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Seahawks Salary Cap: A 2015 Mid-Season Review

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Despite what people are saying - the Seahawks’ cap is not crumbling

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

NFL officials have notified teams to expect a 2016 salary cap limit somewhere between $147-$155M. This gives team management the opportunity to plan their salary budget accordingly and begin personnel changes. It's important to note that league officials typically low-ball their cap projections, giving teams a sort of financial buffer. I would expect the 2016 cap limit to come in officially at around $153M - give or take a little. With the news that the salary cap is again expected to rise, let's take a look at where the Seahawks stand in that crucial part of roster management and team building.

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"Look what’s happening...the fall has begun."

What a strange season it’s been for the Seattle Seahawks. The weirdness of 2015 began with a discouraging player holdout, continued with several heartbreaking losses, and the current state of the team leaves fans on a roller coaster of emotions. One week things look great, the next, despair. Then repeat.

Whether you're optimistic right now or think the wheels are falling off, the reality is this: the Seahawks have led in every game this season. They haven’t been blown out in years – and they’ve had an opportunity to win every game they’ve played. They have literally been competitive in every game for three years running.

Currently, the Seahawks sit at 6-5. Many pessimists will claim the Seattle collapse has already begun – citing myriad reasons. By now – it seems like everyone expects Seattle to be dominant every game of every season. As a result, with the trials and tribulations of this year, the pessimists have taken the spotlight. Some claim that a Super Bowl hangover, personnel changes, and poor cap management have led to their demise.

Regardless, Seattle’s struggles can be attributed to a number of things – and truthfully, no one has all the answers. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong. However, many fans claim that Seattle has poorly managed their cap over the last several years – and that it’s finally catching up to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

As you probably know – the Seahawks salary cap is one of the most controversial topics in all NFL fan circles. Everyone has an opinion on it. The reason? Seattle probably has the most talented roster in the NFL, despite their 6-5 record. Either you hate them or your love them. There never seems to be a middle ground. Strong coaching, revolutionary drafting styles, and a unique salary cap structure has gifted Seattle one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. For the first time in several years, Seattle isn’t completely dominating everyone. And people are freaking out.

I’m going to give you a full mid-season cap analysis for the Seahawks: a brief look at the basics, an analysis of player contracts in relation to their on-field performances, and projecting future personnel and cap moves that will keep Seattle as one of the best cap-managed teams in the NFL.

Let’s look at the basics

Since the beginning of the season, little has changed for Seattle, cap wise. With a unique salary cap limit of $148,629,793 (due to rollover from 2014), Seattle currently sits with $615,800 in cap space.

And really – this isn’t a problem. Seattle, like all NFL teams, has had their salary cap experts outline moves and plan accordingly for this season. If Seattle needed to open up more space, they could do so easily by renegotiating a contract or cutting a player. With no extensions or reports of negotiations so far in the 2015 season, Seattle has kept fairly quiet.

However, after a very gruesome injury in a game against the Cowboys, Seattle gifted wide receiver a Ricardo Lockette a $25,000 signing bonus. Additionally, Seattle did the same with defensive back Deshawn Shead. The reasons are unknown – but the effects are clear. Typically, it’s highly uncommon for NFL teams to give players mini-bonuses mid-season. In a sense, it definitely shows the front office’s willingness to take care of their own.

Besides these two small cap moves, Seattle has been relatively quiet during the first half of the 2015 season. Of course, Seattle could still extend several players before the season’s end. Russell Okung, J.R. Sweezy, Jon Ryan, Jeremy Lane, and Bruce Irvin – among others, are all likely candidates to be negotiated with for potential extensions.

Upset City: Players Underperforming

I recently spoke with Jason from the Over the Cap and he outlined Seattle's major cap questions going forward:

"Clearly the big one here is Marshawn Lynch. He hasn’t been healthy but when he’s played, he hasn’t been effective either. He is basically going to have the worst season of his career since the Bills days. He should not be back next season at his current rate.

With the team being mediocre thus far, you can probably look at a few others too. Jimmy Graham hasn’t been great. Some of that is the fault of the offense but he’s also had some bad drops too. In general  it just seems like a poor fit...

