Russell Wilson's Epic $157 Million Contract Gives New Power to NFL Players

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 16, 2019

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2019, file photo, NFC quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks runs onto the field during player introductions before the NFL Pro Bowl football game against the AFC in Orlando, Fla. Wilson posted a video to social media early Tuesday, Apriil 16, 2019, saying,
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

No one in the NFL takes huge risks, plays by his own rules, changes expectations and comes out on top quite like Russell Wilson.

Wilson has been forcing NFL teams to rethink how they operate since he led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl as a pint-sized, scrambling third-round pick. On Monday, he taught the league a lesson on how much power a team's superstar really wields: a lesson that other young quarterbacks (and other top players) are sure to follow in the near future.

Wilson didn't just ask for a contract extension from the Seahawks and twiddle his thumbs hoping for a response. He made like the government and set an April 15 deadline, ordering the Seahawks to pay him by then or never pay him again (beyond this season, anyway).

It was the bargaining equivalent of scrambling 20 yards backward in search of a big play. Some organizations (the Steelers come to mind) would have reacted to a do-or-die deadline from a lowly employee by walking away from the table as a matter of ill-conceived principle.

Wilson's bluff could have been called. He could have been traded away to some hapless organization like the Giants or franchise-tagged into the middle of the next decade. He could be looking at an uncertain future this morning, and looking a little silly as well.

Instead, Wilson produced one of his signature last-minute victories, and he set the stage for an all-new era in contract negotiations in the process.

In the 11th hour of Monday's Wilson-imposed deadline, Wilson and the Seahawks agreed to an extension that gives him a five-year, $157 million contract, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport and other sources.

The extension makes Wilson the NFL's highest-paid player, but most new quarterback contracts make the quarterback the highest-paid NFL player, at least until the next quarterback contract.

The extent of Wilson's victory is hidden in the details. Wilson will get a whopping $65 million bonus and $107 million in guarantees, the largest guarantee in history by a margin of about $10 million.

(Contract-language sticklers will note that it's unlikely all of that $107 million is fully guaranteed, as opposed to merely guaranteed against injury. For franchise quarterbacks, that's almost a technicality: Wilson isn't going to get cut like some linebacker if he has one off year.)

Most importantly, Wilson got what he wanted when he wanted.

Take note, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff: You don't have to wait through next summer for contract extensions while your teams stall like used-car salesmen trying to con you into the custom-detailing package. Patrick Mahomes can start making his future deadline plans now. Elite edge-rushers and receivers? You don't quite have quarterback leverage, but your teams may be more wary of replacing you than paying you. Left tackles can try the "pay me by April 15 or the quarterback might not make it to October" tactic and see if it works.

John Cordes/Associated Press

Wilson demonstrated Monday just how much leverage a top NFL player really has.

Wilson is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL, despite some of the contrarian opinions out there. His services are a precious commodity of almost incalculable value on an open market that the Seahawks never, ever wanted him to reach.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks don't have a quarterback of the future on the roster. (Paxton Lynch emphatically does not count.) They don't have a high draft pick with which to draft a quarterback of the future. With the Legion of Boom long gone, the Seahawks lack an identity or any long-range plan that does not involve Wilson.

Wilson, not the Seahawks, was in a position to play hardball. If they didn't give him what he wanted, they faced a limited menu of post-deadline options that ranged from the tolerable to the disastrous for the Seahawks, but all just peachy for Wilson.

Here's what the Seahawks might have done:

Option 1: Trade Wilson — It was fun to speculate that the Giants, who can't bring themselves to even admit they need to draft a quarterback of the future, would suddenly warm to a league-shaking blockbuster trade so Wilson and wife Ciara could enjoy the Big Apple together. But even a trade for multiple first-round picks would plunge the Seahawks into a rebuilding cycle, while Wilson would still get lavishly paid, because no trade would have happened without a contract extension.

A trade only would have appealed to the Seahawks if Wilson left them with no other choices.

Option 2: Tag Wilson — The Seahawks could have explored the dreaded Kirk Cousins scenario: franchise-tagging Wilson for one to three years and hoping each year that he shows up to play instead of going the Le'Veon Bell route.

NFL players loathe the franchise tag, of course, but some number-crunching reveals that Wilson would have earned—and cost the Seahawks—an estimated $106 million for three years under the tag: about $27 million in 2020 (that's based on the 2019 franchise-tag figure of $24.9 million for quarterbacks), 120 percent of that figure ($32.4 million) in 2021 and 144 percent of that figure ($46.6 million) in 2022.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Note that Wilson's $107 million in guarantees is suspiciously close to our $106 million franchise-tag estimate. Wilson and his representation knew precisely how expensive it would be for the Seahawks to force Wilson to stick around for three years. The Seahawks actually got a bargain once you roll the $17 million Wilson was scheduled to make this year into his new deal.

At any rate, the tag-as-you-go option is such an expensive, shortsighted quarterback plan that Washington is the only NFL team to ever think it was a great idea.

Option 3: Beg Wilson — This was both the most likely and most logical scenario for the Seahawks if they missed Monday's deadline: knocking on Wilson's door sometime in the next few months and taking the placate-the-angry-spouse approach. Russ, we cleaned the gutters like you asked and cooked your favorite dinner. Now would you please at least look at our latest contract offer?

All that would have done is cost the Seahawks time, money and even more negotiating leverage.

The situation between Wilson and the Seahawks is not unique. Few teams with a quarterback as valuable as Wilson have a plan B if they lose him. Teams have no choice but to pay their franchise quarterbacks, yet they still treat contract negotiations like elaborate boardroom power plays.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

But Wilson plays the game his own way, and he has understood how much leverage a quarterback really possesses since he signed his "team-friendly" extension four years ago.

Wilson's four-year, $87.6 million 2015 extension looked like a fleecing by the Seahawks because quarterback contracts back then ran for six or seven years with wild fake dollar figures stuffed into the final years. But Wilson gambled that a four-year contract would put him in line for an extension:

  • At age 30, a franchise quarterback's prime;
  • While he was still playing at a Pro Bowl level;
  • For a Seahawks team that considers him indispensable;
  • In a market where quarterback salaries have risen dramatically;
  • And where salary-cap figures have also risen dramatically.

Everything happened just as Nostradam-Russ predicted. No wonder he decided to dictate terms, right down to due dates.

Other quarterbacks followed Wilson's example and began signing shorter deals after 2015. Young stars seeking new deals, like Wentz, Goff and Mahomes, should follow his example soon. These players are their teams' top priorities. Why not demand to both be paid and treated that way?

The man who paved the way for short quarterbacks and changed the conversation about scrambling quarterbacks didn't just earn a big wad of money Monday. He exercised a new kind of power. And lots of players will benefit from it.

                     

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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