Russell Wilson has now not once, but twice, this offseason publicly implored the Seahawks and Jadeveon Clowney to make a deal that would keep the defensive end in town for, hopefully, a long time.
“Clowney come back,” Wilson said in a live Instagram Thursday while responding to questions from fans while watching a replay of Seattle’s Super Bowl win over Denver. “… We’ve got another Super Bowl to win, man. We need you.”
He’d earlier said the Seahawks needed to make sure they added “superstars” such as Clowney to the roster this offseason.
That has led to more than a few readers asking (I have the e-mails as receipts) why Wilson doesn’t just do what Tom Brady did and re-do his contract to create the cap space so the Seahawks can sign Clowney, or other such players.
Because it’s a question that continues to get asked — and likely will long into the future with Wilson still the highest-paid player in the NFL at $35 million per season thanks to a new contract he signed a year ago — it’s an issue worth further exploring.
So, here are a few thoughts:
There’s no evidence that available cap space is the issue with Clowney
While cap space is at the heart of every contractual decision teams make — all NFL teams this year have a cap of $198.2 million with which to construct their rosters, an amount that is 47% of all revenue earned by the league — the Seahawks appeared to have all cap room they needed to re-sign Clowney when free agency began at the salary at which they valued him.
But therein lies the real key to the issue — a fundamental difference of opinion between the Seahawks and Clowney as to his current value, with Seattle thought offering him $13-15 million a year and Clowney initially wanting $20-plus million — not whether Seattle had the cap space to fit him in (that Clowney has now waited three weeks and Seattle has signed other players could, obviously, make the cap situation tighter as things move forward).
Maybe one would argue the Seahawks should just pay Clowney whatever he wants. But then, few businesses work that way, and pro sports never has.
Wilson didn’t get everything he wanted in his most recent deal, either, such as asking the team to agree not to place the franchise tag on him when his deal runs out in 2023. That’s an accommodation the Seahawks did make for Clowney following his trade from Houston last September, which helped create the situation the team is in now.
Wilson having taken less might not have guaranteed re-signing Clowney, anyway
To be clear, at this point the idea that Wilson would re-do his current contract — his four extension years begin to take effect in 2020 – and just take a sudden pay cut isn’t really realistic or something anyone has ever really done on any wide scale.
Wilson could agree to extensions that would lessen his current cap number (but there’s zero evidence the team wants that), or do what Brady did in 2007 to allow the Patriots to sign Randy Moss — turn salary into signing bonus.
Wilson, though, actually did just that in 2017 to allow Seattle to bring in Duane Brown at the trade deadline, turning enough salary into bonus (which can be spread over the life of the contract) to create more than $4 million in extra cap space.
But while turning salary into bonus creates cap space for the current year, it then adds to the cap in future years, a credit card approach that the Seahawks have publicly said they would always like to avoid, and that usually doesn’t work out well for teams in the long run (the Patriots, in fact, now have a $13.5 million dead cap hit for the 2020 season for Brady after he took advantage of a voidable years clause in his contract to become a free agent and eventually sign with Tampa Bay).
And — yep, this gets complicated — but just pushing salary down the road can also create a scenario of a much-higher franchise tag number, an option the Seahawks would likely want to keep when it comes to Wilson in 2024 and beyond.
If you want a really good look at exactly what Brady has done, here’s an overview from two months ago from OvertheCap.com.
The cliff’s notes version is that Brady has, since 2013 — after he had signed four previous contracts with the team, having already earned about $120 million and entering his age 36 season — taken at least one deal that was significantly below market, and a few other times redone deals to free up cap space for the current season.
Jason Fitzgerald of OTC says in his view, the amount Brady has been said to have given up in his career has been overstated, especially when viewing the contracts in the context of when they were signed. “It’s really not as much as people think and it’s mainly just one point in his career that caused it to happen,” he said.
In his OTC story, Fitzgerald wrote that Brady took contracts from 2013-19 that could be said to have saved the Patriots about $33 million in total.
That’s certainly significant, but when spread out over the six years or so, Fitzgerald notes, it’s unclear how much that would result in being able to re-sign someone with the salary of the type Clowney is asking.
Said Fitzgerald: “As for Wilson, I’m not sure what they would want him to give up. His first time around (the contract he signed in 2015) he didn’t become the highest-paid player. This time he is by $1 million over a 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger. I also don’t really look at the Seahawks’ cap situation and say the reason they are not adding more players is because they have a $30 million-plus cap hit for Wilson (Wilson’s cap number this year is $31 million, second in the NFL behind the $36 million of Jared Goff of the Rams).
“Their cap has been for the most part okay. They just choose to kind of shop more in the bargain bin. I think they would do that whether or not Wilson was cheaper. And in the grand scheme of things, let’s say Wilson saved the team $5 million a year by taking a below-market deal. Who does that buy the team? George Fant (who signed a three-year deal worth up to $30 million with the Jets)? Was there a Seahawk fan that wanted George Fant back? For the most part those are where the savings would be going, not that his giving up money would somehow lead to a $20 million a year defensive signing or something like that.”
Should players really be required to take less for the good of the team?
It’s probably a nice thought. But pro sports are not Disney movies. As former NFL agent Joel Corry, who now writes for CBSSports.com, noted almost no players ever willingly really take less.
Raiders QB Derek Carr was perceived as having done so in 2017, hoping the team would keep Khalil Mack, among others. But after a coaching change, the Raiders traded Mack, and now Carr has competition for his job in Marcus Mariota, and no guarantee that he’ll ever get back any money he gave up.
“He said he wanted to leave a little money on the table so they could take care of ther guys on the team,” Corry said. “But where is Khalil Mack now?” (And the most telling point of this anecdote is to provide insight into how players/agents view things).
Corry and Fitzgerald also noted that Wilson taking less money might not be as helpful to overall team morale as it may sound on the surface in allowing the team to use that against other players in future negotiations.
Fitzgerald wrote he thinks that aspect — using Brady’s deal to hold over other players — “probably had a bigger impact than the Brady ‘pay cuts’ did on their own.”
Ultimately, says Corry: “It is not any player’s responsibility or job to manage a team’s salary cap by taking a below-market contract. If a player chooses to do so, that’s on him.”
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