Russell Wilson signed the massive offseason contract but he hasn’t been a franchise savior thus far. I don’t think it was fair to expect him to be, but the same way the QB gets the credit for winning, the microscope gets much more intense and people are realizing that he is still developing as a player. If they do miss the playoffs he'll probably face some real criticism for the first time in his career."

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. I love Marshawn Lynch. You love Marshawn Lynch. We all love Marshawn Lynch. I have great respect for what Marshawn has done for this city – and his role in bringing Seattle a ring. However, considering his current level of health and recent productivity – his cap charges will pose a serious question for Pete and John in the offseason.

After years of brutal hits, Lynch’s body is finally starting to slowly break down. On top of that, he carries an $11.5M cap charge in 2015. If cut in the offseason, Lynch would save the Seahawks $6.5M in cap space (but would carry $5M in dead money from his leftover prorated signing bonus). That’s a lot of cap space in today’s world.

That money and space could be used to extend Russell Okung, Bruce Irvin, Jeremy Lane – or even spend money on the offensive line in free agency. Considering the recent emergence of Thomas Rawls, Lynch might not be worth that $11.5M cap charge.

Currently, Seattle controls Rawls through 2017 – all for less than $600k a year (on a rookie, UDFA contract). A huge bang for our buck, assuming he turns out to be legit. Like I said - don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly thankful for Marshawn Lynch and his contributions to the Seahawks over the past several years. However, considering his current health status and his recent productivity levels, I do not believe Lynch will be worth the $11.5M price tag in 2016.

And if you want my honest opinion – I don’t think Pete Carroll or John Schneider will have to make this tough call. My hunch is that this is Lynch’s last year with Seattle (he'll retire), for better or for worse.

I recently put out a survey asking many Field Gulls' readers for their opinions on how current player contracts related to their on-field performance. Nearly 40% of you listed Marshawn Lynch as one of the under-performers (mainly citing health reasons). Other players who were popular among survey participants for underperforming were Sweezy, Jimmy Graham, and Mebane, I liked what one anonymous user had to say:

"It's a hard thing to say, but there's really no arguing that he hasn't been close to worth what we're paying him this year. In some ways no fault of his own, due to injuries and poor o-line play at the start of the year, but having the second highest cap number on the team this year be almost an afterthought at times, is a bad thing."

Another player I believe that should be put on the hot seat, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Kam Chancellor. After an electric 2014, Kam began his 2015 season by unexpectedly holding out. With a decrease in morale and a missing piece to their legion, the Seahawks started off 0-2.

As it went, the team’s leader missed the first two games and racked over one million dollars in fines. Here are Kam’s upcoming cap charges, per his extension signed in 2013:

Currently, Kam is not playing his best ball. Kam has always been a game changer in the secondary over his career but this season, he just hasn’t played like it. He hasn’t been consistent at times, and seems to be a shell of his former self in pass coverage. Right now, I don't know if he's consistent enough to warrant his current pay. Whatever Kam's issue is, I hope he fixes it and turns it around. And I believe he can. But, following the end of his holdout, reports surfaced suggesting that Kam would ask for a raise in the following offseason, and right now, that looks like a far-fetched dream.

The third and final player many fans brought up in the survey was Cary Williams. Nearly 75-percent of you named Cary as one of the main under-performers on the Seahawks (and with good reason). The former Eagles corner was signed to a three-year deal worth $18 million in free agency during the offseason. Williams' deal contains $7M total in fully guaranteed money – comprised of a $3.5M signing bonus and his 2015 base salary being fully guaranteed.

However, he has been a liability opposite Sherman, and against the 49ers at home two weeks ago, Williams was finally benched after allowing a 36-yard completion to Vance McDonald. Before getting benched in favor of DeShawn Shead, Williams had four passes defensed all year, and it took Shead just one game to match that. ESPN's Brady Henderson elaborated on the factors that led to Cary's benching:

"Coach Pete Carroll characterized the reasoning for the move as a desire to give Shead a shot at cornerback, but his comments also made it clear that Williams' benching was the culmination of some prolonged issues in coverage.

He was beaten deep twice in the first quarter against Cincinnati, leading to a demotion of sorts in that game as Seattle then put Richard Sherman on Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. Williams was also in coverage last week on Arizona's first touchdown pass. Getting beat deep is a cardinal sin in Seattle's defense, one that Williams has apparently committed one too many times this season."

