RENTON, Wash.—For the first time in his four-year career, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was not part of his team's OTAs when they opened on Tuesday. However, the quarterback's absence was not related to ongoing contract negotiations with the Seahawks—instead, he was traveling to Miami with tight end Jimmy Graham, his new primary target, for the funeral of Tamara Meyerson, Graham's manager and mentor. Wilson wanted to help Graham observe the life of the woman who essentially raised him after he was abandoned by his biological mother at age 11.
According to coach Pete Carroll, who spoke after Tuesday's practice, Wilson and vice president of player engagement Mo Kelly got on a plane to Miami last night to show support for Graham. Carroll also said that Wilson may try to visit defensive end Cliff Avril, whose father recently passed away.
“We're trying to show the love and see if we can help out in any way,” Carroll said of the gesture from Wilson to Graham. “I think it's just compassion. Showing heart. But I think those two guys have made an effort—they realize the value of the relationship and the chemistry you can create. The conversation, the dialogue, it can be so helpful as we grow. It's a good thing.”
That said, Wilson's contract situation is the proverbial elephant in the living room. He's got one more year left on the contract he signed in 2012 as the 75th pick in the draft. Wilson will make $1.542 million in base salary in the 2015 season unless the Seahawks do the improbable and re-up with a far more lucrative deal before they actually have to. There's no doubt they'll do something to retain Wilson, but negotiations have not necessarily been productive.
I asked Carroll whether he believes the issue will become a distraction to a team that has been severely motivated by its agonizing loss in Super Bowl XLIX. Coaches and players insist they've never seen off-season workouts with this intensity, and though Wilson is known for his fanatical work ethic, it's amazing what can become a distraction if you pour enough water on it.
“As much as anyone I know who can deal with it, Russell will,” the coach said. “We've talked a lot about the process of all that, and the expectations. He's had a great off-season—he's looked incredibly in shape and faster than ever and all that. He's worked great on the field when he's been with us. He's really set his mind to it, and the proof is in the actions he puts out there. He's on it.
“Hopefully, we'll get something done. But if we don't, we'll deal with that. We're very close in our conversations and exchanging our process through this. The communication's been great.”
All that happy stuff aside, according to multiple reports, Wilson and agent Mark Rodgers are not seeing his value the same way the Seahawks are. The team would reportedly like to re-sign Wilson with a contract structured similarly to the ones given to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Those deals are high in overall value (Dalton's looks like $97.09 million over seven years; Kaepernick's looks like $126.97 million over six years), but both contracts basically give the teams annual back-out clauses in the form of non-guaranteed base salaries, roster bonuses and performance escalators. Dalton has just $17 million guaranteed in the deal he signed before the 2014 season, and Kaepernick has a bit over $13 million promised to him in the contract he signed last summer.
That's the new standard for second contracts given to young, promising quarterbacks. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill received a six-year, $95.272 million contract extension last week with $21.5 million guaranteed at signing and $45 million more in guarantees tied to his roster status. The tipping point for both sides could be 2017, when Tannehill's $14.475 million in base salary is only paid if he's on the roster. It's another deal with cut-and-run potential, though a bit more friendly to the player's side.
Wilson's side would undoubtedly like to see a contract more similar to the one Aaron Rodgers is currently sporting: a seven-year, $130.75 million deal signed in 2013. They're going to position Wilson as one of the game's elite quarterbacks, though that's based only in part on what he's actually done. The gap in perception between past and future could be what's holding things up.
Since he became the Seahawks' starting quarterback in Week 1 of his rookie season, Wilson has thrown the 18th-most passes of any quarterback: His total of 1,252 sits just below Jay Cutler and just above Alex Smith. That would seem to support the argument that while Wilson is an upper-echelon quarterback, he's also buttressed by an excellent running game and the league's best defense. The counter-arguments would certainly include Wilson's 36–12 record in the regular season, as unwieldy as that statistic can be. His 6–2 mark in the postseason is certainly impressive, but again, there are many other factors to the Seahawks' success.
One could also point out that while Wilson's passing attempts are relatively low, he ranks 12th in completions over the last three seasons with 794, and 10th in touchdowns with 72. In addition, while Wilson is helped by his running game, it's his mobility that opens things up for Marshawn Lynch in ways that no other top-level quarterback can boast. Cam Newton could say the same things about his own skills, but Newton ranked 36th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for quarterbacks last year. Wilson ranked 13th—right under Tannehill.
So, it's safe to say that Wilson presents an outlier among quarterbacks: a complete player at the position for his age, with all the potential in the world to improve, on a team that has assembled more targets around him. With Graham coming to Seattle in an off-season trade and the recent draft acquisitions of receivers Kevin Norwood, Paul Richardson and Tyler Lockett, it's safe to say that more will be expected of Wilson down the road.
The question, as it is for every NFL player on the precipice of a significant payday, is how far his value judgment of his talent deviates from the assessments of his team.
This week, Wilson's thoughts are elsewhere, but the bill for his football future will come due soon enough.