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Entering the 2015 Season: A Seahawks Cap Analysis

Why everything you’ve heard about the Seahawks cap situation is most likely wrong.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"The Seahawks are screwed, man – how are they going to sign all those stars?!"

"All their players are overpaid."

"I’m a Seahawks fan, and I say if it’s more then $20 million a year let Russell Wilson walk. He’s a franchise quarterback and should be paid as such, but he is not top three."

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. Either you hate them or your love them. There never seems to be a middle ground.

They boast five All-Pros in Marshawn Lynch, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Bobby Wagner – a top tier quarterback, and of the best defenses in NFL history. The Seahawks have more talent than any other NFL team. There’s a reason they’ve been to back-to-back Super Bowls and been one of the most dominant teams in recent history.

Strong coaching, revolutionary drafting styles, and a unique salary cap structure has established Seattle as one of the best teams in the NFL.

...and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

It’s true – the Seahawks can’t keep everyone. They truly can’t. But you better believe they’re going to keep all (or most) the good ones. I believe the Seahawks are in above-average cap position – and in this article, I hope to do a decent job backing up that position.

I’m going to give you a full cap analysis for the Seahawks in 2015: current space, contract breakdowns, upcoming extensions, and highlighting the key practices that will keep Seattle dominant for a very long time.

Let’s look at the basics

With a $143.28M cap limit for all NFL teams in 2015, the Seahawks actually have very little wiggle room. After signing Bobby and Russell to fat team-extensions to keep their core in place, signing bonuses from these two players actually left the Seahawks with very little space in 2015. Per Over the Cap, the Seahawks currently have roughly $4,947,686 in cap space. However – this isn’t really a problem...and I’ll explain why.

At the beginning of each season, teams put aside $4M for IR and $1M for practice squad. So in terms of "real space" – as Davis Hsu likes to say, the Seahawks are slightly over the cap. They will have to make a move before the NFL season starts, to open up space. However, this can be easily done. This can come in the form of an extension, restructure, or flat-out cut of a player.

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In terms of an extension, the Seahawks could extend a player and lower his cap hit this year by providing him with a decently sized signing bonus. Potential players for an extension include Russell Okung or Brandon Mebane. However, I think Seattle wants to see more from Okung before they consider extending him. In terms of Mebane – Seattle's front office has an even better option. We’ll get into that in a sec.

In terms of a restructure, Seattle could re-work one of their star’s contracts. A common trick by many NFL teams to provide immediate cap relief is converting a player’s P5 salary (base salary) into signing bonus money, spread out over future years. Signing bonus money is fully guaranteed money paid typically paid immediately to the player, but spread out over the cap.

A move like this would immediately open up $8M in cap room for the Seahawks. However, a club would be putting this money on their cap "credit card" – and are mortgaging their future to some extent. Doing this with a few million is not a problem, but if you do it repeatedly with players (like Tony Romo with the Cowboys) – it will make players virtually uncuttable due to their large dead money cap hits. If Romo had been cut pre-June 1st in 2015– he would take a $46M dead money hit against the Cowboys. That is next level.

For example, Sherman has a $10M P5 base in 2015. If Seattle wanted to - they could convert $8M of that into a signing bonus for Sherman, and spread it out over the next four years against the cap ($2M against the cap each year from 2016-2019). Singing bonuses can be spread out over a max of five years.

Brandon Mebane, who is on the last year of his deal, is slated to have a $5.7M cap hit this year. Cutting Mebane would result in $200K dead money charge – saving the Seahawks more than $5.5M in cap room. Cutting Mebane would immediately provide enough room for Seattle for the year. However – there’s a better option. Extend Mebane – lower his 2015 base salary...give him a small signing bonus and some injury protections for future years...and keep Mebane a Seahawk, likely till he retires.

I believe we will see Mebane’s contract reworked in some way before the start of the season – likely in the form of an extension. The Seahawks would then be set for the season.

Space vs. Flexibility

The Seahawks may not have much cap space in 2015 – but dang do they have cap flexibility. Cap flexibility is one of the less talked about concepts in regards to the NFL salary cap – mainly because its fairly revolutionary. Bryce Johnston from Over the Cap wrote a phenomenal, three part series describing this concept in detail, which can be found here.

To put it absurdly short: the Seahawks haven’t mortgaged away their future through massive future fully guarantees with players. Essentially, what this means, is that the Seahawks can open up cap space very easily and quickly through multiple methods – if needed, without repercussions (dead money). Many teams do not have the ability to do this. Good cap flexibility allows teams to open up space quickly. Analyzing a team’s cap health solely based on their cap space isn’t indicative of the true health of a team’s cap situation. Cap space is temporary. Does that make sense?

Teams like the Dolphins, Bills, Ravens, and Chiefs have all spent insane amounts of "future money", or guaranteed money on players. These teams will likely be in for a rough financial future if any of their players get hurt or suddenly stop producing at expected levels.

