The Seahawks Superstar Roster Strategy

It was a big week for the Seahawks who signed quarterback Russell Wilson to a big contract extension and then locked up linebacker Bobby Wagner to a top market contract. The moves, while expected,  have clearly defined the Seahawks strategy of building a star laden roster at certain positions, while sacrificing the second tier players and instead relying  on rookies and lower payscale “value” players to make up the roster. While they are not the only team to take this approach (the Packers were a team I specifically discussed in my marginal value analysis at the top of the roster) the Seahawks are now going to blow them, and anyone else, in the NFL away in this regard.  So let’s take a quick look at the Seahawks heavy investment in their top talent.

Remember when we talk about the marginal value (or marginal cost) in a player we are looking at their cost above the average for their position, broken down by tier (i.e. 2nd highest paid corner is CB2, 2nd highest paid S is S2, or in almost all cases SS, etc…). These costs represent the additional value that they believe they are receiving from a player by signing him to an above average contract.  Here are the top  marginal value players on the Seahawks roster:

PlayerPositionAPYMarginal ValueAPY Rank
Russell WilsonQB$21,900,000$9,100,0002
Marshawn LynchRB$12,000,000$7,575,5952
Richard ShermanCB$14,000,000$5,659,4473
Bobby WagnerILB$10,750,000$5,463,9341
Kam ChancellorSS$7,000,502$5,183,5461
Jimmy GrahamTE$10,000,000$5,093,7621
Cliff AvrilDE2$7,125,000$4,525,6612
Earl ThomasFS$10,000,000$4,392,4451
Cary WilliamsCB2$6,000,000$3,072,6175
KJ Wright43OLB$6,750,000$2,582,3861
Russell OkungLT$8,083,333$2,096,97910
Total11$113,608,835$54,746,3722.6

These are massive numbers. No team in the NFL comes close to competing on this scale. $113.6 million per year tied up in who the Seahawks perceive as the 11 most valuable additions to their team. While salary cap costs can certainly be manipulated, the cost on an annual basis represents about 80% of the current salary cap limit of $143.28 million.

The average rank of these players at their sub-position is 2.6, and if we pull Okung, who is on a rookie contract, out of the mix its 1.9.  The cost over average invested in these players is nearly $55 million. These are superstars and this is a superstar roster, the likes of which has likely not been seen since the earliest days of the salary cap when the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, and to a lesser extent, Denver Broncos, were finding ways to keep star filled teams together.  I’d imagine the modern team that would most resemble this grouping is the Indianapolis Colts in the heyday of Manning, Harrison, and James, but they never had this kind of across the board investment.

To put these numbers in perspective the top 11 marginal valued players on the Packers, who are the other big spender, cost $96 million in APY at $42.5 million in marginal value. The Cowboys are at $95/31 and the Dolphins at $88/$40. In their division the ranks are the Cardinals at $88/$26, Rams at $65/$30, and stripped down 49ers at $72/$24. Quite frankly nobody is close to the Seahawks investment in star players.

Seattle should make for a very interesting case study moving forward in the approach to roster building in the NFL. Many people feel they are destined for salary cap trouble. I’m not one of those people. As long as they continue to prioritize and make the tough call on the second and third tier talents they should be fine. They gain benefits right now by essentially spending nothing at receiver and along the offensive line. Defensive tackle will likely be headed there too.  That’s the tradeoff. Rookies, UDFAs, bargain basement veteran contracts.

Seattle has also benefitted greatly, which people are not taking into account with many of these contracts, from focusing on early extensions for a talent pool that has almost all far exceeded their draft grade. By sticking with four year extensions the team is limiting the bonus money they need to pay their talent while still gaining the five year proration benefit by hitting in the players walk year. With players like Wilson and Sherman working from such low base salaries compared to a Cam Newton or Patrick Peterson, the true APY for cap accounting purposes is far lower than the stated annual value. Even a contract like Jimmy Grahams has some benefit in that the Saints at some of the cost in his one year in New Orleans. The four year program allows the team to turn their roster over every three years with limited dead money as they pick and choose who to keep. That may not be the case with longer term deals.

For Seattle to have success with this program it is going to rely on a few things. First and foremost is no restructures, and specifically funny business with void years. They have to honor their initial valuation of these players and not compromise themselves by bringing cap figures down this season for future cap flexibility. If it means cutting the likes of Tony McDaniel or Brandon Mebane you cut them. Once they begin the restructure process that benefit of the low cap APY vanishes for all but one season of the contract.

