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Russell Wilson’s Contract Negotiation, and Why It’s Proving to Be Tricky

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks set the April 15 deadline to complete his new contract during Super Bowl week. It’s been more than two months, and there’s still no deal.

This was Monday, Jan. 7, two days after the Seahawks were eliminated from the NFL playoffs. On one hand, it was the last time during the 2018 season that Seattle coach Pete Carroll would meet iwth the media. On the other, what he would say would provide a pretty significant first.

“Russ and I met and we talked about the future. We are talking about where we are going and what we want to get done. And that’s very much in our plans.”

Before that, QB Russell Wilson’s camp hadn’t heard from the team. What was said in the meeting between coach and quarterback was kept between coach and quarterback. But more than two months later, we still don’t have a deal.

So while this week’s news that Wilson’s reps won’t negotiate after the Seahawks open their offseason program on April 15, as first reported by Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, may seem sudden, you can rest assured that it wasn’t to those involved. Quietly, Carroll’s words at that press conference sparked the first set of talks aimed at keeping Wilson in Seattle long-term. And soon thereafter, a timetable was set.

As I understand it, Wilson’s camp gave the Seahawks the April 15 deadline at the end of January in Atlanta during Super Bowl week. That happened for two reasons.

1. The belief was that little would happen between the end of the 2018 season and beginning of the ’19 season to change the market price of quarterbacks. While the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Eagles’ Carson Wentz may get paid, the feeling is that neither will blow up the market because of Prescott’s inconsistency and Wentz’s trouble staying healthy. As both Seattle and Wilson’s camp saw it, three months and change would be plenty to find middle ground.

2. There was frustration that his last contract negotiation became a bit of a circus, carrying into the beginning of the team’s 2015 training camp, as Seattle came off a second straight Super Bowl appearance. The situation hung over that spring, and Wilson didn’t want that again. “He views April 15 as the start of the season,” said one source with knowledge of the quarterback’s thinking. “And the market’s already set. You either do it or you don’t.”

So it’s been more than two months, and there’s still no deal. This is setting up for an interesting 10-day run-up to the beginning of Pete Carroll’s 10th offseason program in the Pacific Northwest.

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In this week’s GamePlan, exactly three weeks out from the beginning of the NFL draft, we’re going to sort through your mail and, in the process, I’ll tell you …

• Who might move up and down on April 25.

• Why I think the Bills offseason was a winner.

• Why one draft prospect is so tough to grade.

• What I think about the new uniforms in the league.

• Why Ed Oliver isn’t a top-five pick right now, even though he played like one for the majority of his college career.

But we’re starting with Wilson and his contract, and why he’s holding so many of the cards with the clock ticking down to his self-imposed deadline.

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Wilson’s not in the same position he was four years ago, when he signed a four-year, $88 million deal to stay in Seattle. This time around, the QB is operating from a tremendous position of strength. The team around him has been retooled almost completely, making him the third-longest tenured player on the roster, behind only linebacker K.J. Wright and receiver Doug Baldwin. He’s set for life financially, and he has teammates who can be affected by his negotiations.

Is that reason for panic? Not yet. But most quarterback deals are complicated, and Wilson’s definitely will be.

Why? Glad you asked.

Wilson’s been keeping score. It was widely reported two years ago that Seattle was smitten with Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. Last year, GM John Schneider turned up at Wyoming in March for Josh Allen’s Pro Day. And in February, Seattle was on Kyler Murray’s dance card, when he was going through private interviews. All the while, there were whispers from Wilson’s side—this flirting wasn’t going unnoticed.

Were they tweaking him? Have they seriously considered drafting his replacement?

Back in college at NC State, Wilson was displaced by a younger QB (Mike Glennon), and ended up transferring from a school where he’d been a three-year starter as a result. He’s sensitive to these things. On the flip side, Schneider’s an alum of the Ron Wolf school of scouting, which advocates taking a quarterback every year. And while the Seahawks haven’t, they’re always looking—which, again, is being noted.

This isn’t Wilson’s first internal spat. We don’t need to rehash the fall of the Legion of Boom. But you don’t have to dig real hard to read up on how Wilson factored into all of that. And while all that discord doesn’t exist at that level anymore, with so many of those stars gone, old feelings can resurface when things get tense.

Guarantees are in play. The funding rule, which we wrote about last year when Kirk Cousins signed, is in play here too. In a nutshell, the rule reads that every fully guaranteed dollar must be either paid to the player or funded to the league. Every team has cash budgets (yes, even the Allen family, who owns the Seahawks), and the issues with the full guarantee would be the impact it would have on the budget for 2020, when the money would have to go into escrow, and how it would affect negotiations with other players being told there’s a policy in place on fully guaranteeing deals.

One possible solution floated to me this week: A practical guarantee structure that would have the third-year money vest during the waiver period (between the Super Bowl and free agency) before Year 2, and the fourth-year money vest in the waiver period before Year 3. That would allow the players to break new ground (fourth-year guarantees) without the team having to blow up precedent or its cash budget.

