The Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts could face off in the Super Bowl next month.
The Seahawks and/or Colts also could be eliminated from the playoffs by Sunday night.
When it comes to one important item on each team's agenda, it doesn't matter which happens.
Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are the two best young quarterbacks in the NFL, the cream of the 2012 quarterback bumper crop and the heirs obvious to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. It's time for them to get paid.
Wilson and Luck just finished the three non-negotiable years of their rookie contracts. When the 2014 regular season ended, the window for renegotiations and extensions officially opened.
Wilson is the most underpaid person in the sports universe, slated to earn just below $800,000 in 2015 (though some built-in escalators will boost that figure a bit). As the first pick in the 2012 draft, Luck is better compensated (about $3.5 million in 2015) and can be easily handcuffed to a lucrative fifth-year option for 2016. But Luck just missed the top-pick contract bonanza that showered crazy cash on Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford, with unfortunate consequences.
It's time for Luck to start earning perennial playoff quarterback money as well, and for the Colts to chart their course for the rest of the decade.
The alarm bell has sounded in Seattle and Indy: The pipe dream of low-cost, high-caliber quarterbacking will soon be over. But just what are Wilson and Luck worth? Can the Seahawks and Colts afford to pay it? And if they can, what will it mean for the other stars on each roster and the long-range plans of each franchise?
Here's a step-by-step guide that will lead Wilson, Luck and their respective general managers to an all-smiles press conference and a half-decade of championship-caliber stability with a minimum of fuss. John Schneider and Ryan Grigson: Feel free to clip 'n' save.
Step 1: Get started right away
Wilson and Luck should not be thinking about their contracts right now. But general managers Schneider and Grigson can think about them, as can agents Mark Rodgers (Wilson) and Will Wilson (Luck) and anyone in either organization in charge of managing cash flow and cap cleanliness.
There is no reason to wait for next year's or next month's results. Peyton Manning may well out-duel Luck, and Wilson's Seahawks could trip over the pesky Panthers or fall to the strong-and-balanced Cowboys or Packers. That may change your perception of these young superstars, but talent evaluators don't buy into "choke in the playoffs" logic, especially for quarterbacks who have already proved at age 25 they can win playoff games/Super Bowls. These teams know what they have, and they don't want to lose it.
There is also no reason to fiddle with the Colts' fifth-year option on Luck. The Panthers used the option on Cam Newton, and there was some logic to spending nearly $15 million in theoretical cash to wait and see what the inconsistent, eccentric Newton would do next.
What would the Colts be waiting to see from Luck? Wait for a Super Bowl victory, and they risk a Joe Flacco situation. An over-the-barrel negotiation on the eve of unrestricted free agency would probably result in a paradigm-changing contract, instead of just a huge one.
The same thing could happen if the Seahawks try to enjoy Wilson's services on the cheap for one more season. The short-term gains of an extra year of low-priced quarterback awesomeness are outweighed by the long-term risks of a highly coveted, now-disillusioned superstar holding all negotiating leverage a year later.
Finally, it would be foolish to let the agents play chicken with each other. There's incentive to not be the first quarterback to sign: The second quarterback can top the first's contract values, Price Is Right-style. ("He got $55 million guaranteed? I'll make sure you get $55.000001 million guaranteed!") That neither Wilson nor Luck is represented by a traditional "superagent"—Wilson is represented by a baseball guy, Luck by his fully certified uncle—works in favor of getting two deals done with minimum one-upmanship. Also, neither quarterback appears to be motivated by "I make 50 grand more than the other guy" headlines.
Step 2: Follow the Rodgers model
Aaron Rodgers' 2013 contract extension provides the perfect template for a Wilson or Luck deal. Rodgers' five-year, $110 million reported, $54 million guaranteed contract extension represents a pay structure that accounts for both an in-his-prime star quarterback's past performance and his long-range potential. It also reflects the strictures of the salary cap and the current collective bargaining agreement, which is designed explicitly to make young players accomplish something before earning Rodgers-level riches.
