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What if Jermaine Kearse gets extended instead of released?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at New Orleans Saints
Kearse catches game winning pass, but lands out of bounds. Details.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

With offseason activities now in the past, we are in the final lull of nothingness before training camp begins later this month. In the meantime we’re left to debate who will stay and who will go come roster cut time. Unlike in years past, there is only one round of cuts this year, with the the league having eliminated the initial cut to 75 and instead just doing one mass cut from 90 to 53. This should mean a lot more game tape for youngsters and fringe players during Week 4 of the preseason when most starters got limited time in any case.

One of the players whose position on the team is certain to be hotly debated among fans is the same player whose position on the team has been hotly debated for several consecutive years: Jermaine Kearse.

Kearse signed a contract in 2016 that many fans felt he hadn’t earned, and with his cap hit set to escalate in each of the next two seasons he has been named as a likely cap casualty; if not in 2017, then with near certainty in 2018 when his cap hit balloons to $6.83M. That 2018 cap hit, the majority of which ($5M) is non-guaranteed base salary, jumps out to many fans as a potential source of significant cap savings if Kearse is cut before the 2018 season. However, the Seahawks could easily massage the structure of Kearse’s contract in order to extend him for several more seasons. Kearse’s deal, like many of the other second contracts signed by the Hawks, has a last year with a cap hit that is significantly larger than the other years of the contract. Should Kearse improve upon his 2016 performance this coming year it would be extremely easy and affordable for the Hawks to adjust his contract for an extension.

For example, they could guarantee his 2018 base salary in lieu of giving him a signing bonus, and then extend him at a level of salary which would keep his cap hits in line with his 2016 and 2017 cap hits going forward rather easily. Alternatively, if they are looking for a lower cap number from him for 2018, they could convert 80% of that base salary to signing bonus, drop Kearse’s 2018 base salary to $1M and extend him three years, resulting in a 2018 cap hit of $4.1M, or almost exactly what his 2017 cap hit is without changing the cash flow to Kearse at all.

That type of structure has been built into many of the second contracts Seattle has signed with players, including Russell Wilson ($23.2M cap hit in 2019 is only season with cap hit above contract APY of $21.9M), Earl Thomas ($10.4M cap hits for 2017 and 2018 are only cap hits above APY), Doug Baldwin ($12.4M cap hit for 2020 is only cap hit above APY; Baldwin’s second contract was very similar to Kearse’s - three years for $13M), Kam Chancellor ($8.125M cap hit for 2017 is only season above APY), K.J. Wright, Jeremy Lane, Cliff Avril and others. This is the way the team structures their second contracts in a way which gives them flexibility to not only move on from underperforming players, but also to extend players whose age and play warrants keeping them in the fold.

Coming back to Kearse, one of the biggest thing to keep in mind when it comes to his 2018 cap hit is not just the potential savings if he were to be cut, it’s the flexibility that is built into the contract and the options that gives the team going forward. The big savings many fans see as available by cutting Kearse also offers the team the ability to easily extend Kearse through his age 31 season without too much difficulty, and the late 20s and early 30s are typically the prime productive years for a wide receiver.

But why talk of keeping Kearse around at all given his recent struggles and fan consternation surrounding his presence at the moment?

Many fans have been quick to point out that the Hawks drafted multiple wide receivers this year — Amara Darboh, David Moore, and the intriguing pre-draft signing of Cyril Grayson — and the competition at the spot is likely to be intense, however the expectations for rookie wide receivers needs to be set at a realistic level. The Seahawks were lucky to get significant production out of Baldwin and Tyler Lockett as rookies, however, that far from the norm — Baldwin’s 788 receiving yards in 2011 was third among all undrafted rookie receivers of the past 25 years, and Lockett’s 664 yards in 2015 comes in 74th among all first-year receivers in that same timeframe.

Those numbers make Baldwin and Lockett the exception, not the rule, and as such that type of production should not be counted on from Seattle’s young receivers, but that’s a different post for a different day. Kearse may not be leaving as soon as we think.