Secondly they have to resist the urge to go into free agency and cut any monster contracts. Four year extensions with one cheap rookie year are the structures that the team needs to allow this kind of investment in so few players to work from a salary cap standpoint. Once you move into traditional five year, monster contracts you blow up the system.  Trades are ok as long as they are of the Graham variety where a salary has already been paid that is larger than the contract APY and is a somewhat proven player. You don’t want to go the Percy Harvin expensive gamble route where you are cutting the big bonus check. Mid tier value players like a Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril are also fine to consider.

Continue to draft well but stay out of the top 10 of the draft. Injuries happen. Teams don’t fire sometimes. Everyone ends up in the top 10 at some point and for as crazy as it sounds Seattle could end up this year if the wrong guys got hurt. But those top picks carry a bigger price. The option year salary for such players can be massive compared to the salaries earned by those drafted 11-32. Those option years just increase the value of the deal and can cause a team to over-guarantee a contract and overextend themselves in both years and signing bonus money. While there is no denying the talent that is at the top (and it is cheap for a few years), long term this type of strategy is going to pay off with the quantity over quality approach. If you land in the top 10 by all means turn that into 3 picks through the draft.

So we’ll see how things work out for Seattle. It’s a unique vision, maybe one brought on by circumstance and good fortune as much as planning, but I’ll be curious to see if they can sustain this quality of roster for the next three years while still driving performance on the field.

  • Adam

    Jason, a pretty good perspective on Seattle’s salary situation. They have drafted well, which has given them the luxury of bringing in some key free agents (Lynch, Bennett, Avril) while their core was still on their rookie deals. Even with the prorated bonus for this season, Wilson is still technically on his rookie deal. The issues start in 2016 when their top 5 players will cost almost $64 mil against cap. That is crazy. Obviously you have to pay your stars if you want to keep them, but I don’t see that model lasting very long. They are going to have to shed some serious salary next year, especially if they want to keep Okung around. To me this is Seattle’s year, but starting in 2016, they will have too much cap tied to too few players and will have to shed some talent.

    • Perfundle

      ” The issues start in 2016 when their top 5 players will cost almost $64 mil against cap.”

      Perhaps you should check the same number for some of the other teams:

      Arizona: $71.5 million
      Miami: $70.2 million
      Dallas: $69.4 million
      Pittsburgh: $68.9 million
      Denver: $68.4 million
      Detroit: $67.7 million
      New Orleans: $65.7 million
      Green Bay: $64.8 million
      Baltimore: $63.8 million
      Seattle: $63.7 million (without Wagner, although he’s unlikely to count much more than $9 million against the cap)

      So 8 of the 11 other playoff teams have even higher cap hits for their top 5 players. Seattle’s numbers aren’t crazy at all.

      • Adam

        Perfundle,
        2016 is when most of the ridiculous cap hits start showing up, so thanks for supporting my argument (it does not just apply to Seattle). Look at the top 5 players from the last few Super Bowls and you will see the point (even use percentage). Teams like Seattle have relied on entry level contracts to keep them in a good cap situation but eventually deep cuts will have to be made. This is definitely a new model, but we still don’t know if it will work. I just think don’t think it will work. You don’t win with 10 players, regardless of how good they are.
        I didn’t get the same number for GB.

        • Perfundle

          “I didn’t get the same number for GB.”

          In 2016, Rodgers will incur a cap of $19.25 million, along with $13.75 million for Matthews, $12.125 million for Shields, $10.5 million for Peppers and $9.15 million for Cobb, totaling $64.775 million.

          “I just think don’t think it will work.”

          Again, unless you think practically all the playoff teams from last year will fail to find success two years from now, it will work. The past few Super Bowls still had a lot of players with contracts from the old CBA, so they’re not comparable. These days, rookies can be had for much cheaper than previously, so teams don’t need to operate with a significant middle tier.

          • Adam

            The concern for me is the quality roster depth; those players between $1 and $5 mil per year. Seattle currently has 3 players in that range on the roster for 2016, compared to 14 this year. That is a huge drop. After the rookie pool for the draft, Seattle will have about $10-12 to re-sign current players or bring in some free agents next offseason. With the contracts growing every year, that is not that much space. That is my main concern, we will just have to wait and see how it works out. I think they are primed for a SB run this year, but will take a step back in 2016.

