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Can the Seahawks fit Russell Wilson and other Seahawks under the cap?

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Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Much of the talk this week surrounding the Seattle Seahawks has revolved around the subject of the April 15 deadline that Wilson and his camp have reportedly given the team to reach agreement on a contract extension. Any contract Wilson signs carries the possibility of being the largest contract signed by any player in NFL history, and leads to the question of whether Seattle has the ability to sign contract extensions with Wilson and the other members of the team that are extension eligible.

It is no secret that beyond Wilson the Hawks face contract questions on several other members of the team, including Bobby Wagner, Jarran Reed and Frank Clark, so a concern has arisen among fans and observers how the team can fit these players under the cap and still build the team moving forward. So, in order to assuage some of these fears, this piece is simply to lay out how the team can fit all four of these players under the cap moving forward, and how much of the cap it will consume.

Now, before getting into random, completely made up numbers, let’s take a look at one piece that will most certainly get brought up by fans in the comments, and that is the remainder of the roster. Obviously, the salary cap must cover not just these four players, but the other 49 players on the roster, the practice squad and injured reserve. In order to account for these, I’ll set aside $2M for the practice squad and $4M for injured reserve from the cap for each year. That is a total of $6M off the top of the cap each season for players not actually on the roster, and then it becomes time to account for the other 49 players.

The first thing to note about these 49 players is that the majority of them will be on rookie contracts or under team control without any ability to negotiate a salary higher than league minimum. In looking at the 2019 Seahawks, if the season were to start today, there would likely be 36 players that fit this criteria with combined cap hits of just $35.4M. That number is without considering any rookies from the upcoming draft or undrafted free agent signees, and as such, the number of players on the roster in this group could increase. However, rather than speculate about this, I’ll simply use the same number - 36 players - while increasing the combined cap hit to $40M.

For those interested in who those 36 players are and their cap hits, here is a table that lays that information out, with the data courtesy of OverTheCap.com.

Rookie contract and minimum salary players

Player 2019 Cap Hit
Player 2019 Cap Hit
George Fant $3,095,000
Germain Ifedi $2,629,807
Rashaad Penny $2,446,690
Quinton Jefferson $2,025,000
Jarran Reed $1,555,793
Akeem King $1,400,000
Ethan Pocic $1,202,464
Neiko Thorpe $1,000,000
C.J. Prosise $918,116
Nick Vannett $900,220
Shaquill Griffin $869,655
Rasheem Green $867,139
Delano Hill $859,869
Amara Darboh $844,572
Nazair Jones $844,572
Tedric Thompson $813,003
Will Dissly $732,567
Jamie Meder $720,000
Tyler Ott $720,000
Branden Jackson $720,000
J.D. McKissic $720,000
Kalan Reed $720,000
Joey Hunt $720,000
Chris Carson $661,285
Shaquem Griffin $649,405
Marwin Evans $645,000
Paxton Lynch $645,000
Shalom Luani $645,000
David Moore $645,000
Tre Flowers $644,681
Michael Dickson $642,538
Jacob Martin $610,510
Poona Ford $572,666
Emmanuel Ellerbe $570,000
Justin Currie $570,000
Keenan Reynolds $570,000
Total (36 Players) $35,395,552

From there, combining the $40M from the rookie and minimum salary players with the $6M from practice squad and injured reserve, that is $46M off the top of the cap, while accounting for 36 players. Thus, the next step is to begin to work Wilson, Wagner, Clark and Reed into the cap after accounting for the above. OverTheCap.com projects the 2020 cap to be $200M, and in order to be conservative I’ll assume the cap will stay stagnant into the next CBA, just as it did entering the current CBA.

When the league adopted the current CBA, the cap stayed basically flat for the first three seasons, and if that is the case for the next CBA, it would keep the cap flat for 2021, 2022 and 2023. That is important to note because it covers the time period which the contracts I’ll propose here will run, with the exception of Wilson’s, who I’d propose signing to a contract longer than the team’s standard four year deal. I’ll get into the specifics of that elsewhere on another day, as today’s exercise is to simply show how these four can fit under the cap.

Proposed structure of contracts (in millions)

Player New Contract 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
Player New Contract 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
Wilson 5/200 17 39 39 39 39 52
Wagner 3/52 10 14 15 17 N/A N/A
Clark 5/110 19 21 20 24 26 N/A
Reed 4/70 6 15 16 17 18 N/A
Total N/A 52 89 90 97 N/A N/A

The first thing you’ll note is that the numbers for the contracts do not add up to the contract size. This is because the contracts for Wilson and Reed include their 2019 cap hits on top of the new money in the contract. For Wagner, only the prorated portion of this previous signing bonus and a minimal 2019 salary are included in the number. For Clark, it is irrelevant because his 2019 salary on any tracking site such as OTC is simply a placeholder at this point due to the fact that it is non-guaranteed until he actually signs the franchise tag tender.

So, here’s a rough picture of what the cap hits for the team by season based on the above assumptions.

Ballpark cap space approximations moving forward

Category 2019 2020 2021 2022
Category 2019 2020 2021 2022
Salary Cap 200 200 200 200
PS & IR 6 6 6 6
Rookie/Min (36 players) 40 40 40 40
Big Four 52 89 90 97
Remaining cap space (13 roster spots) 102 65 64 57

That’s far from a beautiful cap space picture, however, it does show that it is possible to sign all four of those players to large contracts and fit them under the cap. However, what I have yet to mention is that those numbers are all absolute top of market numbers. Those contracts would make Wilson the highest paid QB by a wide margin, would make Wagner with the highest paid inside linebacker, would make Reed the highest paid 4-3 defensive tackle and would make Clark the highest paid 4-3 defensive end.

What I’m saying is that in part because the team drafted so poorly for several years and has given a substantial second contract to only two players from the 2013-2015 draft classes, the team has money to burn on these four players because they will likely be the core of the team in the coming years.

Now, one of the big risks to making all four of these players the highest paid at their positions comes from the possibility of the minimum salaries seeing a substantial jump under the next CBA. Each time the NFL and the NFLPA have agreed on a new CBA, minimum salaries have traditionally seen a 15-20% bump, but my guess is any salary jump in 2021 will be far larger than even 20%. Taking a look at it from a worst case scenario, just imagine what would happen if minimum salaries were to double.

Just for an idea of what could happen, let’s assume the amount of money needed to cover the bottom 36 roster slots were to double. This is what the same cap picture from above would look like going forward.

Ballpark cap space approximations assuming rookie and minimum salary expenses double beginning in 2021

Category 2019 2020 2021 2022
Category 2019 2020 2021 2022
Salary Cap 200 200 200 200
PS & IR 6 6 6 6
Rookie/Min (36 players) 40 40 80 80
Big Four 52 89 90 97
Remaining cap space (13 roster spots) 102 65 24 17

That cap picture gets real ugly real fast in 2021, and that is the risk to not just the Seahawks, but any team moving forward. That is exactly the type of salary cap stagnation combined with minimum salary growth that led to the 2012 and 2013 timeframe in which Seattle was able to capitalize on a free agent market where the majority of teams were not well positioned financially. In addition, with several teams having set up their roster and salary cap on the assumptions of a continually rising cap, many teams quickly found themselves up against or even over the cap, which led to teams shedding larger contracts.

Thus, the key question for the Seahawks is not whether or not they can sign all four of Wilson, Wagner, Clark and Reed to contracts, as they most certainly can.

The important question becomes putting the puzzle together in such a way that the team retains those four players while maintaining cap flexibility going forward so that the team can remain competitive regardless of structural changes that may result under the new CBA.