Is Russell Wilson the kind of nearly irreplaceable franchise quarterback that can bring the Seahawks to their knees at the bargaining table?
There's one thing we know for sure about the ongoing drama between the Seahawks and Russell Wilson: At some point in the next year, Wilson will get a major contract, and he'll have earned it. Well, at least most of it. It all comes down to just how much Wilson and agent Mark Rodgers want, and how much the Seahawks are willing to give. It's highly possible that Wilson's camp wants a deal that will make him the NFL's highest-paid player, while the Seahawks have countered with offers that fit more within his value to the team.
Rodgers is primarily a baseball agent, which brings different possibilities to the negotiating table: Wilson could walk in free agency, or he could be seeking a contract with more guarantees than others of its kind. The new wave of quarterback contracts, given to everyone from Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick to Cam Newton and Ryan Tannehill, is team-friendly in that the guaranteed money figures are relatively low. That's the way things go in the NFL among players whose first big extensions would otherwise limit their teams' flexibility in a salary cap league. Aaron Rodgers has a $110 million contract, but only 49.1% of it ($54 million) is guaranteed. Only 24% of Joe Flacco's $120.6 million contract is guaranteed. And Jay Cutler, who currently has the largest overall quarterback contract in the NFL at $126.7 million, has just 30% of that deal guaranteed.
If Wilson wants something far more friendly on the back end, he and Rodgers will have to convince the Seahawks that he's worth that consideration, on top of the more than $20 million per year he's said to want. And that's a tough argument for a guy whose counting stats since he entered the league rarely top the leaderboards—Wilson is 18th in attempts (1,252), 18th in completions (794), 16th in passing yards (9,950) and 12th in passing touchdowns (72) over that span. He does lead all quarterbacks in rushing yards since 2012 with 1,877 yards, but still, those numbers don't exactly scream “I should be the highest-paid player in the NFL” without giving considerable weight to his future potential.
So Rodgers has highlighted Wilson's “winning record,” because Wilson has “won” 36 regular-season games in his first three seasons, more than any other quarterback in NFL history. To whatever degree you take wins seriously as an individual statistic (as you may have guessed by the quotation marks, the author doesn't take them seriously at all), they remain a popular measure of success. In these negotiations, it's where Rodgers hanging his hat.
“It’s so different in football,” Rodgers recently said. “In baseball, you can dive into analytics. In baseball, there are so many numbers that really define the player to the minutest detail. In football, it’s a little simpler. I don’t have to argue statistics with the Seattle Seahawks on the value of Russell Wilson. In football, the most important stat to me has always been ‘Does he win?’ It’s hard to argue that Russell Wilson doesn’t win.
“With Russell, he’s unique, so let the debate begin. He’s unconventional in size [5'11", 206 pounds]. People argue that he’s a game manager or say it’s the defense or Marshawn Lynch—or all of the above. I listen and take all that into account. At the end of the day, it’s about winning and what he’s asked to do, and he does it very, very well.”
Here's one stat Rodgers and Wilson won't like: The Seahawks are 5–3 in the eight games Wilson has started in which he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass. And all those other wins may have a little to do with the NFL's best defense and a running game that's just about impossible to consistently stop.
Despite what Rodgers suggests, we can dive into analytics in football, too. And we can look at tape. We'll do both here to answer the more global question: Is Russell Wilson the kind of nearly irreplaceable franchise quarterback that can bring the Seahawks to their knees at the bargaining table? To determine that, we'll need to look at the attributes common to the league's best signal-callers.
In each of the last two seasons, Wilson has led the league in pressure percentage among starting quarterbacks, and during his rookie season only Michael Vick was pressured on a higher percentage of his dropbacks. Below are Wilson's numbers from his first three seasons when under pressure, along with his accuracy percentage, a Pro Football Focus metric that counts dropped passes as completions. He's been remarkably consistent—a lot of quarterbacks facing pressure on roughly four out of every 10 dropbacks would fall apart by their third NFL season. Wilson and the Seahawks seem to see it as an inevitable offshoot of a playing style that works well enough not to change.
|Season||pressure %||Comp-Att||td||int||accuracy %|
It's clear that outside of left tackle Russell Okung and the now-traded center Max Unger, the Seahawks have not done a great job of putting together offensive line talent. Line coach Tom Cable seems to prefer the marginally effective player he can coach into greatness, as opposed to the obviously dominant player. Wilson dances around this problem just as Marshawn Lynch runs right through it.
