Before free agency officially kicked off on March 17, the Seahawks appeared to be on the brink of one of the most tumultuous offseasons in franchise history.
After the Super Bowl, Russell Wilson went public with his desire for more involvement in personnel and scheme decisions as well as improved pass protection, leading to speculation about his future with the team. More than 20 players were set to become unrestricted free agents, the team had less than $4 million in effective cap space to work with, and a bevy of trades had left them with only four draft choices, creating quite the challenge for general manager John Schneider to upgrade the roster around the star quarterback.
Two weeks later, however, Seattle has somehow managed to do just that. Tough decisions were made along the way, including being forced to release long-time starting defensive tackle Jarran Reed, but the organization has deployed creative tactics to re-sign several key players and add talent at positions of need while dealing with a league-wide cap squeeze resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Offensively, the Seahawks unexpectedly re-signed running back Chris Carson, added a versatile pass-catching tight end in Gerald Everett, and though it came at the cost of a fifth-round pick, they worked swiftly to bolster protection in front of Wilson by acquiring guard Gabe Jackson from the Raiders. The team also retained reserve linemen Jordan Simmons and Cedric Ogbuehi for veteran depth in the trenches.
On defense, less than three weeks after releasing him to create $14 million in cap space, Schneider brought back Carlos Dunlap on a more team-friendly two-year, $16.6 million contract. In addition, Seattle further solidified its pass rush by bringing back Benson Mayowa and signing ex-49ers starter Kerry Hyder to a multi-year deal.
While Schneider deserves plenty of credit as always, another mastermind working behind the scenes belongs in the limelight. His name? Matt Thomas, Seattle's Vice President of Football Operations.
Originally starting his NFL career with the Dolphins, Thomas has been with the Seahawks since being hired as John Idzik's replacement in 2013. You won't find his picture on the team's website and he maintains a very low profile by design, but aside from the renowned Schneider, there may not be another cog in the front office as vital to the team's prolonged run of success on the field.
Upon his arrival, Thomas was quickly tasked with attempting to keep Seattle's Super Bowl roster intact. Wilson would soon be in line for his first massive pay day, while a historically-dominant defense had superstars such as Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor all poised to break the bank. Other critical players such as Golden Tate, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, K.J. Wright, and Doug Baldwin would also need new deals. Not everyone was going to get paid.
Proving himself an expert at crunching the numbers and maneuvering the salary cap, Thomas managed to lock up the vast majority of those star players. Wilson, Wagner, Sherman, Thomas, Wright, Bennett, Baldwin, Avril, and Chancellor all received at least one multi-year deal, keeping the young team together. He also managed to slip Percy Harvin's contract into the budget at the expense of losing Tate, who signed with the Lions after the 2013 season.
Over the past eight years, Thomas has been on the front lines in numerous contract negotiations, including record-breaking deals for Wilson and Wagner prior to the 2019 season. This year, like much of the NFL, he and Schneider had to change some of their tactics to compensate for the salary cap shrinking to $182.5 million.
Most notably, the Seahawks have incorporated voided years into multiple contracts, including the recently-signed deals for Carson, Mayowa, and Hyder. Adding voided years to the end of contracts allows teams to spread out the player's signing bonus for salary cap purposes, which lowers the cap hit for 2021.
For example, Carson reportedly signed a three-year contract worth up to $24.625 million to stay in Seattle. But in reality, the third year is voided with a $1.5 million dead cap hit, making it a two-year pact worth $10.425 million. The voided year dropped his 2021 cap hit to just $2.5 million.
For Mayowa and Hyder, both of their contracts include at least one voided year and as a result, neither player will count for more than $2.3 million against the cap this year. When their contracts void in 2023, the team will have a $2.25 million dead cap hit. Mayowa will also have a $750,000 dead cap hit in 2024 as part of his deal with a second voided year.
Typically against the idea of "kicking the can down the road" in regard to the salary cap, including restructuring contracts, Schneider and Thomas had never signed a player with a voided year as part of the contract prior to this offseason. But with the salary cap set to explode thanks to a new television deal agreed upon by the NFL starting in 2023, they have been willing to adapt amid a financial squeeze understanding those small dead cap hits will be easy to absorb in two years.
Aside from adding voided years to the aforementioned contracts, Thomas created much-needed savings by helping sign Jackson to a new three-year deal, securing a top-tier guard to keep Wilson upright through the 2023 season. Though the specific structure of the deal remains unknown, his cap hit for 2021 is expected to be less than $5 million. Under his previous contract, he would have carried a $9.6 million cap charge this year.
As of the time of this writing, the Seahawks also reportedly signed star receiver Tyler Lockett to a four-year, $69.2 million extension with $37 million guaranteed. This deal will likely create a bit more financial wiggle room for the franchise in the present, as he carried a cap hit close to $15 million for 2021 and a portion of that cap hit could be restructured in a back-loaded contract.
With the calendar set to flip to April, Seattle still has work left to do. After losing Shaquill Griffin in free agency, adding another cornerback to the mix should be a priority and Quinton Dunbar could be brought back on an affordable one-year deal. Linebacker K.J. Wright also remains unsigned and recent moves to extend Jackson and Lockett could open up enough space to re-sign him as well.
Schneider and Thomas also have several other players to negotiate extensions with over the next few months, including star safety Jamal Adams.
Regardless of what happens next, the Seahawks are in a far better place than they were only a few short weeks ago due to a shrewdly executed business plan. As the team continues to build their roster for the upcoming season, as has been the case for nearly a decade, expect Thomas to be at the center of the process.