          • Perfundle

            Why do you assume Seattle is going to keep everyone currently signed?
            Last year the average cap hit for Seahawks players making between $1 and $5 million per year was $2.26 million. If they just cut one player in
            the $6 million range, say Baldwin or Williams, they would have enough
            cap space to sign 9 players for $2.26 million each or 9 players for $2
            million each, assuming a conservative salary cap of $154 million and a
            rookie pool of $1.5 million. Currently, Seattle has 23 players with $1 million-plus cap hits this year and 24 last year. They already have 15 next year (14 if one of Baldwin or Williams is cut), so 9 more players is all they need.

    • Sid

      You didn’t even look at the Seahawks cap numbers for next year, did you? In 2016 the cap is expected to be over 160 mill and the Seahawks only have 134 mill on the books (minus Bobby’s contract, because OTC hasn’t updated it yet). They’ll be perfectly capable of resigning Okung without cutting other guys. The only question is whether they *want* to resign Okung (dude has been made of glass and not quite elite even when healthy).

      • Adam

        Sid,
        Did you even look at the names under contract for 2016 that the 134mil is applied to? Sure they might have $20+ right now, but that is with 30-40 players on entry level or vet minimum deals. Good luck with that team.
        If you add Wagner’s contract, that would put them into the 140’s, leaving them less than $20 mil for the remaining roster (also have to subtract for rookie pool). Not that it can’t be done, I am just saying this new model is going to be extremely challenging going forward once all these guys are off their entry level contracts.

        • Derek Clark

          30 to 40 players on entry level to near vet minimum sounds like every roster.

          • J D

            It is like every other roster. It was key for Seattle to lock these guys BECAUSE of the cap growth. You’ll see player salaries escalate dramatically over the next few years. While it looks like a ton of money in today’s $$, some of these deals will look cheap in 2017, including WIlson’s

          • Adam

            Seattle has the fewest players signed between $1-$5 mil in 2016 (3) compared to 14 this year. They have 24 players making over $1 mil this year, and only 15 making over $1 mil next year.

          • Perfundle

            Green Bay has 26 players making over $1 mil this year, and only 16 making over $1 mil next year. You really expect two of the best teams in the NFC to fall off because of depth issues? In addition, Detroit has only 17 such players in 2016, and Arizona has 16.

        • Sid

          Bobby’s deal is 43 mill on top of 1.5 mill for next year, which makes a 8.9 mill/yr 5 year average. Going by the structure of Russell’s extension, 8 mill is a reasonable number to expect for Bobby’s 2016 cap hit. That puts us at 142 mill, which means we’ll have a minimum of 8 mill available, assuming no one gets cut. That’s enough to resign Okung without cutting anyone, or resign several of the 30-40 low level players you mentioned (none of which are players we urgently need). I still fail to see where the cap problems arise. We’ll lose a couple mid-to-low level players just like we have every year. Nothing is changing.

          • Adam

            Sid,
            This year Seattle is in great shape; next year, not so much. They have 14 players making between $1-$5 mil this year. That number drops to 3 for next season. There is no way they can make up the quality of players they are losing with the cap space.

        • Sid

          Boom, Bobby’s contract is updated and the Seahawks still have $14-17 mill of cap space next year. Sounds like smooth sailing to me.

      • JUCJ85

        Sid, the cap won’t be over $160M in 2016, it will be $150-$154M max, even Jason from here said the Seahawks have about $10-$13M based on a $150-$153M cap which is the projected cap limit. They will have issues just like every team does.

        • Sorry, but you’re wrong. A 10 million increase is the conservative estimate. This doesn’t even consider future cuts and players that won’t be resigned like Irvin and Mebane. Expect to see PLENTY of cap room show up next season. Not worried one bit.

  • Michael Kelly

    This keeps big pressure on the draft picks. Carroll had a huge advantage in his first few years because he personally knew many of the players he drafted since he had recruited them. That advantage no longer exists but it is a good idea to get a trusted college recruiter as a consultant. I wonder if they could hire a college coach that they trust to help them with insight into some players. Not sure that is legal

    • J D

      Interesting thought re: Carroll’s familiarity with players until now. You’re right about the pressure on draft picks; Seattle has 9 now in 2016, even after trading one yesterday so they certainly seem to have a long-term plan.

      to me the biggest difference between what Seattle’s doing vs. teams of the past is that you’ve typically see teams with older, veteran teams that have players with large salaries trying to make another playoff push. Seattle’s locked up their core, but they’re all still in their mid 20’s. The key is their ability to keep drafting pretty well; the extra picks help improve their margin for error I suppose (i.e. having to hit on 6/6 draft picks instead of say 7/9)

    • datbeezy

      I think the advantage will fade, but not because or Carroll’s close ties with college players – plenty of college-turned-pro coaches have failed at that right out of the box.

