Evan’s Offseason Breakdown: The Cap, Free Agency, and More
The Seahawks are in a unique transition stage. After massively outperforming fan expectations in 2018, Seattle has their eyes on the 2019 Super Bowl. But how can they get there?
The Legion of Boom is no more. Earl Thomas is a free agent, Richard Sherman is 49er, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril are retired, Michael Bennett is an Eagle. The defense is a shell of its former self. The team’s ground and pound offensive identity remains while Pete Carroll and the defensive coaching staff attempt to build another era of dominating defensive football.
What’s unique about this offseason is there’s so much unpredictability. For the first time in a few years,the Seahawks are working with a good amount of salary cap space. At the time of writing this, Seattle ranks top 10 in available cap space. Now this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It simply means the Seahawks have money to spend. The combination of key franchise players looking for an extension and a talented free agency class means the Seahawks should be busy.
Notable in-house free agents include Earl Thomas, KJ Wright, Justin Coleman, JR Sweezy, Frank Clark, DJ Fluker, and team MVP Sebastian Janikowski. Just kidding on the last one.
Players entering their final contract year in 2019 include key organizational pieces such as Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, and Jarran Reed. This offseason is going to be fun. Last offseason was fun too, but in more of a negative fashion as the Hawks purged fan favorites on both sides of the ball. Now, Seattle is looking to build off an impressively quick rebuild. Key extension talks, exciting free agents, and an unusually high credit limit on John Schneider’s team credit card could make for a tumultuous few months.
For those of you who don’t know me, I used to contribute to Over the Cap: a third party, independent NFL salary cap website that is the go-to source for all NFL salary cap and contract questions. This experience led me to writing annual recaps — diving deep into the Seahawks salary cap. Absolutely 100 percent of the contract and cap data I data I input in this article is from OTC. For the hardcore NFL fan, I cannot recommend enough that you bookmark Over the Cap.
I also spoke with several outside cap experts to hopefully bring additional insight into the Seahawks cap situation. It includes John Gilbert, a salary cap analyst for Fieldgulls, and Jason Fitzgerald, the founder and owner of Over the Cap. I’ll sprinkle their thoughts and recommendations throughout the article. On that note, I highly recommend following them on Twitter, as they bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Let’s look at the basics: how much cap space is Seattle working with?
As I stated above, Seattle is working with a good amount of cap space. They currently rank #9 or #10 in available cap space, depending on if you account for the NFL’s Top 51 rule. Texans Cap explained the Top 51 rule best:
“At the start of the new league year in March until the start of the first league week of the regular season, the NFL teams operate under the “Top 51” rule for salary cap calculations. During the offseason and training camp, NFL teams can maintain a roster of up to 90 active players. Due to the Top 51 rule the teams do not need to account for all 90 players to fit under the team’s adjusted salary cap. So which contracts are used for this calculation? Simply put…the Top 51 contracts based on value; along with other items. Rank the salary cap charges for each player in descending order, add up the highest 51 ranked charges.”
In mid-December the NFL announced that the 2019 salary cap limit would range from $187M to $191.1. Just to be safe we’ll assume the cap limit to be $190M. So assuming a limit of $190M and applying the top 51 rule, Seattle ranks #10 in most cap space available at $52.5M.
Potential cap casualties: who might be surprise cuts?
The Seahawks could release several different players to open up additional cap space. Maybe the most notable player to watch, at least from a contractual significance perspective, is Kam Chancellor. Follow closely on this one, as it’s complicated:
Kam Chancellor: Due to the way Kam’s contract is structured, his injury guarantees are key. When he signed his deal, it included $12M of additional injury guarantees beyond the full guarantee amount of $13M. The $12M in injury guarantees are found in $6.8M of his 2018 base salary and $5.2M of his 2019 base salary. Now since we’re past the 2018 season, the $5.2M in injury protected base salary is key for 2019. If he can pass a physical, cutting him pre-June 1st would open up Seattle an additional $8M in 2019 cap space (since he passed a physical and is “able to play”, he would not be protected by the $5.2M in 2019 base salary injury guarantees). On the other hand, if Kam can’t pass a physical, his $5.2M in injury guarantees (from his 2019 base salary) would exercise and cutting him would only net the Seahawks about $2.8M in additional cap space. The dead money in this second situation would be $10.2M ($5.2M in 2019 injury protected base salary + 2019/2020 signing bonus total of $5M). So theoretically, if he can pass a physical (the ideal situation from Seattle’s perspective), the Seahawks could cut him and increase their available cap space from $52.5M to $60.5M (a net gain of $8M).