One fan vocalized his frustration with Cary in the survey :

"I get that you are with the most elite in the position and that makes it tough to look good but it is time to rise to the occasion."

Among fans, Cary Williams was far and away the most popular name on the underperformers list. At the time of signage, the cornerback position was incredibly shallow in free agency – and CB-needy teams were considering signing any humans with blood flowing through them to play cornerback.

As a result, in what seemed like a move of desperation after losing Byron Maxwell to Philly, Seattle signed Williams to a three-year deal. I immediately came out against the signing – as I knew of his reputation in Philly and simply didn’t have hope that Cary’s fundamentals could be improved. And it doesn’t look like they have.

Looking back, this was one of the biggest Seahawks’ blunders in the past offseason. Regardless of his past performances, I hope Kris Richards can help him out, work on his fundamentals, and get him back to competing for playing time every week. This team runs better under competition.

Player Playing at Expected Levels

Despite receiving an odd amount of criticism from fans, Richard Sherman is actually having a pretty dang good year. Maybe it’s his decline in trash talk – or maybe a bad taste left in fans’ mouths after the Packers game. Who knows.

Either way, Sherman has been shutting down receivers in pass coverage and limiting anyone who comes his way – players like AJ Green (in which Sherman limited him to 4 catches for 48 yards), Dez Bryant (in which Sherman limited him to two catches for 12 yards on 6 targets), Antonio Brown (3/10 for 24 yards and an INT) and Torrey Smith (who he held to zero catches).

Sherman signed his contract in May of 2014 – averaging around $14M a year.

The good news is that Sherman has been playing like the best corner in the league; and thus, playing at his expected level. Again, I liked what one anonymous user had to say:

"Sherman is paid like the best. And he plays like the best."

In a season where the Legion of Boom has looked significantly weaker, Sherman has remained that constant, steady force that the team depends on and needs.

Another player who has made big time plays for the offense in Doug Baldwin. Numbers lie – and they don’t always display the full story, and Doug Baldwin has been consistently getting open against any defensive back he comes across. Watch the tape. He doesn’t always get the ball – but boy is he running crisp routes and putting himself in positions to do real damage to the defense. One could even argue that Baldwin is outplaying his contract.

Baldwin signed a three-year $12M extension in May of 2014.

Baldwin’s contract averages just over $4M a year. In an offense that doesn’t pass a lot, Baldwin has been as consistent as ever in connecting with Russell Wilson. Per Sheil Kapadia, Russell Wilson has the #1 completion percentage from the pocket and is #2 in passer rating – and Baldwin is a big reason for that. Baldwin has racked up 339 yards in the past three weeks – more than any other receiver in the NFL. Baldwin is well on his way to reaching the 1000 yard mark, something a Seattle receiver hasn’t done in a very long time. I expect him to have an even more productive rest of the season.

Players Outplaying their Contracts

It cannot be overstated how critical Cliff Avril has been to the Seahawks’ defensive line, and to the Seahawks as a whole this year.

If the season ended today, I would name Cliff the Seahawks’ MVP. His ability to put constant pressure on the quarterback this season has set the tone for the Seahawks’ defense.

Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett both have been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Avril has 40 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles on the season while Michael Bennett has 36 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and one forced fumble.

In December of 2014, Cliff signed a 4-year extension with the Seahawks, averaging just over $7M a year.

Michael Bennett signed his four-year extension with the Seahawks in March of 2014. Again, barely averaging over $7M a year.

Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett both could very well have the best bang-for-your-buck DE contracts in the NFL. Jason from Over the Cap agreed:

"I think both Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are having terrific seasons. In terms of sacks the only veterans producing better have been JJ Watt, Cam Wake, DeMarcus Ware, Brian Orakpo, and Carlos Dunlap.

At just over $7 million a season they are among the best values at DE in the entire NFL and you could easily make an argument they are the best non-rookie value. I’d expect Bennett to hold out next season given his play and his belief he is underpaid."

And Jason is right – in terms of their current productivity levels, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are both highly underpaid. There are currently 14 defensive ends in the NFL paid more on an annual basis than Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.