      I do suspect that the Carroll/Schneider regime DO have a evaluation and training edge, but it’s slight, they’ve also been lucky. They’ve absolutely dominated the UDFA market and found there is plenty of talent there. They absolutely do need to hit on these guys, and it’s likely they’ll entire a period of time with a greater than average number of misses, at which point the league will shift to a new strategy anyhow.

    • Rick Goddard

      Good points all around regarding the good fortune for Seahawks drafting, but I think there is something about taking the talent and use good coaching skills to make them better. One of the comments that was notable out of training camp were made by Jimmy Graham. As good as Graham is, he was not known for his blocking ability. To hear Graham and Tom Cable talk, he will be a good blocker this year. Graham is applying himself and listening to Cable. It sounds like his blocking wasn’t addressed as a Saint so his blocking skills languished (plus, he was banged up last year). Yes, the Seahawks find players with unusual skill sets and then shapes the person and those skills into an effective player. If they don’t, well, they become Bruce Irvin and don’t get a core contract.

    • Wade8813

      I actually think this may be LESS pressure on the Seahawks’ draft picks.

      How many draft picks were expected to come in and make a huge difference for their team right away? There are tons of players taken in the early rounds, were the team hopes they’ll be able to fill a big need right away. Winston, Mariota, Fowler (if he hadn’t gotten injured), Amari Cooper… just go down the list of first and second round picks, and there are a lot of guys who are obviously expected to be contributors from day 1.

      Now look at Seattle’s early round picks. Frank Clark is competing with Michael Bennett at Cliff Avril at DE. Tyler Lockett* has Baldwin and Jimmy Graham as obvious receiving options ahead of him. We took 3 rookie O-linemen, and it wouldn’t be surprising if none of them start this year. So all of these guys can just come in and compete. If they show they’re good enough, great. If not, they can develop.

      * Lockett is the presumptive returner, but I would guess that’s less pressure than being expected to be a top receiving option as well.

  • wscaddie56

    Nice article. My issue with the hawks current strategy is trading all these first round picks. For me they will have a difficult time maintaining the talent level for those players on rookie contacts without these first round picks.
    As a packers fan, you could argue TT’s worst drafting round is the first but we still have many contributors from that round, Bulaga, Perry, Jones, Clinton Dix. Certainly not stars but bodies on low salaries.
    The other issue I see for Seattle is the type of people on the roster. Instead of Jordy, Cobb and Bulaga taking below market deals you have Bennett and Kam threatening holdouts already. After the embarrassing display following Wilson’s pick in the SB I think we can conclude they have a significantly different locker room mentality which to me will make this strategy much more difficult.

    • Rich Gee

      seriously? did you read the article. The reason why the Seahawks are in this position is because they don’t waste money on 1st round rookie contracts. They trust their draft board and their coaching staff to get the job done.

    • Michael

      Really? How many of those 11 players in the list were 1st round picks? I think just Thomas and Okung?

      Also, being worried about locker room mentality because of Kam’s holdout is dumb. The Hawks defense is a brotherhood, and every single one of them wants the other guys to ‘get paid’.

      Last, I don’t know what embarrassing display you’re referring to. The pick itself was maybe an embarrassment — although I credit NE for making the play as much as I fault Wilson/Lockette for not making it — but the public response from Wilson and the team has been fine, in my opinion. If anything, it will help them focus even more.

      The future is a blank slate and anything could happen, but I think you’re kind of clueless about the Hawks.

    • Darnell

      Type of people?

      In that case, an argument could be made that the nasty attitude and massive chip on the shoulders of a lot of Seattle’s key players made some sort of difference after halftime of the NFC Championship game, where Seattle outscored Green Bay 28-6, while those “nice guys” on the Packers wilted.

      Late in that game Sherman shut down nice, down-home middle America good ole’ boy Jordy Nelson with only one good arm.

  • Kirk Vollmer

    Ultimately I think it just comes down to drafting well and possibly signing good UDFA’s. If the Seahawks want to win with this strategy it will work as long as they can fill in the mid-tier guys they let go of with draft picks of equal or better talent/ability. Ultimately drafting well is the key to competing for championships constantly.

  • grumpycatspistol

    PC/JS plan is actually diabolically simple from my perspective. Keep drafting cheap talent to fill roles in later rounds, and stay away from overpriced receivers and O/D line. Sorry folks, I fully expect them to be very good for quite awhile. It is what it is.