Russell Wilson has been absurdly underpaid since entering the NFL. His rookie contract is set to expire at the end of this season, setting up one of the most fascinating contract negotiations the league has ever seen. And it will be Mark Rodgers, primarily known as a baseball agent, negotiating the deal
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
The most intriguing contract negotiation since the 2011 CBA was implemented is taking place, albeit at a deliberate pace, between the Seattle Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson. In an era in which elite quarterbacks are routinely paid an average of $20 million per year, with $60 million guaranteed (a market established two years ago), Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, has been playing on his rookie contract, a four-year deal worth a total of $2.2 million (it escalated to just under $3 million due to performance), with $619,000 guaranteed. His performance compared to his wages has made him—and continues to make him—easily the most contractually undervalued player in the NFL.
Beyond the 2011 CBA’s slashing of first-round bonuses, its most ominous provision for the majority of drafted players—such as Wilson—was the required three-year waiting period to renegotiate. This provision has allowed the Seahawks to conveniently say “sorry, we’re not allowed to negotiate,” until that restriction was lifted this offseason. Over the past few months there have been talks between the parties, but certainly no sign of common ground. Thus, as of this writing, Wilson is scheduled to play the 2015 season for $1.54 million. To put the number in perspective, Wilson will make about 14% of what Jameis Winston will earn as a rookie, and Wilson will earn less than nearly half of the league’s backups.
Negotiating for the Seahawks are team contract negotiator Matt Thomas and general manager John Schneider. Matt is a veteran negotiator, with stops in Miami and Cleveland before coming to Seattle, well-versed in the common rejoinder to agents about requested terms: We can’t do that. (I know, I used to say that all the time.) John, whom I know well, is a seasoned “football guy” stressing that every contract must be negotiated with an eye to the greater good of the team. On the other side of the negotiation is a name largely unfamiliar in NFL agent circles: Mark Rodgers.
Rodgers’ experience in sports representation is primarily in baseball (interestingly, baseball agents also represent Winston, the 2015 NFL draft’s top pick). While competing agents whisper their concern about the magnitude of the contract being done by a negotiator without vast NFL experience, my sense is this fresh perspective might be a positive for Wilson.
Rodgers is not new to the NFL. He was an NFLPA-certified agent from 1987 until 2012—clients included former quarterbacks Doug Johnson and Matt Mauck—before becoming re-certified when Wilson requested his services to deal with the Seahawks. Rodgers became involved with Wilson as a baseball advisor when Wilson was at N.C. State (before he transferred to Wisconsin). Rodgers even brought in football agent Bus Cook to negotiate Wilson’s third-round rookie deal in 2012 (agents were not exactly knocking down Wilson’s door to represent him). Rodgers and Wilson are very close; Wilson traveled cross-country earlier this offseason, between commitments in Seattle, to speak at Rodgers’ daughter’s graduation. And Rodgers is now all in on representing and managing Wilson.
As a baseball agent, Rodgers is more comfortable than many football agents with the prospect of embracing free agency. Football agents are often fearful of losing a player to another agent if they don’t consummate a deal before free agency, and sometimes for good reason. And while there is more concern in football than baseball about injury risk or downturn in performance, sometimes the risk of (serious) injury is overplayed by teams in negotiations. Further, in all sports, players will succumb to satisfying immediate financial needs while sacrificing proper value. My experience, however, is that baseball players and agents seem to have more understanding and patience as to what free agency can bring. Rodgers has benefited greatly from free agency with baseball players such as Cliff Lee, Mike Hampton, A.J. Burnett and free agent-to-be Jeff Samardzija,
Thus, Rodgers enters this negotiation with an immensely undervalued player whose price will only increase the closer he gets to the free-agency finish line. Yes, injury may be a concern, but Wilson has (1) been able to avoid injury to this point and (2) obtained an insurance policy to protect against a career-ending injury. As to a downturn in performance, that would appear highly unlikely in 2015, especially with the Seahawks’ addition of Jimmy Graham.
The 2013 offseason advanced the upper-echelon quarterback market, with extensions for Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan in the range of roughly $20 million APY (average per year) and $55-60 million guaranteed. As Mark Rodgers has certainly pointed out to the Seahawks, that market was established two years ago when the salary cap was $20 million less than it is now. In other words, from the player side of the Wilson negotiations, these ranges should be a starting point.
