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How much exactly will Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson cost the Seahawks?

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San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson arguing over who gets paid first
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It’s been just over a week since the Seattle Seahawks signed middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to a contract extension that makes him the highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL. As I have previously noted, Wagner takes back the title of highest paid off ball linebacker for the first time since 2015 in eclipsing the contract that the New York Jets had given to C.J. Mosley.

The size of the extension, combined with the fact that the Seahawks made Russell Wilson the highest paid player in the NFL back in April, has some fans concerned about the Hawks’ ability to field a competitive team going forward because of the size of the commitments to these two players. However, let’s take a look at the validity of this concern by first looking at how much Wilson and Wagner will cost the team going forward.

Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson cost versus estimated salary cap going forward

Cap Year Russell Wilson Bobby Wagner Combined Leftover Cap
Cap Year Russell Wilson Bobby Wagner Combined Leftover Cap
2019 $26,286,766 $15,850,000 $42,136,766 $146,683,234
2020 $31,000,000 $14,750,000 $45,750,000 $154,250,000
2021 $32,000,000 $17,150,000 $49,150,000 $162,850,000
2022 $37,000,000 $20,350,000 $57,350,000 $167,650,000
2023 $39,000,000 N/A $39,000,000 N/A

The last column in the table is an estimate of the cap. Obviously, we know the cap for 2019 is set to be $188.2M, and the cap for 2020 is likely to be somewhere in the area of $200M. Without a CBA in place to divide league revenues for 2021 and beyond, the projected cap numbers for 2021 and 2022 are simply numbers I’ve made up based on a continuation of cap growth in the six percent range that has been seen in recent seasons. Maybe it’s right, or maybe it’s wrong, but in any case, those are the numbers I’m using.

Now, the remaining amount of cap space for future seasons may not seem like a ton to attempt to fit in 51 players, injured reserve, the practice squad and dead money, but there is one key thing to keep in mind, and that is the rookie wage scale. The rookie wage scale acts to suppress salary costs for roughly two thirds of the roster for any NFL team.

If the Seahawks were to break camp by cutting only the least expensive players on the roster, they’d have 25 players on the 53 man roster with a cap hit of less than $1M, and there would be 33 players with a cap hit of less than $2M. In short, largely because of the way the rookie wage scale keeps salaries artificially low during the first four years of a player’s career, the bottom 35 players on an NFL roster will typically have cap hits that combine for less than $40M.

So, between Wilson and Wagner’s large cap hits and the 35 players with lower cap hits, the Hawks are really only looking at needing to fill roughly 16 roster spots with more than $100M in cap space to do so. That is more than enough to address the needs of the team and fill in holes in the roster that pop up.

Now, the equation could change slightly if a new CBA sees massive increases in minimum salaries. Minimum salaries have traditionally increased by 15-20% when a new CBA has gone into place, and if that is again the case, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Such an increase would see lower level players making an additional $100k to $200k depending on how much experience they have, which would mean an additional $3M to $5M of cap space is all that would really be required to cover these costs. With the Seahawks currently looking at comfortably north of $50M in available cap space in 2020 and beyond, absorbing that additional cost would not be difficult.

However, if for some reason the NFLPA decides to go hard after huge salary increases, it could prove an issue. Seeing minimum salaries increase by fifty percent or more, along with a corresponding adjustment in signing bonuses for the rookie wage scale could see teams needing $20M to $30M to cover the additional costs of the lower salary players, if not more. While the Seahawks front office has positioned the team to be able to withstand that kind of increase, many other teams have not.

In addition, if the players decide to shift some of their revenue allocation from current salary to future benefits, such as increased future pension and health insurance benefits, that could see a repeat of the stagnating cap the league experienced from 2009 through 2013. Even if that comes to pass, however, the Seahawks have built in the roster and salary cap flexibility they need to withstand it. However, there are plenty of teams that have constructed their roster based on an ever increasing cap or have borrowed from future cap years by converting base salary to signing bonus in order to kick the can down the road.

In any case, the point is that the Seahawks should be fine going forward, even with Wagner and Wilson on the books for huge money, and even if the salary cap growth stalls out all of a sudden.