeably absent middle tier of talent, Seattle has chosen to maintain supreme talent and fill position holes with cheap alternatives. Whether through the draft of UDFAs, Seattle finds a way to fill position holes with often overlooked talent.

This style of management leads me to believe that Bruce Irvin is very much gone. Bruce will have a strong free agency market -- likely somewhere in the $7-9M per year range. Teams like Atlanta, Jacksonville, and many others will likely inquire of his services. On the other hand, if I had to guess, Seattle probably values him right around $6M. In the eyes of the Seahawks, Bruce is likely a "middle tier" talent -- and I don't believe they're committed to him for the future.

Even more fascinating is the debate over whether Seattle should re-sign Russell Okung. The left tackle position is extremely shallow in the NFL -- and Okung will be the hottest free agent offensive lineman hitting the market. Conversely, a strong history of injuries will likely significantly derail Okung's value. Hawkblogger had a worthwhile take on Okung's impending free agent status:

"When healthy, he is an above average starter with a couple of Pro Bowl nods. He was, without question, the most well rounded player on the Seahawks line last year. While fans have their pitchforks and torches out, ready to jettison the whole line, the team needs to be careful about the possibility of repeating the Unger mistake from last year. Replacing a Top 10 pick at left tackle who was the best player on your line is easier said than done. A challenged line becomes more challenged without Okung."

With their most talented lineman hitting free agency, Seattle is going to have to make some very difficult decisions in regards to the position group. Another hot topic among Seattle fans is the debate over whether to re-sign Jermaine Kearse. However, I believe the debate over Kearse is much less crucial than we're making it out to be. Hawkblogger spoke some encouraging words over the position group:

"Jermaine Kearse had his best season and flashed reliable hands as mostly a possession receiver on catches over the middle. He is an unrestricted free agent this year, and the team will have to decide how much they are willing to spend on a player who fits well in their offense, but has a limited ceiling.

Waiting in the wings are three promising young players. Kasen Williams, Kevin Smith and Paul Richardson all could be viable replacements for Kearse, should he move on. Williams is a plus athlete with great size, who also has potential as a gunner and punt blocker on special teams. Smith is a solid all-around receiver who can play all three positions (flanker, split end, and slot) and has a knack for making plays. Richardson has the second round pick pedigree and electric speed, but has battled injury.

The Seahawks could sit tight with their receiver group, and they would still be in solid position. If a great option falls to them in the draft, they could grab him, but this is not an area of pressing need."

Should Seattle choose to let Kearse walk in free agency, I will not be worried about the wide receiver position. Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, and several young up-and-comers have me excited for the future of this position group.

What does Seattle need to do to sustain cap success in the future?

Seattle has always been willing to make the tough decisions and admit their mistakes. Whether it's moving on from the Percy Harvin debacle, letting Byron Maxwell and Golden Tate walk, or refusing to blink in the Kam Chancellor holdout - Seattle has made a living off of being able to make difficult, future-minded decisions.

Seattle's unique and revolutionary structure of cap management came as a blindside hit to many general managers around the NFL. Many teams focus on building middle tier talent around a superstar quarterback in order to better "even out the team." However, Seattle does not believe this style of management is conducive to building a dynasty. As long as Seattle remains consistent in their star-heavy cap structure, they will remain Super Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future.