Captaining the ship for one of the NFL's biggest surprises, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith has been a revelation taking the reins for departed star Russell Wilson, guiding his team to a 6-4 record and the top spot in the NFC West standings through 10 weeks.
Leading the NFL with a 72.8 percent completion percentage and ranking in the top six in touchdown passes and passer rating, Smith has emerged as an unlikely dark horse for MVP honors. In the process, he's transformed from a seven-year backup into a viable long-term starting option for Seattle with multiple reports indicating the organization wants to sign the impending free agent to an extension.
Even coach Pete Carroll recently hinted those discussions will be "coming" soon.
Given how rare it is for a player in his 10th NFL season like Smith to evolve into a top tier starter out of nowhere, there isn't much of a blueprint for how the Seahawks should proceed with him moving forward. While putting aside some national-media silliness (Aaron Rodgers traded to Seattle?!) ... With seven games left to play, here are three options for general manager John Schneider to consider with the veteran signal-caller and a case for the best alternative at his disposal.
1. Extend Smith's contract during or after the season at north of $30 million APY.
During his 13 years calling the shots, Schneider has rarely signed players to extensions during the season. There are a few exceptions, however, including defensive end Michael Bennett signing a three-year, $30 million extension in December 2016 and both linebacker K.J. Wright and edge rusher Cliff Avril signing extensions in December 2014, so there is past precedent, even if limited. Wilson signed both of his lucrative, market-setting extensions in the spring and negotiations didn't happen during the actual season, but for a player like Smith who has emerged as a top-10 caliber quarterback seemingly out of nowhere, trying to sign him as soon as possible may be the most cost-effective option financially for Seattle.
With that said, Smith and his representation would be wise to wait until after the season to maximize the player's value. Several teams such as the Panthers, Texans, and Colts remain in the hunt for upgrades at quarterback and such leverage would force the Seahawks to open up the checkbook and pay him market price if they want to keep him. The question, of course, is what will other teams view as "market" value for a 32-year old signal caller who spent the past seven years as a backup? It's such a rare breakout story that his chances of pushing for top-10 quarterback money seem slim, but as ESPN's Brady Henderson speculated, $33 million or so in the range of Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff per year on a multi-year contract would seem like a slam dunk for both parties. If the Seahawks want him on board in 2023 and beyond, this seems like the safest bet - as long as his demands don't exceed willingness to pay.
2. Place either an exclusive or non-exclusive franchise tag on Smith prior to March deadline.
How should the Seahawks proceed if Smith's agent demands his client receive top-10 money exceeding $40 million per year? After unloading Wilson's contract, Schneider may not be inclined to jump from paying the veteran under $4 million guaranteed to such a hefty price tag, at least not without two years worth of elite play. This opens the door for the front office to utilize the franchise tag to prevent him from signing with another team outright and extend the negotiation window for a long-term deal. While this wouldn't be a cheap alternative with OverTheCap.com estimating quarterbacks will receive $31.497 million fully guaranteed under a non-exclusive tag, that's still well below a top-10 salary at the position in 2023. Other teams would be able to negotiate with him, but the Seahawks would receive two first round picks from another team if they don't match the offer. An exclusive franchise tag would be far more expensive with an average of the top five salaries for 2023 instead of averages for those same players from the past five years and would prevent any other teams from offering contracts to him.
Schneider has only used the franchise tag twice previously and has never been a proponent of the expensive tender. For a top level quarterback, however, it would be a stunner if he didn't place the tag on Smith without a long-term deal in place by March's deadline. After that point, he could continue working towards an extension with prolonged negotiations pursuing a multi-year agreement. If things don't proceed as planned and he eyes a young quarterback in April's draft, then he could potentially field trade offers from other teams to recoup more high draft choices to go with Seattle's two first rounders and two second rounders. This route gives the most possible flexibility, but it would eat a huge chunk of the team's salary cap next year with a fully guaranteed salary.
3. Allow Smith to test free agent waters, risk losing him with chance of no compensation in return.
While the Patriots let Tom Brady walk three years ago and Peyton Manning once got cut by the Colts after missing a season due to a neck injury, standout quarterbacks rarely hit the free agent market. When it comes to Smith's case, he doesn't have a resume that comes anywhere close to those two Hall of Famers. But assuming his current torrid play lasts a full season and he leads the Seahawks to the postseason, other teams undoubtedly will line up to bid for his services if he becomes a free agent again in March. Schneider would be rolling the dice by allowing him the opportunity to even explore offers from other prospective suitors and unlike the past couple years, hoping for him to stay on the market for over a month before signing him to a cheap one-year deal is out of the question.
If Schneider were to opt to go this route, that would signal that he has at least one quarterback in this year's upcoming class who he is enthralled by and views as a plug-and-play candidate for the Seahawks. With two first round picks in tow, including a possible top-five pick from the struggling Broncos, as well as a pair of second round picks, he has the ammunition to move up and snag a coveted signal caller. If he desires Alabama's Bryce Young or Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, who are widely viewed as the top two quarterbacks in this class, he can flip a few picks to move up and select that player with sights on him starting Week 1 next season. Still, even if they were interested in picking a quarterback early, that shouldn't deter the front office from pursuing a two or three-year deal with Smith or at worst franchise tagging him to ensure they don't rush the rookie onto the field too early.
Final Verdict: Extend Smith before becoming eligible for free agency on a three-year, $100 million contract.
Though Schneider has never been afraid to zig while other executives zag, including his decision to trade Wilson to begin with, it would be an absolute stunner if he allowed Smith to even come close to sniffing free agency. While he's the textbook definition of a late bloomer, his play looks anything but fluky in Shane Waldron's offense, he's extremely efficient throwing at all levels of the field, and he's developed into a valued leader who has the full backing of the coaching staff and his teammates. Even in his early 30s, he should have a ton of great football in him, especially after not playing much for more than half a decade.
At worst, Smith is a talented bridge quarterback who can still lead the Seahawks to the postseason, which is worth the $30-plus million price tag for a year or two until a young signal caller is ready to replace him. More of a pocket passer than a dual threat like Wilson, he also has the skill set to play at a high level deep into his 30s and potentially into his 40s, so the franchise may view him as far more than a stop gap. He's more than earned a long-term deal and the Seahawks would be wise to reward him accordingly with a contract averaging between $30-35 million and substantial guaranteed money to keep themselves in good shape under center for the foreseeable future. Such a contract wouldn't prevent them from drafting a quarterback either. It's a win-win for every party.
Hey, 12s! Get your Seahawks Tickets from SI Tickets ... HERE!
Want the latest in breaking news and insider information on the Seahawks? Click Here to subscribe to AllSeahawks.com's Newsletter.
Want even more Seattle Seahawks news? Check out the SI.com team page here.