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

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.