Ed Dickson: The next player that comes to mind is Ed Dickson. Dickson signed a 3 year/$10.7M contract with the Seahawks, including $3.6M in guarantees. If Seattle feels confident in Will Dissly’s recovery, they could consider releasing Dickson. Releasing him pre-June 1st would open up an additional $2.8M in 2019 cap space. Dickson has actually come up big in several key moments throughout the 2018 season, so I’m not 100% sure I’d cut him (at least from a depth perspective). He also proved to be a very reliable blocker. Dickson may not get a ton of targets or playing time, but he seems to connect well with Wilson on third down and in the red zone. In my mind he’s not a necessary cut, but it’s an option to consider.
Barkevious Mingo: Mingo is the most likely player Seattle will release. He signed a two-year deal with Seattle last offseason and really underperformed outside of special teams snaps. Cutting him would net $3.3M in cap savings, which is definitely worth considering his minimal impact on the field. Paving the way for Jacob Martin (who really flashed towards the end of the season), Mingo posted only 20 or less snaps in four of the last seven weeks of the season. I would give it a 70-80 percent chance the Seahawks release him pre-June 1, 2019.
Add the Kam, Mingo, and Dickson money together: the Seahawks could potentially be opening up an additional $14.1M in 2019 cap space. Take the initial cap space number of $52.5M and add the $14.1M in additional space to it — Seattle’s got $66.6M in cap space. Not bad.
Pending free agents: who to keep in town?
The Seahawks have a decent amount of names hitting free agency. Let’s work through each one individually. As a reminder, the way to read NFL contracts is left to right, adding each row up to total the year’s cap hit/number on the far right (will be marked in bold).
Earl Thomas: Earl is probably the most controversial Seahawks free agent. After a tragic injury ended his 2018 season, he’ll will be looking to cash in on his last major extension opportunity. He’s a 29 year old (soon to be 30) free safety with nearly a decade of NFL experience. Unlike when Seattle extended Kam, the talent is clearly still there. Thomas is not declicing from a skill perspective. You could make the argument he’s starting to become injury prone, but a lot of his injuries have been relatively flukey. Regardless, Earl will be looking to reset the safety market once again (just like he did on his first extension). After signing a six year, $78 million contract (with 38% fully guaranteed) in early 2017, Eric Berry currently makes $13M APY at the top of the safety market. There is not a single doubt in my mind, Thomas will want to beat Berry’s number. Earl prides himself on respect and money equals respect. I’d probably prefer Seattle to let Thomas walk, considering I believe they need to get younger and move on from the LOB era. Of course, if they sign him, I wouldn’t be mad either.
Jason from Over the Cap provided his thoughts:
“I’d be shocked if he is back in Seattle. I think he’s looking at a deal probably around the same $10M a year he is earning now and with a good chunk tied up in per game money. A few years back Eric Weddle struggled in free agency but I think Thomas will have more luck. Id think a 3 year deal is what happens here with one of the playoff teams or a team near the playoffs last season.”
Here’s an example of what a new deal might look like for him (either with or without the Seahawks).
Earl Thomas Contract Prediction: 5 years/$75M with 40% fully guaranteed
Frank Clark: Frank Clark is probably the most expensive in-house free agent (excluding QB) the Seahawks will extend in a very long time. Elite pass rushers rarely hit free agency. But when they do, they cash in. Let me be abundantly clear: I don’t care what Seattle has to do, they have to keep Frank in the fold. Without him, they’re screwed. The concerns over his production as a full-time pass rushing leader were squashed when he posted 13 sacks (tied for 6th most) and ranked 7th in PFF’s pass rushing productivity rate (out of all pass rushers with at least a 50% snap rate).