Outside of his shaky line, how much of Wilson's pressure rate is Wilson's fault? Mobile quarterbacks run themselves into trouble just as much as they run themselves out of it, and there are certainly times when Wilson would benefit from better pocket presence. But there are just as many (if not more) times when pocket presence is an impossible concept because there's no pocket to be present within.
The numbers show a worrisome trend. According to Pro Football Focus metrics, Wilson's percentage of total sacks outside the pocket has risen pretty dramatically throughout his career, from 15% in his rookie campaign, to 25% in 2013, to 33% last season. If that continues, Wilson will have an element of Vick to him—the dynamic runner who puts himself needlessly in harm's way because he's more concerned about making a play than about being part of a bigger team play. It's a problem the Seahawks need to monitor, especially given the liabilities along their offensive line.
Reading the field
A common criticism of Wilson is that he's a one-read quarterback. Those who don't think he's a complete player will say that the Seahawks gameplan to have his first read open a great deal of the time, and that's a big reason he's so effective. And that's true to a large degree, as it is for a lot of young quarterbacks. However, the same could be said of Philip Rivers, who has been rejuvenated in Mike McCoy's offense over the last two seasons, along with a lot of veteran quarterbacks whose offenses are more designed to feature three- to five-step drops and quick, efficient passes.
In truth, any offensive coordinator who doesn't design a lot of first-read looks for his quarterback is putting him at a distinct disadvantage, unless that quarterback also has the 1976 Raiders offensive line blocking for him. Aaron Rodgers would agree, by the way. In 2014, the Packers featured more of a running back-oriented passing game, adding to an offense that's featured quick reads and yards after catch for a long time.
“Those guys are so in tune this year,” Rodgers said last December of backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks. “They’ve both improved. They’re dialed in on their protections first, and then what their route responsibility is, and running those to get open has been really impressive. It’s no surprise they’ve gotten a good amount of throws out of the backfield. It’s great when you throw a two-yard pass and they break a bunch of tackles and turn it into a big one.”
Rodgers is the consensus best quarterback in the league, and there's no doubt about his ability to read the field. Those quick passes and easy open looks really help, no matter how good you are.
For our purposes, the question is whether Wilson needs that first-read system to succeed and tends to decline in efficiency when he's asked to read the entire field. There are definitely times when he feels pressure in the pocket—sometimes before it has completely materialized—and starts dancing around instead of sticking in the pocket and making those reads. There's no way to tabulate what he would have done, of course. And he needs to improve in that particular discipline.
However, he will occasionally make half-field reads in the pocket, and one of his more interesting adaptive strategies is the ability to read on the run. He did so in Super Bowl XLIX against the Patriots on this 44-yard completion to Chris Matthews with 4:19 left in the first half. The end-zone camera shows Wilson processing a half-field read, making the correct decision (Matthews had been toasting cornerback Kyle Arrington until Arrington was benched in the second half), and having faith in his deep accuracy.
Is Wilson a consistent full-field reader? Not at all, and that's a product of scheme as much as his own development. It's something both sides can work on in the next few years.
In and out of the pocket
One of the reasons Wilson lasted until the 75th pick in the third round of the 2012 draft was that his height (officially 5'10 5/8") had people wondering if he could see past his offensive linemen and over defensive pressure to deliver the ball. In the pros, it's never been a problem—Wilson has learned to move in the pocket to take advantage of gaps that provide vision, and his overhand delivery has him throwing as if he's around 6'1" or 6'2". He's had fewer passes batted down over his career than people would guess, and he's been more prolific in the pocket throughout his NFL career than a lot of people expected.