Since that time—save for Jay Cutler’s deal with $18 million APY and $54 million guaranteed—the upper market has stagnated. Deals since for Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill came in at decidedly lower levels compared to the 2013 group. Last month, however, brought a fresh data point when the Panthers secured Cam Newton in the range of the 2013 group, with $60 million guaranteed.
Newton was scheduled to make $14.67 million this year, compared to Wilson’s scheduled $1.54 million. Thus, to compare apples to apples, Newton’s raise to $31 million in 2015—between salary and bonuses—would be the equivalent of Wilson making about $18 million this year, a lot of money but not a “wow” number. Further, Newton’s $67 million over three years would translate to an equivalent of about $53.5 million over three years for Wilson: a lot of money, but not the level most are expecting.
Perhaps of more interest to Wilson and Rodgers than the deals that have been done are the ones that haven’t. Extensions are certainly ahead in the coming year for Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and perhaps other established veterans as well. The most interesting and relevant is that of Andrew Luck, taken 74 spots ahead of Wilson in 2012. Colts owner Jim Irsay curiously said the team would not renegotiate Luck’s deal this year, although Texans owner Bob McNair said the same thing at this time last year about J.J. Watt, only to reward him on the eve of the season. We shall see.
Fans and media seem more concerned about these contract negotiations than Wilson and Rodgers appear to be. Rodgers has refused to take the media bait to express any tension to the discussions, characterizing the talks as “positive” and “robust” and sending long position statements (there will be lawyers…). Agents are a reflection of the player they represent; team executives roll their eyes when agents make comments with public demands or non-negotiable deadlines. Rodgers is handling the public relations aspects of these negotiations well.
Having said that, we are not near a point of reckoning in this negotiation, a deadline that could spur action. My sense is that inflection point is the start of training camp; Rodgers needs to apply that pressure to change the status quo. Rodgers and Wilson are strategically putting on the facade of a complete willingness to play under the present contract. Whether that is true or not, time will tell.
As I always say about any large contract, the total value is just a number on the page; it has little true meaning without the context of guarantees. Rodgers, accustomed to fully guaranteed contracts in baseball, will certainly advance the importance of that fact.
To be clear, there is nothing in the NFL CBA denying teams the right to fully guarantee contracts, just as there is nothing in the MLB or NBA CBAs requiring teams to do so. Fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL, or close to that level, will only come from individual negotiations of players with substantial leverage, and Wilson is on the way to having that dominating leverage. However, largely due to the fact he is still playing on his rookie contract, that day is not today.
The Seahawks will first hide behind precedent, saying groundbreaking guarantees for Wilson would start a line at the door with other top players seeking similar structures. To that, Rodgers will argue the special nature of Wilson compared to other players.
The other argument the Seahawks will employ against a massive guarantee is the NFL rule requiring any future guarantee to be immediately funded by the team. Teams have (successfully) been able to use the funding excuse to negotiate less risky “stair-step” guarantees, triggering year by year. Rodgers has to be frustrated hearing that one of the richest men in the world, Seahawks owner Paul Allen, cannot—or will not—escrow what is couch cushion money to him. This, however, is teams’ way of doing business that has not been successfully challenged.
Gift that keeps on giving
As mentioned above, the reality that prevents, for now, a massively guaranteed contract is Wilson’s $1.54 million salary for 2015. The Seahawks know that if there is no deal consummated, Wilson will play this year for another vastly undervalued amount. The ultimate question is this: Will Wilson and Rodgers resist the temptation of making tens of millions more this year than scheduled, at the risk of sacrificing future value?
To put some specific numbers to this, Wilson may have two options for compensation this year: (1) make $1.5 million and continue to negotiate with the prospect of a $20 million-plus franchise tag next year; or (2) make, say, $20-25 million this year with the total contract in the range of, say, $17-18 million per year with $50-55 million guaranteed. In other words, the Seahawks would use the powerful leverage of Wilson’s last contract year to secure the deal they want. It is the continuing story of the power of rookie contracts and the control they bring.
The Seahawks know this leverage traditionally works: Players who have not made their money (non-first-round draft picks) have a hard time resisting a strong first-year cash number. And Schneider and Thomas certainly don’t want to set any precedents regarding guarantees and cash that could be used by all of their top players against them. These factors are probably driving the Seahawks in their negotiations.
Perhaps, however, we have a different agent and player mentality here. Rodgers appears not worried about losing the client, and Wilson is a player who has lived without big earnings for the past three years, makes solid money in endorsements and appears unwilling to jump for immediate cash.