Considering the franchise tag will be in the $18M range, I think Frank’s agent starts the extension discuss at $22M — which is just under Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald. I would guess the Seahawks are probably more in the $18-19M range. If an extension happens, I think it falls in the $20-21M range. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Seahawks break from their historical trend of four year deals and try to lock him for five years (through age 30).In the worst case scenario, Seattle is almost certain to keep Clark via the franchise tag.
John Gilbert provided some insight on Frank’s contract situation:
“If Frank signs an extension for anywhere under $20M APY, I’ll be somewhat surprised. It will not shock me at all to see the team pull out the franchise tag, and I think that only strengthens his position. Clark’s agent has zero qualms about taking Clark to free agency, so even if the Hawks get an extension signed without having to use the tag, I expect they’ll be paying through the nose.”
I also grabbed Jason’s thoughts on Clark:
“I think Clark should hold firm on a $20M a year contract and just sit on the tag for a bit until free agency plays out. With players like Lawrence and Ford possibly getting new deals that would give him all the data points he needs to really argue his point that the position is worth that kind of money.”
Frank Clark Contract Prediction: 5 years/$107.5M with 37.5% full guaranteed
KJ Wright: Wright is a player I don’t feel strongly about the Seahawks keeping, either. Mychal Kendricks played super well in his absence and is way cheaper (of course there’s still the uncertainty with his legal future). Despite missing more than half the season, Seattle still went 10-6 without him. I really like K.J. the person and the player, but I think it might be time to move on from him. I’d take a chance and roll with Kendricks and Griffin.
Jason also chipped in with his thoughts on KJ:
“Given how some deals shook out last year Id think Wright is looking at a 3 or 4 year deal between $9.5 and $10.5M a season. This was really his first time hurt so I think as long as teams are ok with his knees long term prognosis they will pay accordingly. My assumption is he will be too expensive for the Seahawks to keep.”
KJ Wright Contract Prediction: 3 years/$27M with 20% fully guaranteed
Justin Coleman: Justin Coleman is a very interesting extension candidate. After receiving him in a 2017 trade with the Patriots, the Seahawks placed a second-round tender (he was an RFA) worth $2.7M on him. Nickel corner is a unique position on the open market, as there’s not many good ones and the top tier is only in the $7-9M APY range. Since Seattle’s corner group is decently shallow (especially with Quill not having a great 2018), I think they should work hard to keep him in the fold. He’s been an inconsistent tackler but above average in coverage (gave up an 82.5 passer rating in the slot, good enough for 7th best). If he can clean up the missed tackles, he’ll be a top defender on this defense.
Justin Coleman Contract Prediction: 2 years/$15M with 40% fully guaranteed
JR Sweezy and DJ Fluker
Ah yes, the two one-year pickups at guard. I’m grouping these two together because their situations are similar. As we know, Sweezy was cut by Tampa Bay after an injury-laden start to his Buccaneer career. On the other hand, Fluker was criticized heavily in New York with the Giants but ultimately followed his offensive line coach, Mike Solari, to the Seahawks. Both signed near league minimum, one-year deals with Seattle. And both ended up playing significant roles all season long.
Out of all guards with a 50% snap rate, Pro Football Focus ranked Sweezy 49th in pass blocking and 51st in run blocking. Under the same criteria, PFF ranked Fluker 18th in pass blocking and 49th in run blocking. That’s…not…good. I wouldn’t be comfortable giving either player more than $2-3M a year (that might even be generous), so I’d limit each player to 2 year deals.
John Gilbert’s thoughts:
“Fluker and Sweezy are interesting. Neither one seemed to draw much interest in free agency last year, so it isn’t unreasonable to expect their markets to be somewhat cool this year. My guess is that Sweezy likely commands a little more money than Fluker, even though Sweezy is a couple years older, but I don’t think either is going to land a contract anywhere near the size of the deal Sweezy got from the Bucs in 2016.”