Those defensive ends are: J.J. Watt, Mario Williams, Robert Quinn, Charles Johnson, Chris Long, Greg Hardy, Cameron Jordan, Calais Campbell, Cameron Heyward, Jerry Hughes, Jason Pierre-Paul, Jared Odrick, Everson Griffen, and Carlos Dunlap. Most would agree that Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are better than many of those players.

Just a side-note: we’re going to skip rookies outperforming their contracts – since their contracts are nearly 100-percent pre-set. However, it’s pretty clear that players like Tyler Lockett, Thomas Rawls, and others are outplaying their rookie contracts. These contracts are critical to the Seattle cap structure – allowing them to find talent in areas most teams have already overlooked (cough Rawls cough).

Predicting Upcoming Personnel and Cap Moves

Despite being incredibly frustrating at times, I’ve become more and more in favor of extending Russell Okung. I know he’s not perfect, not always healthy, and certainly not the best at his position. But Okung has been the lone pole of consistently on the Seahawks’ offensive line – and I believe that if we want to start giving Russell protection, they need to start by building around their best piece on the offensive line.

Even if the Seahawks have to overpay slightly, I’m in favor of it. With Lynch likely off the books next year and Cary Williams likely gone, there will be space for the Seahawks to extend Okung.

However, it’s also important to consider that Okung has chosen to forgo an agent and is choosing to represent himself in free agency. This could backfire massively on him – as there’s a reason why agents are encouraged in the NFL. Simply put – agents know the ins and outs of the business – and know when a team is trying to screw them over in their contract. Players have a harder time identifying that.

J.R. Sweezy, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about extending. He’s been extremely frustrating at times (however, you could say that about everyone else on the offensive line too). For him, it’ll come down to the price and what the Seahawks plan to do in the draft and in free agency.

Jason Fitzgerald agreed that the Seahawks’ offensive line was the main issue to target:

"Clearly they need to go and fix their offensive line. They made the decision to pay elsewhere and it has hurt the team. I’m not sure if re-signing Okung is in the books though. He could be expensive but I’m not sure he is that level of player.

Given the teams willingness to take risks I would not be stunned if they instead elect to take a flier on a Ryan Clady who should be released in Denver after season ending injuries in the last three years.

There isn’t much out there if they pass on Okung but I think the more financially reasonable option is to take a veteran risk and then draft a tackle high. I tend to see them headed in that direction overall and seeing what players might get released or are third contract veterans rather than signing long term younger players. The former option is lower in cost and they may see that as the best plan. If they don’t address the offensive line, the team will take a step back next year."

Additionally, I would really like to see the Seahawks extend Jeremy Lane. Lane, despite experiencing some bad luck with injuries, is a vastly underrated slot corner in the Seahawks’ secondary. I have a hunch Seattle will be able to extend him for cheap – and I think the Seahawks should do it.

Bruce Ivrin could be extended too – but it depends on several other moving parts and who the Seahawks decide to extend. Also, Jon Ryan has been a stud in special teams for several years now. They will probably want to extend the Ginja Ninja.

Nearly 75-percent of the participants in the survey graded Seattle with a "positive outlook".

That might just be because they’re Seahawks fans – but they’re 100-percent right. The Seahawks have a more than average amount of cap flexibility (or the ability to open up cap space quickly), per Over the Cap. Seattle has a stronger ability to escape their contracts painless better than other teams – giving them a slight edge over other teams in how they manage their cap.

Additionally, Seattle has ZERO full future guarantees at time of signing. The Seahawks are the only team in the NFL that lay claim to that title. If you want to learn more about cap flexibility, I highly recommend you follow that OTC link and read their series on it. This is what Bryce Johnston of OTC had to say about Seattle’s cap future:

"Because the Seahawks have extended so many young core players over the past several years, it is tempting to fall under the impression that the team is on the verge of some sort of cap-induced break up.

However, the Seahawks still rank below the league average in Commitment Index, and it will probably take a large Russell Okung contract in February/March to push them over 100+.

While all of these players may collectively account for a large amount of cap room going forward, the vast majority of the amount consists of non-guaranteed base salary.

The team will likely not have to initiate cap gymnastics until 2017, at which point there will be enough malleable contract money to create cap room for several years through restructuring productive players or releasing nonproductive players."

In John Schneider I trust.

Questions about the cap? You can read my past cap articles in the Cap Classroom on Fieldgulls or interact with me on Twitter!