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How Russell Wilson's Megadeal Allows NFL Owners To Keep Winning

Photo: Tom Pennington (Getty)

The conventional wisdom on Russell Wilson’s record-setting contract extension is that it’s a win for both sides. Wilson is now the NFL’s highest-paid player, and he secured strong guarantees, the largest signing bonus in history, and significant early cash flow ...

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... while the Seahawks didn’t have to budge on the way they structure deals. In keeping with Seattle’s custom, all of the fully guaranteed money will be payable in Year 1 and Wilson won’t get to have a percentage of his salary tied to any growth in the salary cap or in the quarterback market, as he reportedly sought. A structure like that would have broken the mold for how NFL contracts get drawn up, setting a precedent for other players to (eventually) shoot for. Which is why, from a macro perspective, the real winner here is the status quo.

Let’s not begrudge Wilson for accepting the big payday. It’s a lot of friggin’ money! And he stands to collect most, if not all of it. But if players are ever going to truly change the league’s owner-friendly contract system, it’s going to have to begin with players of Wilson’s stature using their substantial leverage to make that happen. Precedent matters, even if Wilson’s strong bargaining position is currently available to very few players.

“Would it be a widespread precedent? No, not at this juncture,” J.I. Halsell told me. “But could it be a starting point, such that now you when you talk about players getting into free agency, where you have multiple suitors, you then have a certain level of leverage, and then you can [say], ‘Well, I want the same percentage structure that Russell Wilson got.’”

Halsell, who previously worked on both sides of the issue as an agent and as Washington’s senior cap analyst, explained that a similar, big-picture approach underscored the true impact of Kirk Cousins’s fully guaranteed deal from last year.

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“Hopefully a player at another position who has leverage can point to Kirk Cousins and say, ‘Hey, I want a fully guaranteed contract,’” Halsell told me. “You’ve got to set that precedent. It’s a starting point.”

According to Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Brandt—like Halsell, an ex-agent and former team executive—players like Wilson have “extreme leverage.” And this is the conundrum they face: Upending the league’s entrenched system would require the risk of leaving real money on the table for the sake of the greater good. Le’Veon Bell tried this by spurning the Steelers’ offer and skipping out on a second straight franchise tag (and the fully guaranteed $14.5 million that came with it). As I wrote last month, Bell would probably have been better off taking Pittsburgh’s offer for a variety of reasons. He misread the Steelers’ tendency to pay a large portion of what’s owed to homegrown players on multi-year, non-rookie deals. But also, as a running back in a league with a surplus of younger, cheaper running backs, Bell lacked the leverage to so much as recoup what he lost by sitting out, let alone to break any new ground.

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Wilson, by contrast, is an even more elite category: an exceptional quarterback in a league in which even plain ol’ good quarterbacks are scarce, and are getting paid gobs of money as a result. Had he really wanted to set a precedent, the only factor working against Wilson was timing; he still had one year remaining on his old deal, but he also faced the prospect of the franchise tag, which suppresses players’ earning power in direct and indirect ways. Aaron Rodgers was in a similar position last summer, when he still had two years left on his previous contract, plus the the threat of the tag—and Rodgers eventually took a conventional, top-of-the-market deal. Had Wilson been tagged twice, he still would have collected $83.75 million to $85.66 million across the next three seasons—Cousins-level money, at $27.9 million to $28.85 million in AAV—with a likely opportunity to hit the market with unfathomable leverage in 2022, at age 33. That’s what Cousins did. But, like Rodgers, Wilson “could only push envelope by waiting,” Brandt told me, “but [the] money was too good to wait.”

Here again is the conundrum for those with “extreme leverage.” As one agent told me for my reporting in the Bell story, the idea of forgoing big money that is virtually guaranteed in lieu of a groundbreaking structure is “not wrong, but at the same time what will happen is if we get to guaranteed contracts the salaries will rise on top of it.”

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Precedents can be the damnedest things. The league’s “fully funded” rule, which mandates that all fully guaranteed money be placed into escrow at the time of signing, has long been a crutch teams have leaned on to avoid paying sizable guarantees, or fully guaranteed deals. But a contract that would tie salary to a cap percentage, so as to account for cap growth and changes at the top of the market? That’s such a non-starter that Brandt, in his SI column, said it “never had a chance” in Wilson’s case. And ex-ESPNer John Clayton, who still has an ESPN radio show in Seattle, thinks the league’s management council wouldn’t have even sanctioned a deal with that kind of structure. As Clayton told his listeners near the start of his program on Tuesday:

“Some of the silly notions—I know, we were talking about it yesterday with Peter King—is that, ‘Oh, why can’t they attach some kind of percentage of the cap to be able to do it?’ Well, two things were wrong with that. First off, I don’t think the management council’s going to ever approve that, and I don’t even know if the players association will approve it. Because remember, they’re in collective bargaining agreement, and that would change the structure of how deals are done, and when you’re this far along in trying to get a CBA done, that’s not going to go—and there was no reason to do it.”

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First off, reps from the league and the NFLPA have met just one time, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say the two sides are deep into CBA talks, or anywhere close to a resolution (the current agreement expires in March 2021). Secondly, why would the players union object to a cap percentage contract, since there’s nothing in the current CBA to prevent it? In an email, Clayton acknowledged to me that the rules don’t prohibit a cap percentage deal, before explaining that team officials he’s spoken to simply don’t want it.

“To attach a cap percentage would be too messy,” Clayton said.

“That sounds like collusion,” Halsell told me, repeating what he had tweeted after someone told him what Clayton had said on the radio. “If there’s no formal rule in the collective bargaining agreement—and there’s nothing that I’ve seen that says it’s not possible in the CBA—then, for the league and the management council to not approve that mechanism sounds like collusion.”

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Collusion, of course, is difficult to prove. Which is why, as Halsell and others—like Overthecap.com’s Jason Fitzgerald—have suggested, the NFLPA might want to shoot for a shorter path to free agency in the next CBA.

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It’s hard to fault Wilson for cashing in like he did. But there’s one more reason he had a unique opportunity to wait things out to shake things up, structure-wise: his prior career earnings. The extension Wilson agreed to this week is his third contract, and his second one alone would have paid him $87.6 million by the end of 2019.

“That’s the kind of player,” Halsell told me, “who should have the wherewithal to push for this.”

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About the author

Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.