Jason Fitzgerald’s opinion:
“I guess both had better than expected seasons but both are low level starters and on many teams may just be competing for a job. Sweezy probably maxes our around $3M. Fluker probably around $2 with maybe 25% of it based on being healthy.”
JR Sweezy/DJ Fluker Contract Prediction: 2 years/$5M with 20% fully guaranteed
Extension Exercises: who should the Seahawks look to extend early?
Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, and Jarran Reed top the list of players entering their final contract year with the Seahawks. All of them are pivotal, foundational pieces to the franchise. As we did before, let’s take each player one at a time.
Russell Wilson: The face of the franchise, a generational talent, and the most important individual working for the Seahawks (player, coach, executive) . You don’t let franchise quarterbacks walk. End of story. I shouldn’t have to try and convince you as to why Seattle should extend him. Seattle’s chances of winning a Super Bowl are better with an overpaid Wilson than an underpaid, no-good rookie. Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who now writes columns for CBS Sports, recently wrote an article on the upcoming Wilson negotiations with an interesting little tidbit:
“There probably isn’t a deal that can be made without Seattle accepting the reality of the franchise-tag dynamic. It wouldn’t be surprising for Mark Rodgers, Wilson’s agent, to initially base an offer on Wilson getting franchised for a third time, although it hasn’t happened since the three-franchise-tag limitation was implemented in the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Wilson would stand to make just under $121.25 million with the franchise tags. If used as a guide by Rodgers, his first offer to the Seahawks would be in excess of $40 million per year.”
Considering the upcoming renegotiation of the CBA, the franchise tag is very much in play for both sides. The 2020 franchise tag for the QB position is currently slated to be just under $31M. If the two sides can’t reach a deal, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Hawks apply the tag to prevent Wilson from hitting free agency. With both the franchise tag and CBA in mind, I expect Russell to beat most of the financial benchmarks by recently signed franchise quarterbacks. Here’s a look at the current financial benchmarks:
Average Yearly Salary (APY): $33.5 million (Aaron Rodgers)
Total Contract Guarantees: $100 million (Matt Ryan)
Fully GTD (% of Contract) at Signing: 100% (Kirk Cousins)
Fully GTD at Signing: $94.5 million (Matt Ryan)
Signing Bonus: $57.5 million (Aaron Rodgers)
There’s one thing to keep in mind when looking at a potential RW extension: coming off his rookie contract, Wilson and his agent, Mark Rodgers, were determined to be the first quarterback deal with a fully guaranteed contract. As we all know, that didn’t happen. And it actually took a few years for it to happen. Kirk Cousins eventually worked his way out of Washington in 2018 and signed a 3 year/$84M fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings. If Wilson is going to get a fully guaranteed deal, it’s going to be a three year deal. I highly doubt Seattle provides him a fully GTD four year deal, especially at market setting APY numbers. The Seahawks have historically preferred four year deals for their franchise cornerstones. If push comes to shove, the middle ground might be a four year deal with a fully GTD number above what Matt Ryan received with the Falcons (except Ryan’s deal was a 5 year deal).
John Gilbert had some good thoughts regarding Wilson’s deal:
“RW could easily command $35M right now without batting an eye. Is he worth that to the team? I guess we’ll see, but if I’m Russ and I have a chance to become the highest paid player in the NFL, I’m taking it. Life isn’t about fair – life’s about how much can I get to take care of not just myself, but my family, both for today and the future. Russ is a great guy, but this isn’t a monastery and he isn’t a monk. I hope he crushes the front office in negotiations this time around. Specifically, he doesn’t owe the team anything, especially if they’re going to keep wheeling him out in an antiquated offense. I know Pete’s got his system and his style of play, but the game has evolved. It changed in the late 1970s when they loosened up the passing rule. It changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s with roster expansion and specialized substitution packages. It changed in the mid 00s with the emphasis on contact by defensive backs. And it’s changing again right before our eyes. Other teams are quickly adopting the systems that have propagated at the college level, and we’ll see how willing to adjust Pete is with things because if he doesn’t have an elite QB like Russell at the helm, that offense is done.”
