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How Bobby Wagner’s patience paid off with a huge raise

NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Training Camp
Bobby Wagner telling Shaquill Griffin about all the cool stuff he’s going to buy once he signs his new contract
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past several seasons, the Seattle Seahawks have been through a fair share of contract drama with a variety of different players. They’ve seen holdouts from Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Marshawn Lynch, been through franchise tag drama with Frank Clark and put up with Michael Bennett’s years long complaining about his contract.

However, in spite of all the drama around the money, there was never much of a peep from All Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, who simply showed up and did his job to the tune of four first team All Pro and five Pro Bowl selections. While he had technically been one of the highest paid linebackers in the NFL since signing his contract extension in 2015, the fact that Wagner’s contract remained at or near the top of the average salary for linebackers had been one of those unique exceptions to the general rules regarding salary inflation.

Linebacker salaries had been flat since both Wagner and Luke Kuechly signed their contracts late in the summer of 2015. Fans and observers can debate until they are blue in the face whether Wagner or Kuechly is better (it’s Wagner), and arguments can be made for either side about who is the best off ball linebacker in the NFL (not Kuechly) and there’s no doubt that who is the best run stopping linebacker in the NFL (it starts with a B and ends with a Wagz).

In any case, if there was a member of the Seahawks who had legitimate grounds to demand a new contract at the end of the 2018 season, it was Wagner. His performance is consistently at such a high level, and his skills and abilities are unquestionable. Any argument that he should have been the highest paid off ball linebacker following the conclusion of the 2018 season is easy to justify, and Wagner had every right to demand every single penny he could. Not just after the season, but fans and observers alike probably wouldn’t have protested too much had Wagner started mentioning his contract in the middle of the 2018 season. That doesn’t seem to be his style, and is unlikely something he would do, but it certainly wouldn’t have been unwarranted. Wagner is simply that good, and fans know it.

Okay, I think you get the point. Wagner is really, really good. So, having established that Wagner is really good, and had he demanded a contract with the highest average annual salary at the end of the 2018 season, no one - not fans, not front office people and certainly not talking heads on television - would have argued otherwise. So, how much would Wagner have stood to make had he demanded a contract immediately upon the conclusion of the 2018 season?

To answer that, let’s take a look at the largest contracts by average annual salary for off ball linebackers like Wagner across the NFL. Here are the five contracts that carried larger annual salaries than Bobby prior to yesterday.

Highest paid off ball linebackers prior to Wagner’s extension

Player Total Value Average Per Year Year Drafted
Player Total Value Average Per Year Year Drafted
C.J. Mosley $85M $17M 1.17 (2014)
Deion Jones $57M $14.25M 2.52 (2016)
Anthony Barr $67.5M $13.5M 1.9 (2014)
Kwon Alexander $54M $13.5M 4.124 (2015)
Luke Kuechly $61.795M $12.359M 1.9 (2012)

The first thing noticeable about that table is when the majority of those players were drafted. Specifically, all of the top four players on that list played the 2018 season on their rookie contract. C.J. Mosley and Anthony Barr both played the 2018 season on the fifth year option of the contracts that came with their status as first round picks in 2014. Kwon Alexander, as a fourth round pick in 2015, played on the final year of his rookie contract, earning $1.907M after having qualified for the Proven Performance Escalator as laid out in the CBA. And 2016 second round pick of the Atlanta Falcons Deion Jones just signed his extension on July 20 rather than play the 2019 season on the final year of his rookie contract.

Thus, all of the top four contracts are new from this offseason. Specifically, when free agency kicked off in March, Alexander wasted no time getting a bag full of money from the San Francisco 49ers on a contract that would make him the highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL at $13.5M per year.

Alexander’s status as the highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL lasted about eight hours before Barr agreed to a contract with the New York Jets that would pay him $15M per year.

However, Barr found out signing with the Jets would mean having to play for the Jets, and he quickly backed out of his verbal agreement with Gang Green. He then agreed to a deal with the Minnesota Vikings that would pay him just as much as Alexander was set to make with the 49ers.

Not wanting to be left without a run stopping linebacker, the Jets then apparently spent the evening partaking and decided to give C.J. Mosley all the money.

Thus, even though Alexander and Barr had gone to bed on the night of Monday, March 11, 2019 as the highest paid linebackers in the NFL, by the time they woke up and drank their coffee on the morning of Tuesday, March 12, they were already tied for being just the second highest paid.

In short, the top of the market for off ball linebackers had been set by Kuechly on September 10, 2015 when he signed a five-year, $62M contract extension. That contract kept Kuechly as the highest paid at his position for three years, six months and a day. Then the 2019 NFL free agency period arrived, and this is how long each player held the title of highest paid linebacker.

  • Wagner (in 2015): 1 month, 1 week and 1 day (8/2/2015 - 9/10/2015)
  • Kuechly: 3 years, 6 months and 1 day (9/10/2015 - 3/11/2019)
  • Alexander: 7 hours, 43 minutes (3/11/2019 1:47 PM - 3/11/2019 9:30 PM)
  • Barr: 8 hours, 44 minutes (3/11/2019 9:30 PM - 3/12/2019 6:14 AM)
  • Mosley: 4 months and two weeks (3/12/2019 - 7/26/2019)
  • Wagner: ??? (7/26/2019 - ??)

So, for the second time in his career Wagner is the highest paid at his position. How long he’ll hold on to that title is obviously completely unknown, however, his patience in waiting for a new contract paid off handsomely.

If Wagner had demanded the team give him a new contract back in January or February, the Hawks could have made him the highest paid linebacker in the NFL on a three-year contract for as little as $37.5M. His current contract carries and average annual salary of one million more than the prior holder of the highest paid title. If Seattle had given Wagner an extension that averaged a million dollars per year more than Kuechly’s then NFL high of $12.4M back in February, it would have been a three year, $40.2M contract.

That means that simply by being patient and keeping his head down Wagner likely made an extra $14M or so on his current contract extension. That’s $14M he can use to buy all kinds of neat stuff, and $14M extra dollars he wouldn’t be getting if he’d demanded an extension late in the 2018 season or early in the offseason. From the team’s perspective, it would have obviously been nice to have that extra $14M over the next few years of cap space, but after more than three years of the market being stagnant, it would have been hard to predict the eruption in March. The team has to give the money to someone and they might as well give it to one of the greatest players in team history.