This sets up as the negotiation to watch over the next month and, perhaps, over the next year or two. If—and this is a big if—Wilson and Rodgers can be patient, Wilson’s value will only rise, and Rodgers may be able to wrangle a groundbreaking contract. As I often say, sometimes the best deals are the ones not made. Can Rodgers and Wilson be patient enough to say no?
50. Kevin Turner and Shawn Wooden, Retired Players
During our football careers, we fought for every inch. In retirement we have done the same, specifically by working to secure benefits related to the concussions and long-term neurocognitive injuries faced by retired players. After fighting for years in court, a landmark settlement was reached to provide long-term security and care for those suffering from conditions ranging from dementia to ALS, as well as for those who are healthy now but fear what the future may hold. A federal judge approved the settlement in April, bringing us closer than ever to finally obtaining these benefits. More than 99% of retired players and their families have decided that the settlement is the best course of action. Yet a small group of retired players have decided to appeal the settlement—which means that those in desperate need must now wait months and possibly more than a year for the appeal to be resolved before the settlement becomes effective. Unless the appeals are dropped, they will not be considered by the court until the fall, with a decision to come at some point thereafter. Meanwhile, many retired players suffer from conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. The settlement would provide them immediate compensation. It will also provide compensation to a retired player who develops one of these qualifying conditions over the next 65 years. Many more retired players fear that years of head impacts are beginning to take their toll. The settlement offers a baseline assessment for all retired players—a critical benefit considering many lack adequate health care. This too is delayed until appeals are resolved. We hope that those appealing the settlement understand that their choice means that once-strong men, cut down by ALS in their prime, must wait even longer for the benefits we have already fought for years to obtain. Those afflicted with dementia, at disturbingly young ages and at rates much higher than the general population, must wait. Widows who lost their husbands, often the family’s sole breadwinners, must wait. We have all waited long enough. But as in football, the last moments of any game—even when success is close—often take the longest. We can only hope that the tiny minority of retired players who oppose this agreement will allow our long wait for benefits to finally come to an end. Until then, we are determined to keep fighting.
—Kevin Turner and Shawn Wooden
Kevin Turner, who spent eight seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, is currently suffering from ALS. Shawn Wooden spent nine seasons in the NFL playing for the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears. Both are subclass representatives in the NFL concussion litigation.
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49. LeSean McCoy, Running Back, Buffalo Bills
It only took about 30 minutes for the Eagles and Bills to agree to the trade that shipped LeSean McCoy to Buffalo in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso, but the move signaled something much more significant—Chip Kelly’s extreme makeover of the Eagles roster. McCoy didn’t go quietly. First, he received a five-year, $40 million extension from the Bills to placate him, and then he implied in an interview with ESPN that his former head coach was racist. Needless to say, all eyes will be on McCoy this season. Was Kelly prescient, parting ways with the soon-to-be-27-year-old star before he falls off the proverbial running back cliff? Or will McCoy thrive as the centerpiece of a Bills offense that will live or die with the run game? The Buffalo offensive line is a step down from the Eagles' front five behind which McCoy rushed for the first six seasons of his career, but new Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman (arriving in Buffalo after a four-year stint calling plays in San Francisco) and running backs coach Anthony Lynn (who came from the Jets with Rex Ryan) have a proven track record of maximizing the ground game, and now they have one of the league’s best all-around backs at their disposal.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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48. Mark Rodgers, Agent, Frontline Athlete Management
Russell Wilson has been absurdly underpaid since entering the NFL. His rookie contract is set to expire at the end of this season, setting up one of the most fascinating contract negotiations the league has ever seen. And it will be Mark Rodgers, primarily known as a baseball agent, negotiating the deal. FULL STORY
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47. Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