The tag game. Let’s say Wilson doesn’t sign before Monday, and pledges to play out the year. At that point, you may assume Wilson gets franchise-tagged next March. And if you assume that, does Bobby Wagner (in a contract year) or Frank Clark (currently tagged) do a long-term extension, knowing the freeway to free agency may have just opened up? Maybe not.

So in a way, the uncertainty of Wilson’s situation probably makes it harder to sign Wagner or Clark now, which gives him leverage in the negotiation.

The changing landscape. Legalized sports gambling’s in the process of being mainstreamed. Bidding from streaming services will probably drive the money in the next broadcast deals into the stratosphere (or beyond whatever stratosphere they’re in now). A new CBA could mean anything, and there’s only two seasons left in the current deal.

Will Wilson want to protect against the possibility his deal could quickly become outdated? Probably. And that can happen one of two ways. He could seek being paid on a percentage of the salary cap. But we’ve seen people ruminate over that idea in the past with other players, and it hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe a more realistic option would be a short-term, Band-Aid extension. Wilson’s due $17 million this year. It’ll cost the team $30.34 million to franchise him in 2020 (120% of his ’19 cap number), and $36.41 million to tag him in 2021, which adds up to about $83.75 million over the next three years.

So what if you offer Wilson a two-year, $70 million extension fully guaranteed? That would give him $87 million over the next three years (better than Kirk Cousins). It would free the tag up for the team to use on Wagner or Clark next March. And it would allow the player to go back to the table just as the new CBA is starting up, at 33 years old. I don’t think it’s a crazy idea.

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This is all a little disconcerting for Seattle, sure. Wilson’s their quarterback. And they know he’s got resolve—“If they test this dude, look out,” said a friend of Wilson’s. “Ask NC State.”

For now, we know the Seahawks have Wilson this year. I’m told he’ll be at the offseason program on April 15, contract or no contract, and plans to lead the team into the fall.

What’s coming after that? We’ll know more in 10 days.

On to your mail …

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From Mr. Jake (@shermostat): Who’s looking to move up in the draft and who’s looking to move down?

The easy answer to this question, every year, is no one on the former and everyone on the latter. Since 2010, there have been 18 occasions of teams moving up into or up within the top 10 picks. Over the first half of the decade (2010-14), two of nine trades were for quarterbacks. Over the second half of the decade (2015-present), seven of nine trades were for quarterbacks (the two outliers were in 2016: the Titans traded with the Browns to move up from No. 15 to No. 8 and selected Jack Conklin, and the Bears traded with the Buccaneers to move up to the No. 9 pick and drafted Leonard Floyd). 

That tells you that moving up at the top of the draft now pretty much only happens with quarterbacks as the targets. I’ll tell you that the Jets want to move down, and the Raiders and Bucs would be very open to it. It’s harder to find a team ready to sell the farm and move up. The Redskins have done homework on the quarterbacks, and maybe the team will move up for someone like Dwayne Haskins.

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From Mike (@vetlegge): Any assessment of the Buffalo Bills’ offseason moves? I feel like they are building it well, and are getting zero recognition.

I really like what GM Brandon Beane has done from an asset management standpoint over the last two years. Last year, they bit the bullet and took on all the collateral damage the previous regime left, using about a third of their cap to rid themselves of all the dead money from contracts given to departed players. And they went young in a lot of spots.

Ultimately, whether this all works will depend on the development of those young guys, like Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds, and those they bring in with the 10 draft picks they have in April. But because of the deck-clearing, and the fact there weren’t guys on their own roster to pay yet, they had money to burn, and I like the sensible middle-class haul (WRs John Brown and Cole Beasley, OT Ty Nsheke, C Mitch Morse) they brought in during free agency.

That class can make up a solid supporting cast, and has much more upside than it does downside, based on the money they spent and commitments they made.

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From Brett Hiller (@hiller_brett): Which teams are most likely to take Jeffrey Simmons in the first? Won't be an immediate contributor, coming off an injury, but he is an elite talent and the fifth-year option makes him a value late first rounder.

Simmons hit a woman multiple times, an incident that was caught on video, during his senior year of high school, and then he tore his ACL while training for the combine. He’s an elite prospect at his position—those at Mississippi State swear by his growth to scouts, and he’s been discussed as knocking on the door of the top group at his position, which includes Ohio State DE Nick Bosa and Alabama DT Quinnen Williams.

So how do you grade a top prospect with an off-the-field issue and a recent significant injury. I honestly have no idea. But I think he’ll be drafted by a team led by a GM and coach who not only have the credibility to convince their owner to rubber-stamp the pick, but also the job security to know they’ll be around to see the potential benefits. I’m not sure the Chiefs can take these risks anymore. The Eagles? I don’t know.

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From CS (@CScarpaglia): When it comes to NFL reporters, why don't you think the NFL media should be held accountable the same way the NFL media holds NFL players/coaches accountable?