Jason, from Over the Cap, also seemed to agree with him:
“I think $35M a year should be the benchmark number. Wilson didn’t set the market the last time which was surprising though they did concede on a shorter contract. I think it makes sense this time for both sides to go the full five years and hit the $35M mark. While it may sound expensive now I think two or three years from now it wont look out of line. By extending him this year they will also bring the effective number for their cap lower since they would be adding this years salary into the deal.”
Russell Wilson Contract Prediction: 4 years/$140M with 75% fully guaranteed
Note: 75% would be fully GTD at signing, but with the rest of his non-GTD base salaries (at signing) would vest into full guarantees on the 5th waiver day of each league year. See the previous Russell Wilson contract for reference.
Bobby Wagner: It’s crazy to think that Wagner is only 28 years old. It feels like he’s been playing in the NFL forever. Bobby’s current deal was signed in August of 2015, which paid him $43M over four years. In my research around his contract, I was surprised to find out that the linebacker market really hasn’t progressed much since signing his current deal. Jamie Collins, after signing with the Browns in 2017, sits at the top of the LB market at $12.5M APY. As of right now, Bwagz is the 5th highest paid LB in the NFL (on an APY basis).
Let’s be clear: Bobby’s 2018 season was insane. He made 138 tackle attempts this year and only missed one. Per PFF, his missed tackle rate (.7%) is the lowest of any NFL player since 2006. If that isn’t enough for you, PFF ranked him the No. 1 linebacker in the NFL with the Mo. 1 ranked coverage grade and second-best run stopping grade out of all linebackers. Breaking news: Bobby Wagner is a very good football player. And the Seahawks should keep him.
As for his current contract, he’s entering the final year of his deal with a cap hit of $14.1M. There’s not a single doubt in my mind they should extend him.
Bobby Wagner Contract Prediction: 4 years/$52M with 55% fully guaranteed
Jarran Reed: I don’t think anyone expected Jarran Reed to have the 2018 season he did. He came into the year as a serviceable DT, but he exploded with 10.5 sacks. ESPN has an impressive bit on him:
“All 10.5 of Reed’s sacks came on plays in which he lined up as a defensive tackle. According to ESPN charting, that ties him with Fletcher Cox for the fourth-most sacks out of that alignment (defensive tackle or nose tackle) this season behind Aaron Donald’s 19.5, Chris Jones’ 14.5 and DeForest Buckner’s 11.”
“What a great performance for the whole season for him,” coach Pete Carroll said of Reed. “… I don’t think we’ve ever had a defensive tackle that had 10 sacks … and Frank has just played great the whole year. He had a fantastic season.”
Reed’s contract situation will be interesting. Fletcher Cox currently sits at the top of the 4-3 DT market at about $17M APY. Geno Atkins follows just below him at $16.3M APY. I think our guy is good, but I don’t think I’d put him in a class of those players (at least just yet). That may prove to be a completely insane comment in hindsight, but for contractual projection purposes, I wouldn’t place him in that elite tier.
I may be seriously underselling him, but the max I’d be comfortable giving Jarran is about $14-15M APY. He’s had one great year of production and I don’t think I’d be comfortable giving him any more based off such a small sample.
Jarran Reed Contract Prediction: 4 years/$56M with 30% fully guaranteed
Looking Outward: potential free agents to bring into town
Jadeveon Clowney/Demarcus Lawrence/Ezekiel Ansah
There’s several different groups of free agents that intrigue me. Probably the most notable, talented group set to hit the open market are the pass rushers. Former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and stud pass rushers like Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah are currently set to hit the open market (that is if their respective teams don’t franchise tag them first).Pass rushers take time to develop. Clark didn’t really explode till year three and year four of his rookie contract. It just so happens that quality pass rushers are hitting the open market at a time with the Seahawks have an abundance of cap space.
With the DL tag projected to be in the $18M range, it wouldn’t me to see all three players tagged. If they had the opportunity to hit free agency, all of them would like hit $21M+ APY in a new deal. But if one does, I’d love for Seattle to aggressively pursue an outside pass rusher to build a 1-2 punch with Clark. Suddenly the Seahawks defensive line looks pretty good. Another option could be Preston Smith from the Redskins.