This is not your father’s Pittsburgh Steelers. It hasn’t been for a while, actually. The respective declines of Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel left this once-vaunted defense bereft of a viable veteran presence last year. Now, all have been sent to pasture—and 27-year-old outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who was set to be a free agent, decided to join them. To boot, esteemed coordinator Dick LeBeau left and took a job in Tennessee. New coordinator Keith Butler, the team’s longtime linebackers coach, is well-regarded and will run a nearly identical scheme. But he’ll do so with a group comprising talented but unproven youngsters. And so it’s apparent that this iconic franchise will go only as far as its star quarterback (future Hall of Fame quarterback?) can take it. Good thing Ben Roethlisberger was correct when he said in early June that this is the most talented offense he’s ever been on. Once Le’Veon Bell returns from suspension (he is appealing his three-game ban), the Steelers could have the most explosive offense in football. On the ground their young front line has blossomed into a cohesive group, and Bell is one of the game’s few backs who can consistently create his own space. He can also flex out and be a weapon in the passing game, joining the likes of Antonio Brown (the quickest, crispest route runner in football) and Martavis Bryant (a long-striding second-year deep threat capable of posting 1,000 yards on 55 to 60 catches). Best of all: Roethlisberger, contrary to longtime expectations, has matured into a cerebral, highly accurate pocket passer in coordinator Todd Haley’s system. At 33, he’s coming off the best season of his career. If he can top it, the Steelers, despite a rebuilding defense, are legitimate contenders in the AFC. If he can’t, it could be a return to 8-8.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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46. Teryl Austin, Defensive Coordinator, Detroit Lions
In his first season as a defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, the former Ravens secondary coach, oversaw a group that ranked second in yardage and third in scoring. Austin introduced a few more pressure concepts to a unit that had operated on a straight four-man pass rush seemingly forever. More importantly, he strayed from the usual Cover-2 zone concepts that have mostly gone stale across the NFL, installing more man-based and disguise tactics. From this, 2013 second-round cornerback Darius Slay finally found his NFL footing. Lanky and explosive defensive end Ziggy Ansah fulfilled his high first-round potential. And linebacker DeAndre Levy had a sterling campaign that, inexcusably, was overlooked by Pro Bowl voters. This isn’t to say Austin conjured stars by being a schematic mad scientist cut from the cloth of, say, a Rex Ryan. He still relied plenty on undisguised, straightforward coverages behind a simple four-man rush, particularly in the third-and-long situations the Lions saw often thanks to a run defense that ranked first overall. Call this the Ndamukong Suh factor. The all-world defensive tackle did wonders for the system, against both the run and the pass, primarily in the way he took on double teams to allow the talented but mercurial Nick Fairley (and others) to flourish. Both Suh and Fairley are gone now; the former deemed too expensive to re-sign and the latter deemed too unreliable to award long-term money. If Austin is a magician, he must prove that Suh wasn’t his magic wand. The Lions defense, for the first time in years, will truly have to manufacture success through scheme, not just skilled player execution. NFL GMs know this. And they know that Austin, 50, is charismatic and humble in the right ways. If the Lions prosper, he will become 2016’s hottest head coaching candidate.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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45. The Thursday Night Football Viewer
The NFL knew it had an undervalued asset in Thursday Night Football. From 2006 to ’13, its games aired exclusively on the league-owned NFL Network, viewership topping off at an average audience of 8.0 million viewers, well below the numbers for Sunday and Monday night games. Last year, with an eye toward adding revenue and eyeballs for its product, the NFL brought in a network partner (CBS) to broadcast nine games in simulcast with NFL Network. CBS also agreed to use its lead broadcasters and production team on all Thursday night games, even when the second half of the schedule appeared only on the NFL Network. CBS paid a reported $250 million for the package. The payoff was immense: For the 16 games on the 2014 schedule, Thursday Night Football averaged 12.3 million viewers, up 52% compared to 2013. The first seven TNF matchups, airing on CBS and the NFL Network, averaged 16.5 million viewers. The package topped out at 20.8 million, the viewership for Steelers-Ravens in Week 2. All eight TNF games on CBS/NFL Network during weeks 2-8, and 16 were the top-rated and most-watched program on television in primetime for those nights across all networks. A win for all parties. CBS returns as the network partner for the 2015 season, with an additional year at the NFL’s option. That network’s officials have made it clear they want the relationship to continue for the long term. And who can blame them, with viewers having once again shown an insatiable appetite for the NFL, on whatever day it’s televised? If the numbers are robust in 2015—and there’s no reason to think they won't be—the NFL is going to make a mint on future TNF packages.
