Russell Wilson is entering a contract year, and he’s going to get paid. At age 30, Wilson is in the prime of his career, and he continues to be exceptional—even as the Seahawks insist on letting Brian Schottenheimer design plays for him by repeatedly scrawling “MUST ESTABLISH RUN” on the wall of a cave somewhere. It’s only a matter of how much Wilson’s going to get, and in what way.
Wilson’s not alone. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady also all have contracts that expire after the 2019 season. But those other name-brand quarterbacks are in their late 30s/early 40s—i.e., the twilights of their careers, at least for comparison’s sake—so their situations ought not to affect Wilson’s. Same for Dak Prescott, whose lack of consistency ought to keep him from re-setting the market once his rookie deal expires after this season, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.
In fact, Wilson has even greater leverage than Aaron Rodgers did last summer, when Rodgers was reportedly looking to work some sort of player option into his next deal with the Packers, so as to maximize future control. Ultimately, Rodgers signed a rather conventional four-year extension worth a record $33.5 million in average annual value. But at the time, Rodgers still had two years remaining on his previous deal, which limited his ability to bargain for a revolutionary (at least by NFL standards) device like a player option.
Remember: Wilson has won just as many Super Bowls as Rodgers, has one more Super Bowl appearance, and almost as many playoff victories (nine for Rodgers, eight for Wilson). And Wilson is five years younger. Wilson’s camp has given no indication of its demands other than to set a deadline for a deal by April 15, which happens to be Monday. But it’s fair to wonder if Wilson might want to shake things up a bit, given his unique bargaining position as a high-end QB in his prime earning years—the scarcest of NFL commodities. Does Wilson want a bigger AAV than Rodgers’s? Does he want more than Matt Ryan’s record of $94.5 million fully guaranteed? Does he want a shorter, fully guaranteed contract like the one Kirk Cousins got? As ESPN’s Dan Graziano put it:
This could help make Wilson a historic figure who, along with Cousins, used his leverage to help establish guaranteed contracts as something NFL players can ask for and expect.
There are other possibilities. Wilson signed his current deal in the summer of 2015. At the time, his $21.9 million in AAV ranked second to Rodgers’s $22 million. But the salary cap has grown 31 percent since then, and Wilson’s AAV now ranks 14th overall, and 12th among QBs. Might Wilson want an escalator that ties his annual salary to the franchise tag number, as ex-agent and former Washington senior cap analyst J.I. Halsell once suggested to me as a possibility for Rodgers? A mechanism like that would allow Wilson’s pay to keep pace with both the annual growth of the cap and any upward movement in the QB market. But it likely would also have to be incentivized; according to ex-agent Joel Corry, Roethlisberger has an escalator in his current deal that’s tied to MVPs and Super Bowl titles. Another structure that could achieve a similar outcome in a different way would be to stake Wilson’s annual salary to a percentage of the cap. This, too, had been suggested last year for Rodgers by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
There are obstacles for Wilson. One, as Graziano noted, is that the Seahawks typically structure deals without any fully guaranteed money after Year 1, though they do have a history of providing “rolling guarantees,” by which a full guarantee kicks in sometime during March of the year in question. “Which is better than nothing,” Graziano wrote, “but still allows the team to cut a healthy player before they have to pay him.” Teams frequently don’t like to make exceptions, but quarterbacks like Wilson typically have more leverage.
One possible compromise: Breer suggested a rolling guarantee of up to four years, with the full guarantee vesting the year before (i.e., the Year 3 money vesting between the Super Bowl and free agency during Year 2, and the Year 4 money vesting around the same time during Year 3). Graziano offered up another compromise: eight years, $180 million, with the final three years automatically voiding, which would allow the Seahawks to spread out the cap hit. Practically, this would mean it’s a five-year, $180 million contract, with those final three years only functioning for accounting purposes. One caveat that Graziano didn’t specifically address: cap hits for signing bonuses can only be prorated across five years. But the Seahawks could manipulate this—with Wilson getting his money—by triggering an option bonus in Year 4 that could then be prorated all the way out to Year 8.
The Seahawks also have the franchise tag in their quiver, which would allow them to go year to year. The tag can be shitty for players because it denies them the chance to test the market, thereby suppressing their earning power. The non-exclusive tag would pay Wilson $30.34 million next year, or 120 percent of his 2019 cap number of $25.286 million (which includes a previously paid bonus proration). In 2021, that tag figure would jump another 20 percent, to $36.4 million. As Breer noted, with the $17 million in salary Wilson is due this year, that’s $83.75 million for the next three years, or $27.9 million in AAV, with what amounts to a rolling guarantee. That’s less than Rodgers, Ryan, and Cousins make at the top of the market, but it would give Wilson a chance to hit free agency at age 33 (assuming he’s healthy and his production hasn’t cratered, of course). Breer further suggested a Cousins-like two-year, $70 million fully guaranteed extension—$29 million AAV for three years, with a record $35 million AAV in new money—that would likewise allow Wilson to see where the cap and the market is after 2021. This would also allow the Seahawks to use the tag on linebacker Bobby Wagner or defensive end Frank Clark, should they so choose.
Then again, the Seahawks could also hit Wilson with the exclusive franchise tag, which would prevent other teams from making him an offer (with two first-round picks as compensation). The exclusive tag, as Corry told ESPN’s Brady Henderson, would be $31.21 million in 2020, and $37.45 million in 2021. That’s $85.66 million across three years, or $28.55 million in AAV, which would trail only Rodgers and Ryan.
Keep in mind, too, that the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season, so lots can also change. The only certainties: Wilson’s going to get paid, and his deadline is just five days away.