Jason Fitzgerald elaborated on Seattle’s free agency options:
“As far as free agency I think they can maybe add one potential impact guy. Someone like a Ziggy Ansah who has a high upside but may not be as expensive as some will think. Maybe an Olivier Vernon if cut. That type of player. I think adding a pass rusher will benefit and also protect the team if Reed doesn’t give the same production again. Beyond one player that can make an impact Id think they stay in the bargain bin in finding talent to balance out what should be an expensive roster.”
Golden Tate/Tyrell Williams
Despite Tyler Lockett’s insane 2018 and David Moore’s occasional flashes, I’m not very confident in Seattle’s wide receiver group. Doug Baldwin is getting older (what a weird thing to say!) and he struggled to stay healthy in 2018. Take Baldwin out of the mix and the group looks really, really weak. Jaron Brown is serviceable at WR3 or WR4, but I think you need to start looking for Baldwin’s replacement either temporarily in free agency or by using a high draft pick on a receiver.
Either way, Golden Tate and Tyrell Williams appear to be intriguing options. I don’t think either will demand a high market, but I could definitely see either one of them joining Seattle and playing a strong, every down role.
No commentary needed. Seabass, the 40 something year old who somehow convinced an NFL team to sign him, hurt me this year. And I firmly believe special teams is a highly underrated aspect of a team. Quality kickers, punters, and gunners change the game. Can we please get back to a time when I don’t fear every extra point? Stephen Gostkowski is a New England legend. Let’s go get him.
Common Questions Answered
Q: What pass rushers might be in the budget after we take care of Clark?
A: Seattle could probably fit one more time big pass rusher under the cap, assuming they aren’t going to completely purge their current franchise cornerstones in Bobby, RW, Frank, etc. Any of Ansah, Lawrence, and Clowney are legit options if they hit the open market.
Q: If the Seahawks re-sign all the guys that seem like they are going to for ex: Frank, Sweez, Fluke, (Maybe K.J.), Justin Coleman, how much money in cap space do they have left? Is it enough to work on extensions for both Bobby and Russ?
A: This is a hard question to answer, since it always depends on the specific structure of those extension. The best way to answer this is disappointedly simple: the Seahawks can currently afford to extend all those players fairly easily.
Q: More of an exec answer, is it more fiscally responsible to franchise tag Russ three times knowing you would have to be in that range anyway and look for a QB in the next couple drafts?
A: I don’t think it’s ever wise to walk away from a franchise quarterback. Paying your best player (and maybe one of the best quarterbacks in a generation) IS fiscally responsible.
Q: What are the odds that they can re-sign Russ at a lower cap hit per year, but with a fully guaranteed contract? And by lower I don’t mean less than he makes now, but less than he might get non-guaranteed.
A: Zero. Kirk Cousins just signed a fully guaranteed 3 year/$30Mish APY deal and Wilson will easily get more than him.
Q: From a $ standpoint, who is the best player to use the franchise tag on?
A: Depending on how contract negotiations go, probably Russell Wilson or Frank Clark. Both are future pieces to the franchise they can’t let walk.
Q: If P&J decide to splurge, is there room to land an elite pass rusher AND keep our priority FA’s?
A: Short answer is yes. Reminder that most NFL contract have a gradual increase in cap hit as the contract years progress. This times well with any major free agent acquisition, as the Seahawks have a ton of cap space moving beyond 2019 ($108M in 2020, etc).
Q: Would it be wise to give a lot of upfront money to Russ, Bobby, and Frank?
A: Strictly speaking, it’s not wise to give any player a lot of up front money.
Q: Which position do you think it’s most likely Seahawks make a big free agent splash?
A: Defensive line. Preferably a pass rusher. Keep an eye on Clowney.
Q: How much can we pay Wilson?
A: Hawks have a ton of cap space moving forward. They could realistically pay RW anywhere up to $40M APY. Anything they need to do to keep him, they should.