For convenience, here's a breakdown of Rodgers' contract structure (all cap figures via Over the Cap):
|Aaron Rodgers' Contract: a Luck-Wilson Template|
|Year||Base Salary||Prorated Bonus||Roster Bonus||Cap Figure|
|2013||$4.5 million||$7.0 million||$0||$12.00 million|
|2014||$0.9 million||$6.65 million||$9.5 million||$17.55 million|
|2015||$1.0 million||$6.65 million||$10.1 million||$18.25 million|
|2016||$11.5 million||$6.65 million||$600,000||$19.25 million|
|2017||$12.6 million||$6.65 million||$600,000||$20.30 million|
|2018||$19.8 million||$0||$600,000||$20.90 million|
|2019||$20.0 million||$0||$600,000||$21.10 million|
|Over the Cap|
There are also $500,000 workout-bonus stocking stuffers in the nooks and crannies of each season. Anyone who follows the basics of NFL cap science understands the basics of this contract: A $34 million signing bonus must be smeared across multiple years for cap legality, the final two seasons are largely an accounting fiction, cutting the player in the first few seasons (before 2017, in Rodgers' case) brings a crippling cap hit, and so on.
The first few seasons of a Rodgers-style contract provide reasonable cap frugality. In the cases of Wilson and Luck, the Seahawks and Colts will be taking on far more of a financial burden than they have faced for three seasons, but neither team will be immediately choked by absorbing a 2015 cap hit in the $12-13 million range.
A Rodgers-style contract pushes the event horizon of unaffordability for both quarterbacks back to about 2020 (add two years to the dates in Rodgers' deal to reflect a 2015 start), far enough in the future that both teams can plan for an extended success cycle with a minimum of quarterback salary concerns.
Are both Wilson and Luck worthy of Rodgers-like contracts? Absolutely. This is the going rate for young veteran franchise quarterbacks.
You can use Joe Flacco's 2013 contract (six years, $120 million announced, $52 million essentially guaranteed, a little more first-year cap wiggle room) as a template instead, but it's a potato-potahto argument. These two quarterbacks deserve nine-digit contracts with eye-popping bonuses, and they are going to get them. If you don't like it, you can try to finagle a Colin Kaepernick low-guarantee contract while Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones prepare to drive up to negotiations with their money cannons. Or you can watch Ryan Lindley play quarterback.
Are both Wilson and Luck worthy of more than Rodgers-like contracts? Two years of inflation and increased cap space say yes. Chances are, tweaks in the Rodgers template will reflect the youth of the two superstars: more money over more years, with whopping signing and roster bonuses prorated over longer terms.
The Seahawks, with some short-term cap issues to face, may want to keep Wilson's 2015 cap figure low by shuffling more money into 2016 and beyond. But we are looking at a pair of contracts that will be announced in the $130-150 million range with guarantees that clear $50 million easily.
Which begs the question: Can the teams afford their quarterbacks?
Step 3: Make tough decisions about big names
The Seahawks are going from a dead stop to 90 miles per hour when it comes to quarterback spending. They are also facing a medium-sized 2015 cap crunch. The Seahawks have $119 million in cap space allocated for 2015 already, some of it in Percy Harvin dead money. Adding about $13 million in Wilson money will push them close to the cap ceiling, which will be around $140 million. That could take away the flexibility they need to re-sign their own free agents and play even the penny-stock market.
Cutting Marshawn Lynch and his $8.5 million cap figure (the Seahawks would have to eat some of that money, leaving $7 million in cap savings) seems like an obvious move. But one more year of Lynch's services may be worth the investment. The Seahawks remain short on playmakers, and Lynch protege Christine Michael is probably not a worthy replacement. Releasing Lynch may prove to be a necessary evil, but the Seahawks could keep the Wilson-Lynch band together for one more year with some creative accounting.
