Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made history in April when he became the highest-paid player in the NFL’s 100 years, signing a four-year extension that will pay him an average of $35 million for the 2020-23 seasons.
That’s $1 million more per season than the next-highest paid player in the NFL, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Now, this fall, Wilson will attempt to make some more history by becoming the quarterback who is getting paid the highest percentage of his team’s overall salary cap to win a Super Bowl. And therein is the blessing and the curse of having a franchise quarterback.
Every once in a while, a team wins a Super Bowl without an elite-level quarterback (whatever that means, exactly).
Joe Flacco comes to mind, maybe Nick Foles, though it was Carson Wentz who did the heavy lifting getting the Eagles in position to do it, and whatever the current thought of the day is on Eli Manning.
But your odds are far better with Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning — or Wilson, who since entering the league in 2012 has played on par with all of those guys by whatever statistical metric you want to use.
As was well-chronicled at the time, when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013 they had one of the most advantageous salary-cap situations in the history of the cap (first fully instituted in 1994) with Wilson playing on the second year of a rookie contract as a third-round pick.
Wilson made just $681,085 that season, when accounting for his signing bonus, 0.56% of Seattle’s total cap.
That’s the second-lowest percentage of the salary cap any Super Bowl-winning quarterback has accounted for other than Brady in his second season in 2001, when he took up 0.47% of the Patriots’ cap.
Wilson’s salary allowed for the Seahawks to go on something of a splurge that year, trading for Percy Harvin and signing the likes of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
But now, after his famous midnight “hey Seattle, we got a deal’’ contract agreement with the Seahawks, Wilson is set to take up 13.36% of the team’s cap this season, more than any QB of any team that has won a Super Bowl since 1994.
The current high is Steve Young’s 13.1% with the 49ers in 1994, the year the cap was first instituted (Brady took up 12.21% of the Patriots’ cap last season).
Wilson rises to 16.13% next season before then dropping to 13.26% and 11.40% in 2021 and 2022, respectively (all numbers from Spotrac.com and OvertheCap.com, and also all based on projections of the cap going forward).
Wilson isn’t alone in having set an NFL historical contractual benchmark in the offseason. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is now making $18 million a season, the most for any player at his position in NFL history, and will take up 8.05% of the team’s cap this season.
That means Wilson and Wagner will combine for 21.4% of the team’s total salary cap in 2019 — out of which the Seahawks have to pay for not just the 53 players on the active roster but the 10-man practice squad, injured reserve and other such lists.
Wilson and Wagner’s combined cap percentage number rises to 23.8% in 2020.
As The Ringer noted in a recent story: “The only team to win the Super Bowl while having its two highest-paid players make more than 21.6% of the salary cap is the 49ers in 1994 with Steve Young and Jerry Rice.’’
But if it might seem a daunting task to assemble a Super Bowl-caliber team around two players — and what it basically means is severely limiting the margin of error for all other moves — Seahawks general manager John Schneider says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He says the team’s plan was to build around a veteran core led by Wilson, Wagner and strong safety Kam Chancellor, who signed an extension before the 2017 season that would have taken him through 2020. Chancellor had to retire after suffering a neck injury in 2017 but will still count $10.2 million against the salary cap this season.
Many decisions have been made understanding that Wilson and Wagner would account for a sizable chunk of the cap in the years to come, which meant having to shed some other veterans and go with younger players at a lot of other spots.
“It’s a really good challenge,’’ Schneider said recently in an interview with The Seattle Times. “It’s a good thing to have core players like Bobby and Russ. We thought Kam was going to be one of those guys, too. Unfortunately he had his injury.
“But we knew we were going to be becoming a young team again. We always try to be the youngest we can possibly be, with having some core veteran leadership.
“But it’s not like a major obstacle for us. We just have to know that we are going to be playing with younger, inexperienced players. … So as a staff, we know that we have to try to select players who have the confidence and the learning ability to get playing right away and get acclimated as quickly as they possibly can, and then the coaching staff has to recognize that they have to work like crazy to try to develop the guys as quickly as they can once they get in the door.”
Schneider says one thing that helps is the relationship he has built with coach Pete Carroll and Carroll’s involvement in the personnel process, which means the coaching staff and the scouting staff are on the same page as to potential roles for players drafted and signed.
“You have to have the buy-in with the coaches through the draft process and the free-agency process,” Schneider says.
That doesn’t mean every draft pick or signing works out. But Schneider says it does mean there is no misunderstanding of why the move was made — and the coach having to play a player he didn’t want.
Many of those who study football economics, such as Jason Fitzgerald of OvertheCap.com, agree with Schneider that the challenge of trying to build around Wilson is far more preferable to the task of building a team without an elite QB.
“Unless you really mess up the cap structure of the deal, and they are not there yet, I don’t think having an elite QB at the level of salary Wilson is at will really hurt a team,’’ Fitzgerald said. “The QB is so important, and the true elite ones are rare and I think Wilson fits that bill.
“The other thing is that it’s hard for me to really ever look at any QB as truly hampering a team because just about everyone makes, or within a year or two will make, the same amount. … It would not be surprising if by the end of 2020 there are 12 or 13 $30 million (per year) QBs.
“If basically half the league is paying that much, I can’t see how it really hurts the Seahawks to be in the same boat, especially since they have, in my opinion, one of the best of that group.”