It is no secret that the Seattle Seahawks are in the market for a left tackle, and that acquiring a quality veteran to take over for Rees Odhiambo could make a world of difference over the remaining eleven weeks of the regular season and through the postseason. Unfortunately for the Hawks, one of the major stumbling blocks has been the salary cap and the constraints under which the team is operating financially this season.
Branden Albert has been the primary focus of fans for much of the past week, having visited Seattle and received an offer he reportedly declined. The big issue, of course, is that the Seahawks have very little 2017 cap space available, as according to OverTheCap.com they are currently sitting at just a hair under $1.8M in available cap space. With Cliff Avril moving to IR, a portion of that available space will be eaten by whoever is added to the roster to fill his spot. If they add a minimum salary rookie into that spot, that will use up approximately $301k over the remainder of the season, while a seasoned veteran would use up significantly more. If Ahtyba Rubin, who was just released by the Denver Broncos this week, could be signed for the minimum it would prorate out to around $582k for the rest of the season. However, that would be prior to applying the veteran minimum cap exemption, which should lower that number down to just a bit below $400k.
In any case, it’s tight, and it’s not going to get better. Thus, the team is already looking at having less than $1.5M in available cap space to cover injury replacements for the rest of the season, and frankly, that doesn’t leave much wiggle room at all for adding Branden Albert. There is the possiblity that the team could move some money around by restructuring a contract or two, but the front office has only done that when absolutely necessary. They could also create cap room by trading a player, and a prime candidate for that would be Jeremy Lane. With rookie Shaquill Griffin is playing well, Justin Coleman taking over as the nickel CB and DeShawn Shead getting closer to coming off the PUP list, the roster may be very crowded at CB very soon.
So, that’s why it is time to get creative in structuring Albert’s contract.
Option 1: Voidable Back End Seasons
By creating fake seasons on the back end of the contract which are voidable under a player option it would allow the cash flow of the contract to be frontloaded while the majority of the cap hit is deferred. For example, the two sides could agree to a five year contract that pays Albert the minimum salary for each of the five seasons of the contract and which comes with a $5M signing bonus. The contract would give Albert the right to opt out of the contract sometime between the Super Bowl and the start of the league year in March. With nine accrued seasons under his belt, Albert’s minimum base salary would be $900k for 2017, however, as there are only 11 of 17 weeks left in the year, the pro rated portion of that $900k the team would owe over the rest of the season would be just $582,352. The signing bonus would be broken up for amortization over the five years of the contract, with $1M being recognized in each season through 2021. That would make Albert’s total 2017 cap hit $1.582M.
At first glance that would appear to be more than the roughly $1.5M the team has available for 2017, however, because Albert would be taking someone else’s spot on the roster, the team would save whatever unpaid portion is owed to the player whose spot Albert is taking. Say, for example, the team decided to waive Isaiah Battle to make room for Albert. After spending seven games on the Los Angeles Rams roster in 2015 and all of 2016 on the Rams practice squad, Battle has one accrued season and thus has a salary this year of $540,000. He has already been paid for the first six weeks of the season, but is owed $349,412 over the rest of the year. Because that $349,412 has already been baked into the Seahawks available cap space calculations, the amount needed to be recognized to sign Albert would only be marginal difference between the $582,352 Albert would be owed and the $349,412 already accounted for Battle, or $232,940. Thus, while it would definitely make the team’s cap space tighter, it would be posssible to add Albert structuring the transaction in such a way.
The biggest downside to this method would be the automatic creation of dead money in 2018, where the team is already starting to get low on space. And when 2018 gets here, the Hawks are going to need every dollar of cap space they can find as they attempt to retain as many of the extension eligible players such as Frank Clark, Sheldon Richardson, Paul Richardson, Tyler Lockett and a host of others.