The Seahawks can make smaller trims to balance their short-term budget. Releasing injured tight end Zach Miller can save about $3 million, for example. The in-house free-agent class contains few top-priority re-signings: Malcolm Smith, Jermaine Kearse and James Carpenter are useful but replaceable players. As a top contender trying to keep a young core intact, the Seahawks can cope with a bit of cap tightness. It's not like the money is going toward aging veterans on a .500 team.
The good news for the Seahawks is that their cap situation frees up as soon as Lynch leaves. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and a few other championship-core types are the only players with giant deals extending into the not-too-distant future. The Seahawks can bury cap money in 2016-18 without taking away their ability to negotiate for other free agents. Meanwhile, they can draft a Lynch successor and work on upgrading Wilson's receiving corps and line through player development and low-cost solutions.
The Colts are in better cap shape: about $109 million allocated for next year, with some easy trims (Ricky Jean-Francois at over $6 million) to be made. The team has started weaning itself from Reggie Wayne, an unrestricted free agent who probably does not fit the team's fiscal plan anymore. And Luck already makes a little money, so bumping up his cap value won't have quite the extreme effect it will have in Wilson's case. Absorbing a hefty Luck contract will not be too hard, though the Colts must be more mindful than the Seahawks of properly managing the next step.
Step 4: Keep an eye on the horizon
Indianapolis drafted T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen along with Luck in 2012. That means all three enter the final year of their contracts this season. It makes no sense to pay Luck and let the nucleus of his receiving corps walk away. The Colts need a master plan for retaining as much of the 2012 draft class as possible.
Not everybody can be accommodated with an extension this year. Hilton should get top priority after Luck. Allen and Fleener will have to wait until 2016.
The money to pay the Colts' young veterans will probably come from erasing some of the financial mistakes of the 2013 free-agency splurge, like Jean-Francois. Some of the more cut-worthy veterans from that unfortunate spree, like Gosder Cherilus and LaRon Landry, would cause dead-money issues if released before the end of next season. If the Colts manage to get a Hilton deal done after a Luck deal, there will be a lot of deferred money planted in 2016 and beyond.
The Seahawks have fewer issues on this front. Bruce Irvin, their first pick in the 2012 draft, will probably be allowed to play out the final year of his contract to prove his worth. Linebacker Bobby Wagner deserves an extension, but linebackers are affordable. The Seahawks already started playing the salary-cap long game with the likes of Sherman, and they have proved with the Harvin trade and multiple departures last year (Golden Tate, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons) that they will make tough decisions to accommodate their top-priority superstars.
Step 5: Announce the new contracts at the Scouting Combine
OK, that's rushing the timetable just a bit. Negotiations take a long time, and there are a lot of moving parts. The Colts and Seahawks do not have to announce new Wilson and Luck deals by the end of next month. But they should have the money set aside in their budgets by the combine, which marks the official start of free-agent-speculation (aka secret-handshake-deals-in-Indianapolis-cigar-bars) season.
All parties want to be able to assert publicly and privately that there have been some "productive talks." The ink can dry in late spring or early summer, though the Colts may have to exercise that fifth-year option on Luck as a temporary placeholder.
Prospective free agents will want to know that they are hitching on with Luck and Wilson for the long term. In-house free agents like Kearse and Wayne will also want to know the score: Playing with a contented, locked-in Wilson or Luck means sticking with a contender. Agents will be able to gauge the Colts and Seahawks' salary maneuverability and their own clients' interests.
Everyone wants to know that the Seahawks and Colts don't make penny-wise decisions: They take care of their most important players, swiftly and decisively. They are the organizations you want to work for and do business with.
If the Seahawks and Colts follow these steps, they will enter training camp with the NFL's two highest-paid players and no worries at quarterback for the rest of the 2010s. Dilly-dallying brings uncertainty and risk. More than half of the teams in the NFL would love the opportunity to spend $100 million and change on Wilson or Luck. The Seahawks and Colts now have the chance. They should seize it as soon as possible.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.