I know you’ve been asking this for a few weeks, CS, and it’s a fair question. I think we should be held accountable in that way. Sometimes, it’s on us to self-police, and sometimes, it’s on the people pulling the strings. But I’m with you—if we ask for accountability of those we cover, we should demand it of ourselves.

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From ALEXTHE25 (@alex_xxv): Why teams keep ruining their uniforms (now the Jets). They are awful, ugly, boring and lame. Nike has the worst designers or what?

I’m not jumping to any conclusions on the Jets’ unis yet, because I need to see them in person. But I think most teams should wear the uniforms of my childhood. So put the Jets back in the old Neil O’Donnell Era jerseys, Turn Bruce Arians into a creamsicle on the sideline. Make Tom Brady wear Pat Patriot again.

I’m mostly kidding. Here’s one thing we can all agree on – the Browns should go back to the traditional uniforms (no surprises!) when they make their switch next year. (And if you haven’t already seen them, here’s every team’s NFL draft day hats.)

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From Th1rd N Long (@th1rdnlong): Did Ed Oliver's pro day vault him back into top five consideration?

I don’t think so, Th1rd. I’d consider Bosa and Williams to be near locks to go in the top five, and right now, Kyler Murray’s there too, assuming Arizona pulls the trigger. Josh Allen’s close, maybe a tick behind Bosa and Williams, and I’m starting to think White’s in that group too. A QB, like Haskins, could sneak in there via a trade up (or the Raiders taking one). After that, I think it’s truly wide open.

Oliver won’t be for everyone. The 280-pounder can play for anyone, of course, as a pass rusher. The question is how he fits into a team’s base defense. That’s less important than it used to be, given the pass-happy state of the league, but if a team is using a top-five pick on the guy, whether or he can play all three downs for you is going to come into play.

All that said, I think Oliver has a chance to be a John Randle-type of player in the pros.

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From Abdullah Ahmed (@Abdullah12): Which teams with an older, veteran QB could be targeting a QB early to groom?

I’d say the Patriots, Chargers, Steelers, and Saints would all be in the group, with the Packers creeping into that territory, and the Giants moving from it being a future need to a more immediate need. Each has a quarterback in his late 30s/early 40s, and probably won’t be bad enough soon to be in position to take a blue-chipper.

Based on where those teams are picking, they’ll have to get creative. Trading for Josh Rosen would be one way to do it. Another would be looking for a team desperate to win right now, and trying to trade a 2019 first-rounder for their ’20 first-round pick, in hopes that they’d come undone in the fall and the pick would be higher than anyone might think.

At any rate, I’d say those four teams are squarely in a spot where you’d be looking for the next guy, which can be a tough proposition because you also want to get your current guy help while he’s still playing a championship-level.

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From Glenn Warciski (@NYGunderground): A lot of talk about @giants going defense with one or both of their first round picks. What about offensive line? Do you know who they like? Need another tackle.

I’d say there are very few spots—running back might be the only one—where the Giants couldn’t use some immediate help. And the strength of the draft class is on defense, and GM Dave Gettleman’s got a history, which is shared history with the Giants, of putting a premium on high-end defensive line. Chances are, really good ones will be available to him at both No. 6 and No. 17.

Two things could throw a wrench in all this. One is that Gettleman loves one of the quarterbacks—Haskins or Missouri’s Drew Lock or someone else. Two, a player falls into his lap where the value is just too great to pass. I don’t know if there’s an offensive lineman who’d fit that description at either pick.

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From Stephen Sheehan (@StephenPSheehan): Which major free-agent acquisition do you see failing to pan out? On the other hand, who are some under-the-radar additions who will outperform expectations?

I’m really interested to see Dee Ford with the 49ers. The Chiefs were no good on defense last year, and the team chose to walk away from an edge rusher who posted 13 sacks. Scheme fit was a concern, of course, in the same sort of way it could be a problem for Oliver (Ford didn’t project great into Steve Spagnuolo’s base defense). Another question was whether his drive would remain the same after getting paid.

San Francisco built his new deal with escape hatches after every year, and only needed a 2020 second-rounder to pry him away from Kansas City. The signs here, to say the least, aren’t awesome, but his chance to play alongside DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead and maybe Bosa provides a good counterpoint to all of this, and the structure of his contract should lay out ample motivation.

If Ford’s the same guy he was last year, the Niners have a chance to make big leaps on defense, with Richard Sherman back to full speed. But that’s a big “if”.

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From Vince Stewart (@Vstewart82Vince): Is there even a chance of Devin Bush making to Pittsburgh at No. 20? If not, what is the thought on Clelin Ferrell? Is he expected top 15?

Increasingly, I see the positive momentum White is building carrying Bush up the board with him, since teams needy for off-ball linebackers in the top 15 may not get their shot at the LSU star. I think the Michigan star would be in play for Denver at 10, and Cincinnati at 11, and right now I’d be surprised if he makes it all the way to 20.

Ferrell could get there, though. And he’s a Steeler kind of guy. With the edge guys and interior defensive linemen, there’s a big jumble of players after Bosa, Williams and Allen, and in what order they shake out is anyone’s guees.

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