Earlier this season Field Gulls took a quick look at the 2021 salary cap picture for the Seattle Seahawks going forward. In addition, the time was taken to do a quick 30,000 foot overview of the starters who are not under contract past 2020 and the holes the team might need to fill in the offseason. The combination of the two yielded a picture of a team that does not immediately appear to have the cap space that might be necessary to retain those key free agents while also building for the future, however, as is typically the case for NFL teams, cap space is somewhat fungible.
So, while the immediate reaction of some fans to the idea of the Hawks having very little in the way of cap space for the offseason was to immediately call for the release of Jarran Reed or Carlos Dunlap in order to free up space, those moves may not be necessary. Specifically, if Dunlap manages to play the remainder of the season in a manner that even partially resembles what he did against the Buffalo Bills - a sack, two quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and five pressures - that’s a piece of the pass rush that the team would probably be happy to keep around.
Of course, the catch with retaining Dunlap would be his scheduled $14.1M cap hit in 2021, which is slated to be the third highest of any player on the roster. However, because he was acquired in trade and has no guaranteed money left, that gives the Seahawks significant wiggle room and some negotiating leverage as they head into the offseason and potentially work on a contract extension. For example, with no guaranteed money left, the Seahawks could offer Dunlap a two or year extension which would keep him with the team through 2023 (his age 34 season) that would come with $15M in guaranteed money and would lower his cap hit. Dunlap would obviously benefit from that in that he would go from having zero guaranteed money to having $15M in guaranteed money, while the team gets the benefits of a smaller 2021 cap hit and frees up some cap space.
Exactly what the terms of such an extension would look like are largely up in the air, so I won’t even venture a guess at this point, but it could easily result in creating nearly $10M in cap space depending on structure and form of guarantees. The risk, for the team, obviously, would be giving guarantees to a player entering their mid-thirties, but that’s a risk they have taken in the past with trench players like Michael Bennett and Duane Brown. Obviously any discussion surrounding an extension for Dunlap turns on how he plays over the remainder of the season, but if he plays like he did in Week 9, then it might be more surprising if he isn’t extended this offseason than if he is.
Having mentioned Duane Brown in the process of discussing Dunlap, would also be a candidate for an extension to free up cap space. There is no denying that I am the conductor on the risk management train, and there is zero question that Brown is past the age by which tackles begin to see their play decline. Add in the knee issue for which Brown had surgery late last season, and there is no doubt that concerns exist. Having acknowledged those risks however, there is absolutely no denying that Brown is having a phenomenal season and outperforming the expectations of even the most optimistic fans.
There are risks to any extension for Brown because of his age, but a big piece of the decision process comes down to a single question: will Brown be the starting left tackle for Seattle in 2021? If that answer is expected to be yes, then any decision tree effectively reduces the outcome to the fact that Brown’s 2021 salary will be guaranteed. That is reached because if Brown is expected to be the starting left tackle, he either completes training camp healthy and is on the Week 1 roster meaning his base salary becomes fully guaranteed. The alternative is that if he suffers a serious injury in training camp, then because injured players cannot be released, he will go to injured reserve where he will earn his full salary. There is not a lot of in between, meaning that for all intents and purposes, if he’s going to be on the roster in 2021, his base salary is going to be paid out one way or another.
Thus, once a decision is made that he will be the starter in 2021, the team stands to benefit by extending him for a season or two, converting much of the money that would be paid to him in 2021 from base salary to signing bonus. That keeps Brown happy by not changing his expected earnings, while benefitting the team by pushing part of his scheduled $13M cap hit for 2021 into the future.
Dunlap and Brown are the two players for whom an extension carries the highest level of risk because of their age, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those deals done until training camp. However, there are several younger players on the roster also set to enter the final year of their contract in 2021. Those players include:
- Tyler Lockett (29 in 2021)
- Quandre Diggs (28 in 2021)
- Jamal Adams (26 in 2021) and
- Jarran Reed (29 in 2021).
All of those players carry cap hits for 2021 which could be reduced through an extension, and which could keep the players with the team for the foreseeable future. How large an extension and how much cap space could be created would, of course, depend on the structure and terms of the deal, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine the team could extend any of those four if the terms are agreeable.
That all said, having looked at just these six players and the potential to create cap space, the Hawks could easily clear $20M in 2021 cap space by doing no more than extending some of their key players. Doing so would, of course, carry the risk of pushing cap hit into future seasons, but if that is the tradeoff for retaining a younger player such as Ethan Pocic, Chris Carson, Poona Ford, Jordan Simmons or any of the other key members of the team scheduled to be free agents, that is a risk that might be worth it.
At the end of the day, what it comes down to for the Seahawks in 2021 is that there is ample opportunity for the team to create more than enough cap space to make the necessary moves to build out the roster without needing to immediately jump to releasing players. Releases certainly remain an option, as do restructures to convert base salary to signing bonus for certain players if need be, but at the end of the day, fans should not expect to see a massive wave of some of the team’s higher priced players released solely for cap reasons. Now, if those players don’t perform on the field, then it won’t be a surprise if there are higher priced players let go for cap purposes, but given the current structure of the roster that seems to be the opposite of what to look for.