The Seahawks find themselves in above average future cap liabilities even after the Russell Wilson extension. The Seahawks have the least amount of future guaranteed money given to players – less so than any other team (at time of signing). These types of guarantee structures protect the Seahawks and separate them from other NFL teams. I highly encourage you to take a visit over to OTC and read more about this.

How much are we paying these dudes?!

I’m going to shoot it to you straight: the Seahawks aren’t afraid to pay their own. And by "own" – I mean their top tier players. The Seahawks have let many big names walk in the past several years: Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner, Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond, Malcom Smith, etc. The Seahawks have already made really tough cap decisions – and more are surely to come.

(Note: I am equating cap hit and level of payment in a year as equal - I know the signing bonus isn’t paid out over several years)

In 2015 – the Seahawks highest-paid player will be Richard Sherman, with a $12.2M cap hit. Next year, many contracts will take a jump – most notably Russell Wilson’s. But for now – Russell Wilson will only make $7M against the cap this year. The Seahawks got several other players in the $7-8M range: Marshawn Lynch at $8.5M, Cliff Avril at $8M, Michael Bennett at $8M, Jimmy Graham at $8M, Earl Thomas at $7.4M, and Russell Okung, who is on the last year of his rookie deal under the old CBA at $7.28M.

We then drop down a few million and find players like Kam Chancellor at $5.65M, K.J. Wright at $4.75M, and then Cary Williams at $4.66M. In all – the Seahawks choose to pay big bucks to their key players, but are in the business of diminishing the "middle class" or the middle tier of players. How do they accomplish this?

Keep your stars around – your All-Pros. Don’t pursue any middle tier players and be willing to let them go. Don’t be incredibly active in free agency (meaning: going after highly sought after players). Don’t engage in bidding wars for players. And draft, draft, draft like crazy. No other NFL team is pursuing this business structure to this extent like the Seahawks are – and it could pay off in the long run. Revolutionary thinking.

Who do the Seahawks still have to sign?

The Seahawks have some big decisions to make in this next year. Players like Okung, J.R. Sweezy, and Bruce Irvin are all on the forefront of the Seahawk’s front office agenda. This doesn’t necessarily mean they'll sign them, but just that the Seahawks will (and are) be working towards a decision on these players. All these players are in contract years.

Most notably – Okung has decided to represent himself in free agency. This is highly uncommon for NFL players, as it is widely agreed upon that most NFL players lack the expertise, experience, and negotiation skills to acquire their full market value. There’s also the concern that contract negotiations can become personal – and they will, if Okung continues to remain steadfast in representing himself. Asserting your worth and having that turned down by a club’s front office can quickly become offensive to the player.

Additionally, an agent’s job is also to act as an "emotional buffer" between the player and their team – in order to keep good standing and relations between the two. It just saves the player from a lot of unneeded stress. It will certainly be interesting to see the final deal between Okung and any team that he reaches an agreement with.

My final guess is that Seattle extends Okung, but lets Sweezy and Irvin walk. Don’t ask me why – just a gut feeling.

How does Seattle sustain this success for the future?

After historically successful 2011 and 2012 draft classes in which they acquired a franchise quarterback, multiple All-Pros, and the core pieces to the NFL’s best defense – the Seahawks have set themselves up for continued success. Most of Seattle’s core players are locked up through 2018 and won’t be leaving the Hawks anytime soon. The players locked up through 2018 include Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, K.J. Wright, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Tyler Lockett – and Kam Chancellor through 2017.

Despite disappointing 2013 and 2014 draft classes by the Seahawks – Seattle has done a phenomenal job drafting. And I know it’s incredibly early – but 2015 isn’t looking half bad. Storing up a high quantity of draft picks and pursuing players according to their own, unique athletic profiles has allowed Seattle to find and develop diamonds in the rough. Players like Sherman, Chancellor, Maxwell, and Wilson are all evidenced by Seattle’s unique ability to draft and develop nobodies into studs.

SPARQ – a tool for athletic analysis of players, made more famous by one of Field Gulls’ very own Zach Whitman, is something you should spend time reading and learning about (if you haven’t already). This tool has been used to find diamonds in the rough and is fairly accurate. I highly suggest you take a look at his website, which can be found here.

If the Seahawks can continue to stick to their financial game plan and draft well, Seattle will remain one of the top NFL teams for a very, very long time. This includes not budging on any sort of Kam Chancellor holdout. Of course this can all change at a moment’s notice – if John or Pete were to ever leave the team or retire. But with those two at the helm – I have complete confidence in the decisions this team makes for the foreseeable future. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.

Additionally – strong coaching has played a large part in catapulting the Seahawks to their current level of success. Seattle has become a DB factory – producing many of the best defensive backs in the NFL. They’ve also established the best defense for three years running – which is no easy task.

Strong coaching, revolutionary draft techniques, and a unique business structure have arguably made the Seahawks the best team in the NFL. Following a strict business game-plan has put the Seahawks in above average cap position for the foreseeable future. And it doesn't look to be changing anytime soon.... despite what you may hear people around the nation say.