NFL free agency begins informally Monday, and officially at 1 p.m. Wednesday, when the Seahawks bosses will find the walls closing in, desperate for an artist to draw a cartoon door to facilitate an escape.
So far this off-season, they have just four draft picks, a bit of free cash and the stares of the sports world upon them, seeking to know what they shall do about the demands from Russell Wilson.
There is an expectation that not much resolution will come about this week, at least in free agency. It is just the first of three roster-improvement milestones in the annual NFL 0ff-season calendar. The next is the draft April 29-May 1. Then follows the post-June 1 period, which is more of an accounting feature when various rules and tenders change under the salary cap.
Among other things, prior to June 1, any player removed from a team’s roster, either by release or trade, will have all his remaining salary cap allocations accelerate into the current league year. After June 1, the dead money can be spread between two seasons.
This is important regarding Wilson’s immediate future. Until June 1, any trade must put all his $39 million in dead money against the 2021 cap; after June 1, it drops to $13 million, and the $26 million balance pushes out to 2022.
What that means is the Seahawks, with Wilson and LB Bobby Wagner two of the highest paid at their positions, have little room at the moment to maneuver after an unexpectedly abrupt playoff exit from an “all-in” season.
The face-plant was made worse by a 2021 salary cap that had an eight percent decrease to $182.5 million, thanks to minimal ticket sales in a season compromised by COVID-19.
To explain how the Seahawks are cornered, here’s a quick review of the larger off-season moves.
Two offensive starters, TE Greg Olsen and LG Mike Iupati, retired. Two unused veterans, WR Josh Gordon and OL Chance Warmack, were released.
The club couldn’t reach an agreement to extend DE Carlos Dunlap, and he was released, to save his $14 million against the cap. He can be re-signed in free agency to a more cap-friendly deal, or the Seahawks can choose from a glut of rush ends expected to hit the market. The Seahawks knew he was probably a half-season hire when they traded for him, but now, amid other needs, they have to backfill for his notable production.
They chose not to franchise-tag any player, and have yet to re-sign key pending free agents, including LB K.J. Wright, CBs Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar, and RB Chris Carson. They also appear to be letting other free agents go to market: C Ethan Pocic, DE Benson Mayowa, LB Bruce Irvin, and DTs Damontre Moore and Jonathan Bullard.
Entering the final season of their contracts are two important defensive starters: DBs Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs, who are well worth extending. Another starter who is a restricted free agent, DT Poona Ford — who made Pro Football Focus’s list of 101 top NFL players at No. 101 — probably will be kept, for a one-year cost of $3.3 million.
The Seahawks re-signed RB Alex Collins to a $1 million contract, also re-signed DT Bryan Mone and CB Ryan Neal, and offered a one-year tender to C Kyle Fuller.
All of these maneuvers have left the Seahawks entering the weekend with about $17.1 million under the cap (click on Field Yates’ tweet to view the complete list).
A look at how much cap space each team, per the NFL’s accounting. This reflects only moves that have been *officially* made.
Previously reported moves are noted next to their respective teams. pic.twitter.com/KVeXY0G6fQ
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 13, 2021
That doesn’t leave a lot of room to spend on high-priced free agents for the offensive line Wilson has criticized, in order to roll back his pouty lower lip.
The two considered the top tier in this OL class, C Corey Linsley from Green Bay and LG Joe Thuney from New England, appear to be out of reach. When it comes to reach in free agency, the Seahawks under Pete Carroll and Schneider have almost always had T-Rex arms.
According to ESPN Stats and Research (h/t Brady Henderson), since 2016, the Seahawks rank 31st in total contract value given to external free agents. The top deal was in 2019 when they spent $9 million on DE Ziggy Ansah, who turned out to be too busted up to contribute. The Seahawks haven’t brought in an unrestricted free agent for more than $20 million in overall base value since 2011, when they made two good hires, WR Sidney Rice and TE Zach Miller.
So unless the Seahawks dump more players from a 12-4 team, it’s hard to see how they extend a few of their own and then add an expensive lineman — unless, as Gregg Bell of the News Tribune explained Saturday, they restructure Wilson’s contract to create more cap room.
They don’t even need Wilson’s permission.
Bell wrote that Wilson’s contract has a provision that permits the Seahawks to restructure it without his approval. That allows the team to convert some of Wilson’s base salary into bonus money to create cap room in 2021.
The device was used, with Wilson’s permission, in 2017 when the Seahawks traded for LT Duane Brown. In the last week, Tampa Bay did the same with Tom Brady’s contract, and Kansas City did the same with Patrick Mahomes’ contract.
There is a kick-the-can-down-the-road quality to the strategy, but if vaccinations prevail against COVID-19 by Labor Day, tickets again will be sold and some revenues will be regained to boost the 2022 cap.
And Wilson could be made happier by sincere investment in the O-line.
Here’s another incentive to go bigger in free agency: Avoiding much reliance on the draft for roster upgrades.
An honest evaluation of recent drafts shows the Seahawks have not done well. Including pending free agents, the Seahawks in 2020 had only nine regular starters from the past five drafts:
2016 — DT Jarran Reed
2017 — Pocic, Griffin, Carson
2018 — TE Will Dissly, P Michael Dickson
2019 — DE L.J. Collier, WR DK Metcalf
2020 — RG Damien Lewis
They’ve drafted others who have been occasional starters: RB Rashaad Penny, WR David Moore, DE Rasheem Green, LB Jordyn Brooks, and DBs Tre Flowers, Ugo Amadi, Lano Hill and Marquise Blair. But nine regular starters from the five most recent drafts is not a show of acumen.
In those five seasons, the Seahawks have won two playoff games, both over mediocre teams: In 2016 season, 26-6 over 9-7 Detroit, and in 2019, 17-9 over 9-7 and much-injured Philadelphia.
Besides the freakish 10-9 win in sub-zero Minneapolis in 2015 on a missed chip shot field goal by Blair Walsh, the last big-deal playoff win remains the 2014 NFC Championship, a 28-22 overtime howler over the Packers that overcame four Wilson interceptions.
There is no direct correlation between mediocre drafts and playoff losses. Contributing causes are many and varied. But the current snapshot of draft mediocrity helps explain how a 12-4 team that won the NFL’s toughest division can be boxed in, with no easy outs. And why Wilson is volunteering his help on player evaluation, just as are most of the folks reading this sentence.
Now that the Cowboys have extended QB Dak Prescott at four years and $160 million, the salary cap pressure is on the remaining teams on Wilson’s passive aggressive, I’m-not-asking-for-a-trade-but-just-in-case list to try to make room.
The three are among the 11 with the least cap room, including two of the three in the worst shape — the Saints ($33 million over) and the Bears ($25 million over). The Raiders are $12.2 million to the good, but now they have an unstable offensive line after trading free-agent bust RT Trent Brown last week to New England.
Team cap numbers will change some this week, but Wilson won’t be eager to go to a team that has to strip down to make cap room for his massive contract, because he wouldn’t be advancing his crusade to succeed Brady as the GOAT. He might discover that lots of teams have O-line problems, and all of them will be forced to make cuts and changes because of the shrunken cap.
The Seahawks’ spotty recent history in free agency in the draft is sufficient for Wilson to call out his bosses. But he’s had a part, too, in winning just two playoff games in the past five seasons.
The walls are closing in on Wilson as well as the Seahawks. A case can be made that they are each better off finding a way out together.