According to charting stats provided to SI by Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, Wilson performed well in the pocket as a rookie, with 231 completions on 347 attempts for 2,917 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions, as opposed to 60 completions on 108 attempts for 773 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions outside the pocket. The following year, he completed 229 passes on 344 attempts for 2,774 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven picks in the pocket, as opposed to 71 completions on 131 attempts for 1,107 yards, eight touchdowns and two picks outside the pocket.
Wilson's efficiency in the pocket did drop off a bit in 2014: He completed 249 passes on 379 attempts for 2,984 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 picks in the pocket, compared with 77 completions in 145 attempts for 1,215 yards, five touchdowns and one interception outside the pocket. In his three years as a pro, Wilson has finished fourth, then seventh, then 12th in quarterback rating from the pocket. Last season, his 96.0 quarterback rating in the pocket tied him with Drew Brees and landed him ahead of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco.
Not convinced? Check out the two 35-yard overtime throws that sent the Seahawks to their second straight Super Bowl. That's command of one's surroundings from the pocket, especially after the four picks Wilson threw in regulation—two of which came about because of receiver drops.
The deep ball, before and after things fall apart
Wilson has become a great deep-ball thrower, though this isn't completely reflective of his alleged sophistication as a quarterback. It's as much about him moving around, getting free of pressure, and aligning with a deep target who's had enough time to get downfield thanks to Wilson's improvisation. Yes, there are plays (more than you may think) in which Wilson stays in the pocket and fires downfield after he processes what's going on, but a lot of his deep throws are the product of escape acts, when defenses falling apart as his reads and receivers revert to the sandlot. Defenders will tell you that when Wilson's running around and his receivers are breaking off their prescribed routes, that's when things get tough.
“A lot of things he does I don’t think any team in this league has a guy that can show you that in practice,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said during Super Bowl week in January. “You don’t have Russell Wilson in your locker room to practice against. I don’t care what quarterback you have on your roster. You can’t practice against it. So, a little bit of it is once you get out there in the game, realizing how fast he is or how deep he can throw the ball, all those things you won’t see until you get out there and you play against him. So I don’t know if it’s as much in the right place at the right time, but I think it’s more just his playmaking ability.”
That said, Wilson matched deep ball expert Joe Flacco with 21 completions traveling 20 or more yards in the air in 2014, totaling 733 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions on those throws. And he's becoming better at sticking in the pocket at times and making the throw that needs to be made, as he showed in this 47-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse against the 49ers in Week 15. The protection breaks down, and Wilson steps up in the pocket to fire an accurate downfield bullet. That's what you want from any quarterback at his very best.
During that same Super Bowl week presser, McCourty talked about how at Wilson's best, he makes you pick your poison.
“He kind of ate us up in college, so watching him, to me the amazing part is to see, you know, what we saw in college, him being able to still do it at a high level in the NFL,” McCourty said. “With staying in the pocket and throwing some balls deep down the field in spots that only the receiver can get it, and then also having the ability when a play breaks down to make three guys miss and then find a wide open guy. Usually when you do that in college the first thing they tell you is when you get to the NFL, everyone’s bigger, stronger, faster, you won’t be able to do that, and he still is able to do that. Watching him, I still see some of the great things he did in college, he does in the NFL.”
And with Jimmy Graham as his new primary target, Wilson will have more opportunities to take advantages of personnel mismatches—a luxury he hasn't really had to date.
How much help he gets—and gives
The common qualifier with Wilson is that all his achievements come with the blessing of the NFL's best defense and a running back in Marshawn Lynch who forces defenses to focus on the ground game. And to a point, this is very true. But as much as he is profiting from an ideal situation for any young quarterback, Wilson is also contributing to the overall picture. One would think that he's a front-runner because his defense clamps down on opposing offenses, but his efficiency in 2014 was just about the same when he was leading as when he was trailing: 107 completions in 167 attempts for 1,288 yards, eight touchdowns and two picks when his team was ahead, and 110 completions in 169 attempts for 1,348 yards, nine touchdowns and five picks when his team was behind.