—Richard Deitsch (@RichardDeitsch)
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44. Sean Payton, Head Coach, New Orleans Saints
It is very odd to write this about the team that got into the bounty mess, and has the scrappy and pugnacious Sean Payton as the head coach and the feisty and defiant Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. But the Saints have been getting a little soft lately. Tight end Jimmy Graham, their best offensive weapon other than Drew Brees, got pushed around so much by the Seahawks in recent years that it looked like the defense was bullying Graham. In the five years since they won the Super Bowl, the Saints have won two postseason games. So now, cap-strapped, the Saints have dumped Graham on to Seattle for a first-round pick and turned that into thumping inside linebacker Stephone Anthony. In fact, Saints GM Mickey Loomis made three trades in the offseason, turning those players into four defenders. The message in the organization is clear: The Saints must get significantly better on defense to be competitive in a strong NFC this year. Not the NFC South; the division is relatively weak, and there’s no reason a flawed team can’t win it. But winning the NFC in what might be Payton’s last year in New Orleans—he’ll deny even thinking about it, but his mentor in the coaching business is wanderlusting Bill Parcells—will take a major upgrade on defense. And in toughness. “Fear is a great motivator,’’ Payton told Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune this offseason. “The idea of not having success again this season…” Fear always was a great motivator for Parcells’ teams too. The Saints need to heed this call, or there could be even bigger changes with the franchise after the season.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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43. Lisa Friel, Senior Adviser, NFL
Last fall, as the NFL faced a crisis over its handling of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault cases, it sought outside help to prove it was taking the issue seriously. Enter Lisa Friel, the former sex crimes prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney’s office (and New York Giants season-ticket holder). Her experience lent the NFL credibility it desperately needed as the league weathered public pressure from media, fans and sponsors. Friel began working as a senior adviser to the NFL as it shaped a new personal-conduct policy, and this spring she was tabbed as the special counsel for investigations, to professionalize the fact-finding process on which discipline for off-field misconduct is based. Friel will be front and center as the league tries to make its personal-conduct policy what it has not been in the past: consistent, thorough and a deterrent to future incidents.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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42. Jimmy Garoppolo, Quarterback, New England Patriots
On the last day of June, Jimmy Garoppolo is the most important non-rookie in the NFL to have never started a game. That could change if Tom Brady’s four-game suspension is overturned. But the more likely scenario is that Garoppolo is behind center when the Patriots begin their latest Super Bowl defense, kicking off the NFL season against Pittsburgh on Sept. 10. Bill Belichick will find out what life is like without Tom Brady for only the second time in his Patriots tenure. Garoppolo’s résumé is still relatively bare. The most important pass of his NFL career likely came while running the scout team offense during Super Bowl practices; he beat cornerback Malcolm Butler for a touchdown running the same play Seattle used on its final snap of Super Bowl XLIX, the one Butler intercepted to seal a victory. Beyond that, Garoppolo has 182 yards and a touchdown to his credit since being chosen in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Eastern Illinois. The bulk of his playing time came in a meaningless Week 17 loss to Buffalo. He played the entire second half of that game, going 10-for-17 for 90 yards and leading the New England offense to just a field goal. Will Belichick look smart for drafting a quarterback so high, or will we get a reminder of just how important No. 12 is to his football team?
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
• Can Jimmy Garoppolo Handle the Heat?: Robert Klemko delved into the young quarterback’s past to find out just who he is, and whether or not he can handle the pressure if he has to fill in for Tom Brady
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41. Richard Sherman, Cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
Arguably football’s top corner, Richard Sherman’s play on the field, and willingness to speak his mind, makes him the most visible defensive player in the sport. If he’s not the modern-day answer to Muhammad Ali, he at least shares the Champ’s unique ability to see the forest and the trees. Recognizing the value of vacuous offseason trash talk like any good prizefighter would, he engaged Antonio Cromartie’s recent criticism by deadpanning, “That was unfortunate,” and citing his own participation in the Super Bowl, and not the Pro Bowl, as the reason Cromartie made the annual all-star game. Conversely, Sherman has used his platform to identify and decry racial stereotypes, critique NFL labor practices and elevate the profile of his teammates. As Sherman wrote in January when he was featured along with teammates on the cover of Sports Illustrated, “I was lucky to be drafted by Pete [Carroll] and John [Schneider], who assembled around me one of the most talented and diverse defensive backfields in football. More than I want individual success, I want to be remembered as part of the Legion of Boom, which is why all of us are on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine this week. In football, unlike various other sports, it takes a total team effort to be successful.” Sherman has built a career from an obsessive devotion to the spirit of the game, and devout irreverence for the bureaucracy and conventions of the league that monetizes it. To say there aren’t many players with the ability—or the desire—to pull that off would be an understatement, and that’s unfortunate.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)