Should the Seahawks Make Russell Wilson the Highest-Paid Player in NFL History?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 6, 2019

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 05: Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks scrambles in the pocket against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half during the Wild Card Round at AT&T Stadium on January 05, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Of all people, you heard it first from late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, who almost certainly wouldn't have asked the question if Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson or Wilson's representatives hadn't requested or at least approved it.

"I heard that in your next negotiation—your next contract—there's a possibility that you will be the highest-paid quarterback in the history of the league," Fallon said during Wilson's appearance on The Tonight Show last month.

"There's a great potential in that," Wilson responded. "We'll see what happens."

Barely two weeks later, Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times reported that the 30-year-old five-time Pro Bowler has given the organization an April 15 deadline to complete negotiations on a new deal ahead of a contract year. 

So Wilson likely aims to become the highest-paid player in NFL history with a deal worth more than the record-breaking four-year, $134 million contract the Green Bay Packers handed to quarterback Aaron Rodgers last August.

Is Wilson worth in excess of $33.5 million per year to the Seahawks? 

     

On the surface, it makes sense

Rodgers and Wilson have a lot in common as the only two qualified passers in NFL history with triple-digit passer ratings, and they both have Super Bowl victories on their resumes. 

But Wilson is only 30. He's five years younger than Rodgers and has yet to miss a game in seven NFL seasons at an increasingly protected position that contains several successful starters in their late 30s. He's more mobile and more durable than Rodgers, and he's one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the league. Since coming into the NFL in 2012, nobody has led more game-winning drives than Wilson, who has never experienced a losing season. 

And he's accomplished all that despite the fact his offensive line has often been more of a liability than an asset, and he hasn't been surrounded by star backs or receivers for much of his career. Of course, it helps that, empirically speaking, he's one of the best improvisers in NFL history. 

So Wilson has undoubtedly earned the right to be paid at Rodgers' level, especially considering the salary cap has risen by a 6 percent margin since Rodgers signed his new deal last summer.

     

But as is the case with almost anything involving cash, it's complicated

The Seahawks experienced peak success in 2013 and 2014. In those two Super Bowl seasons, Wilson made a combined $1.2 million. His current below-market deal pays him $1.3 million every week. The Seahawks haven't had enough loose change to retain key players, let alone pursue outside free agents, and Wilson's supporting cast has deteriorated as a result. 

When the Packers won their only Super Bowl this century in 2010, Rodgers made $6.5 million. He started making bigger bucks in 2013, and the Packers haven't been as deep or as competitive since. 

Tom Brady made less than $10 million in each of the New England Patriots' first three Super Bowl-winning seasons and $15 million or less in each of New England's last two championship campaigns. 

When the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017, they paid Carson Wentz and Nick Folescombined $5.7 million. The Los Angeles Rams' cap hit for Jared Goff in their 2018 Super Bowl season was just $7.6 million, while the 2012 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens paid Joe Flacco just $6.8 million before making him the highest-paid player in NFL history at the time. 

Baltimore was never the same as the rest of the roster became shallower. 

This is a team sport with 53-man rosters and a crapshoot draft. Sacrificing $25 million-plus per year in salary-cap space for one man makes it significantly more difficult to support that man with high-quality weapons and protectors. 

It's almost a zero-sum game, which might explain why the happily underpaid Brady keeps winning with the Patriots. Understandably, most quarterbacks aren't willing to give discounts like Brady has, but the inevitable dilemma associated with blockbuster quarterback contracts is hard to miss. 

For years, the consensus was that you're better off with a franchise quarterback and a so-so roster than a so-so quarterback and a balanced roster. But when you look at what's happened in Green Bay, Baltimore and even Seattle the last few years, you wonder if that mantra is worth reconsidering.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02:  Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks holding the Lombardi Trophy after they defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on February 2, 2014 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Se
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Did the Packers err in giving Rodgers $33.5 million per year? What about the Atlanta Falcons and their $30 million-a-year deal for Matt Ryan? Will the Minnesota Vikings regret handing Kirk Cousins a contract worth $28 million per season? Are the San Francisco 49ers sure about that Jimmy Garoppolo contract that averages $27.5 million a year? Do the Detroit Lions already have buyer's remorse regarding the contract worth $27 million per season they gave Matthew Stafford? Did the Oakland Raiders make a mistake by signing Derek Carr to a $25 million-a-year contract? 

Those are the only seven quarterbacks in the league making $25 million per season on three-plus-year contracts. 

Zero of their teams made the playoffs in 2018. 

What's more, college football has been producing NFL-equipped quarterbacks at extraordinary rates in recent years. Maybe it's because the pro and college games are resembling each other more than ever before, or maybe it's because young quarterbacks are being groomed more efficiently than in the past. Probably a little bit of both.

Regardless, thanks to the success experienced by Wilson and Andrew Luck (2012); Carr and Garoppolo (2014); Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota (2015); Goff, Wentz and Dak Prescott (2016); Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson (2017); and Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson (2018), the quarterback supply is beginning to catch up to the quarterback demand. 

Forty-seven percent of the league's current starting quarterbacks were drafted in the last five years, and because of the rookie wage scale, they're making relative peanuts. 

How long before a team decides it's better off cycling through quarterbacks on rookie contracts rather than sacrificing the rest of the roster in order to pay for hefty second or third contracts? Might that be a possibility with Wilson and the Seahawks?

     

Wilson might get the deal he wants, but it's possible that deal will come from another team

Fallon also asked Wilson about the possibility of becoming a member of the New York Giants. He laughed it off, but it's not something we can or should rule out. Peter King of NBC Sports reported last month that 10 teams met with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray at the NFL Scouting Combine. Of the nine teams King identified from that list of 10, the real anomaly was Seattle. 

But that might not have been surprising to those who recalled that Seahawks general manager John Schneider attended Allen's pro day at Wyoming last offseason, a development that—per NFL Network's Jim Trotter—caused Wilson's camp to reach out and ask the Seahawks if there was "anything we need to know."

It's possible the Seahawks aren't willing to give Wilson what he wants, and just as possible that the team won't be willing to play the franchise-tag game beyond this season.

The fall of the Legion of Boom did a number on the roster, essentially triggering a mini-rebuild. The offensive line remains in shambles, and the rest of the defense isn't what it once was. 

The Seahawks, with Wilson in his prime at a team-friendly salary, are not top-tier Super Bowl contenders. 

Wilson's franchise tender for 2020 would cost Seattle $30.3 million. He'd make more on a long-term deal, except with more wiggle room from year to year, giving the Seahawks a better chance to retain current franchise-tag recipient Frank Clark and contract-year-bound superstar Bobby Wagner. 

John Froschauer/Associated Press

The scenario that would best pave the way for the team to re-sign Clark, extend Wagner and keep key players like Jarran Reed, Doug Baldwin, Justin Britt, Shaquill Griffin and Chris Carson in the next two years? Move on from Wilson in the next 11 months and swing the bat at a quarterback or two in each of the next couple of drafts. 

That remains an unlikely scenario simply because it is ingrained in NFL teams to hold on to franchise quarterbacks at all costs, which is logical based on 21st-century trends but could soon become an outmoded mentality. 

The Seahawks will probably play it safe. They'll keep Wilson and make him the highest-paid player of all time at the expense of the remainder of the roster because star linebackers, pass-rushers and wide receivers are more easily replaceable than star quarterbacks. And there's nothing wrong with that line of thinking. 

It's just that it's not as straightforward as many believe, and it'll be a lot more painful than most would imagine. 

               

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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