And though his play-action numbers tell a story of a player who benefits greatly from Lynch's presence, there's also the fact that Wilson is the team's second-most prolific runner. In 2014, he gained 849 rushing yards and scored six touchdowns on 118 attempts, adding 45 first downs to his team's offensive production as a pure runner. Ask the Cardinals about that—they're the ones who had to deal with this 55-yard run in Week 16.
Lynch's running ability makes defenses cheat down towards the line of scrimmage, yes, but Wilson's running ability does the same thing. When you're making a read-option decision whether to tackle Wilson or Lynch, you're pretty sure to come up with the wrong answer.
As for Wilson's receivers, well ... Doug Baldwin famously got all indignant before Super Bowl XLVIII when Hall of Fame receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter implied that Seattle's receivers were “pedestrian”, but Carter has a point. Wilson has never enjoyed the advantages of Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Rob Gronkowski, or any of the league's other targets who can simply outmatch any coverage with pure freakish physical ability. Graham will be the first receiver of that level on Seattle's roster during Wilson's time with the Seahawks, which has a lot of people excited about what Wilson and Graham can accomplish together.
“He’s an explosive player,” Wilson said of Graham in early June, after a minicamp practice in which the tight end smoked Seattle's first- and second-team secondaries for five red-zone touchdowns. “When you have the receivers that we have, the good receivers that we have and you add Jimmy and the other tight ends as well, and then you have the running backs, it’s kind of hard to figure out where to go. It’s going to be exciting to see what we can do. I’m looking forward to it. A lot of work. The timing is great. I’ll say that. The timing is right where we want it to be with all the guys, honestly. We’re just growing. A lot of it has been the off-season work all together and trying to build what we’re trying to do here.”
So, keep in mind that Wilson has done what he's done with limited receivers and an offensive line that can't really pass-protect very well, and the picture becomes clearer. Wilson is a contributor as much as he's a beneficiary.
Is Russell Wilson a franchise quarterback? I would posit that the answer lies somewhere between “Yes” and “Well, duh... of course he is.” He's accomplished things no other quarterback has accomplished through his first three seasons, and while he's had a lot of help, the Seahawks weren't going to win all those games and reach the Super Bowl twice with Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Flynn under center. Of course, we're looking at a different question: Is Russell Wilson the kind of franchise quarterback who is worth an Aaron Rodgers-like contract with Clayton Kershaw-like guarantees in the last few years of the deal?
And to that, I say no. No player in a salary cap league is worth that much money with no wiggle room on the team's side. Tom Brady is one of many top quarterbacks who has deferred huge chunks of his cap room to future seasons so that his teams could be better, and Brady has reaped the rewards. Wilson has been horrifically underpaid through his first three seasons, with base salaries of $390,000, $526,217 and $662,434. If he plays through the end of his rookie deal in 2015, he'll make a base salary of $1.542 million, and then things get really interesting.
The Seahawks could slap the franchise tag on him, which would guarantee Wilson well over $20 million for the 2016 season and put the Seahawks' cap situation somewhere between precarious and untenable. Or both sides could agree to disagree and come to a conclusion that would benefit all involved. Given Rodgers' public stance, that's not likely to happen, which puts Wilson's team in a bit of a spot.
Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com has proposed a solution that would give Wilson a higher guaranteed rate than the norm, with more contractual flexibility than baseball, giving Wilson a guarantee in the 70–80% range with the differential (the pre-funded amount from the team) with perhaps a smaller amount upfront. It's a reasonable compromise for a franchise that could just as easily get another year out of Wilson at a huge bargain, tag him the next year, and see where things are in 2017. If that's how it plays out, Rodgers hasn't represented his client to his ultimate benefit. That's two full seasons for everything to come apart due to injury or some other factor, at which point Wilson turns from rising superstar to cautionary tale.
There's the potential for an enormous payoff on the other end, but it could just as easily be the career version of the most recent pass Wilson threw in an NFL game—an ill-advised decision executed against an opponent that holds most of the cards.