Russell Wilson put up staggering statistics while steering the Seattle Seahawks to the past two Super Bowls, winning one of them in a rout of the Denver Broncos.
Wilson rushed for 1,388 total yards in 2013 and 2014, including 849 yards a season ago, one of the highest numbers for a quarterback in the modern era. Over that span, he accounted for 53 touchdowns, 46 through the air and seven on the ground. His 97.9 passer rating put him among the top quarterbacks in the league.
But the number with the biggest impact on the recent success of the Seahawks was $749,193.50. That was Wilson’s average salary-cap figure in 2013 and 2014. Wilson, who was rewarded with a lucrative contract extension this past offseason, was arguably the league’s biggest bargain while playing on his rookie deal.
While other Super Bowl contenders were shelling out more than $20 million per season for their quarterbacks, the Seahawks had more money and cap space available to bring in key free agents and reward their other ascending stars with big deals. As a result, they were able to build one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters, surrounding Wilson, a more-than-competent quarterback, with everything he needed to win.
The Vikings, who host the Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday, have a similar plan in place with their young quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Leading the NFC North with an 8-3 record, they are currently consumed with the now. But if they continue to bolster Bridgewater’s supporting cast, they could take advantage of this financial sweet spot and be legitimate Lombardi Trophy contenders the next few seasons.
“It’s a team that has a quarterback that they aren’t going to have a whole lot invested in for a while, and they’re built as a running team like Seattle. They’ve got a good defense, though not as strong as Seattle,” said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who now writes about the business of football for CBS Sports. “There’s a parallel there.”
Fruits of the draft
The Seahawks had two high-quality draft classes in their first two years under coach Pete Carroll and General Manager John Schneider heading into 2012. They chose future Pro Bowlers in left tackle Russell Okung, safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and a fifth-round cornerback who used to play receiver named Richard Sherman.
Their 2012 class, though, might have been the best of the bunch because of Wilson. After taking pass rusher Bruce Irvin and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, still starters today, in the first two rounds, the Seahawks selected Wilson, an athletic but undersized leader from Wisconsin, with the 75th overall selection in the third round.
Wilson had some fans then in the Vikings organization, but with quarterback Christian Ponder entering his second season and a glaring need at cornerback, the Vikings selected cornerback Josh Robinson, who is fifth on the depth chart today, nine picks before Wilson went.
Wilson beat out free-agent addition Matt Flynn, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, in camp to start Seattle’s season opener as a rookie and the rest is history.
As a third-round draft pick, Wilson received a four-year, $2,997,000 contract with a $619,400 signing bonus, making him one of the lowest-paid starting quarterbacks in the league when he was playing on his rookie deal. Meanwhile, six quarterbacks were making more than $20 million per season heading into this past offseason.
“That was the ultimate situation,” Corry said. “They could allocate money to different positions. They had a lot of guys on cheap deals initially because most of those guys were draft picks. They didn’t really have a lot of high-priced guys.”
In 2013, a Super Bowl season, the Seahawks had the flexibility to sign starting defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency. They also gave wide receiver Percy Harvin an oversized contract after acquiring him from the Vikings, though it didn’t take Harvin long to win a ring, then wear out his welcome there, too.
In 2014, with Wilson still earning a six-digit base salary, the Seahawks added Sherman and Thomas to the list of homegrown talent they kept around with competitive deals.
When 2015 rolled around, it was finally time for Wilson to get paid market value.
Because Bridgewater was a first-round pick in 2014, he is making significantly more money on his rookie deal than Wilson was. Bridgewater signed a four-year rookie deal with a total value of $6.85 million. But he is still relatively cheap, making less money this season than kicker Blair Walsh and backup safety Robert Blanton. Even Bridgewater’s backup, Shaun Hill, is making twice as much as him.
Having a quarterback with a cap number of $1.56 million has afforded them the ultimate luxury in today’s NFL: paying $15 million to a 30-year-old running back. They gave a second contract to defensive end Everson Griffen. They spent for free agents in nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
And in addition to Bridgewater, General Manager Rick Spielman and the Vikings added foundational players such as outside linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes among their eight first-round picks since 2012.
“We do have a good young nucleus of players, and that’s a good thing,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s good for young guys come in and play and hopefully have success.”
The problem is that the Vikings will have to start paying them big bucks soon.
Smith and left tackle Matt Kalil will be in contract years in 2016, and Smith will definitely be a priority to re-sign after this season. Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd are up the following offseason. Then come Barr and Bridgewater.
But at least the Vikings are benefiting from the fact that those players were selected in the first round, which means the team gets an extra year of contractual control with the fifth-year options that were added in the latest collective bargaining agreement.
“That’s particularly beneficial for Bridgewater,” Corry said.
The fifth-year option allows the Vikings to get four seasons from the quarterback at a team-friendly rate before it will be time, assuming he continues to develop like they hope he will, for them to break the bank for him after the 2017 season.
Turn the page
The Seahawks ran out of time with Wilson in August and signed him to a four-year, $88 million extension, making him the second-highest-paid quarterback in the league.
While Wilson’s salary cap numbers won’t become prohibitive until next season, the Seahawks are already pinching figurative pennies. They have the lowest amount of cap space in the league right now, according to figures from OverTheCap.com.
Wilson’s then-looming contract, along with the extensions for teammates such as Sherman and Thomas, forced the Seahawks to let other good players leave in free agency. Wide receiver Golden Tate signed with the Detroit Lions before the 2014 season. Cornerback Byron Maxwell got paid by the Philadelphia Eagles this past offseason.
“So it’s already taking effect,” Corry said. “And they’re probably not going to be able to retain Bruce Irvin. They’re not going to be able to pay everybody.”
The Seahawks, at 6-5, can make a loud statement that they are still Super Bowl contenders by beating the Vikings on Sunday. But it is fair to wonder if the window could soon be closing for the best team in the NFC over the past couple of seasons.
The window for the Vikings, though, appears to be swinging open wide. And in Wilson and the Seahawks, they see the kind of consistent winner they hope to become.
“Those guys have played in the Super Bowl the past two years,” said running back Adrian Peterson, the league’s highest-paid running back. “That’s definitely a force that we want to be, a contender, a team that’s competing for an NFC championship and is making it to Super Bowls. You look at how they’re built — good defense, good running game. So I guess you could say we seem kind of similar in ways.”
The Vikings must make prudent financial decisions with all the recent first-round picks who are nearing their first big NFL paydays. And they will need to continue to draft well to replace older players such as Peterson and the younger ones they can’t afford.
If they can do that while also getting cheap but competent quarterback play from Bridgewater the next few seasons, they could get a few cracks at something special.
“In order to be able to get to the top of the division and stay at the top of the division, you can’t have a couple of good years and a couple of bad years of decision-making,” former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns front-office executive Joe Banner said. “You need to really be consistently in making the right decisions. I think they’re well positioned, but they have to keep up what they’ve been doing.”