Option 2: Back End Options
Back end options would work similarly in allowing the team to defer part of Albert’s earnings and cap hit until 2018. This could be accomplished through several different methods, but the simplest would be to create dual options on Albert, where the team pays him regardless of whether they cut him or keep him on the roster. For example, the team could structure his contract as a two year contract with minimum salaries in each of 2017 and 2018, and Albert would have an option to opt out of his contract after the 2017 season. This opt out clause would include a setup so that if Albert did opt out he would be guaranteed some sort of payment from the Seahawks. This would effectively act as a deferred signing bonus for Albert.
Option 3: Fully Guaranteed Future Salary
Another similar alternative would be to defer some of Albert’s salary through the use of fully guaranteed future salaries. For example, they could agree to pay him $4.582M to play for the team this season, with $582k coming in the form of a minimum base salary this season, with the remaining $4M being paid as fully guaranteed base salary over the coming years. By giving him a fully guaranteed base of $2M in each of 2018 and 2019 without offset language in the contract, Albert would know he is guaranteed to receive $4.582M to play the rest of the year for the Hawks, however by utilizing an opt out clause in the contract Albert would be guaranteed not to be required to play for Seattle past 2017. Even in that case he would receive the remaining $4M of salary regardless of whether he was on the Hawks roster or not. Again the team would simply be kicking the can down the road with this structure, so its attractiveness does have limitations. In addition, Albert would probably prefer to have his money now, rather than a year or two in the future when those future salaries would be paid.
Option 4: Sign and Trade
And thus, the structure I would opt for comes into play. It’s time to borrow a page from the NBA’s playbook and for Seattle to pursue a sign and trade with one of the teams that has plenty of available cap space. There are two 0-6 teams in the NFL right now, the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers, and both of those teams have north of $60M in available cap space. Rumors are already swirling that those teams would be willing to trade certain of their assets in exchange for draft picks, and here’s the chance for one of them to use that cap space to buy a draft pick or two.
What I feel the Seattle front office should do is to get into discussions with the Browns about having Cleveland sign Branden Albert to a contract that includes a league minimum base salary ($900k for 2017) with whatever further money is necessary to sign him coming in the form of a signing bonus. Once the Hawks have the details of that contract worked out, Albert signs with the Browns and is then immediately traded to Seattle. The Seahawks then have their new left tackle for the rest of 2017 with a cap hit of just $582k.
The key to this would be working out the compensation for such a trade, but things could be complicated by Seattle having already traded away both its second and sixth round draft choices in 2018. In addition, the Hawks will not be receiving any comp picks in the 2018 draft, so surrendering 2018 draft capital could severely restrict the team next offseason. We all know that Schneider is likely to trade back and add picks when the draft does arrive, but even that might not be sufficient to put the team in positions similar to where it has been in years past. However, one thing the Hawks have going for them is that with Cleveland being so, so, so bad and evidence so far pointing to the idea that the Browns are likely to stay bad in the next couple of years, the Browns may be looking to add draft picks not just in 2018, but 2019 as well. If the Hawks can use some of their 2019 draft capital to make a sign and trade of Branden Albert happen, then that might be an acceptable option. With 16 current players slated to be free agents next spring and limited cap space available in 2018 to play in the free agent market, the Hawks are very likely to be receiving comp picks in the 2019 draft, and they still hold their full complement of 2019 selections.
Some might ask if there would be a difference between doing such a trade with the 49ers and the Browns, and that answer is yes for a couple of reasons. The first is the obvious reasoning that the Niners are not likely to want to help out a divisional rival, and the second is tax related. The signing bonus would be taxed in the state in which the original contract is signed by the player, and with the top marginal tax rate in Ohio of 4.997% being far lower than the top marginal tax rate in California of 13.3%. Thus, the Niners might be in a position to demand additional draft capital as compensation since it would take a larger signing bonus to net the same amount of after tax income to Albert, and thus could require more cap space from the Niners. It's not a huge difference, but it could play a part.
In any situation, a lot could happen between now and the trade deadline on Halloween, but I will be holding out hope for a sign and trade of this nature in order to shore up the LT position between now and February 4.