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Larry Stone: Russell Wilson contract extension may sting for Seahawks, but not as much as alternative

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 15, 2019

By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – As the Seahawks enter what they ruefully believe is a premature offseason, numerous contractual matters hang over their future.

But one looms largest. And like a giant wave building off shore, it will grow in size and speed – and possibly menace – as next season approaches. Eventually, by the middle of spring, this particular negotiation will become the NFL’s premier drama (or perhaps melodrama).

I’m talking, of course, about Russell Wilson, the franchise quarterback who has just one year left on his contract before free agency. The Seahawks’ efforts to lock him up before the season begins eventually will take center stage, once they figure out what to do with Frank Clark, K.J. Wright and a few others.

To my way of thinking, if the Seahawks come to training camp in July with Wilson safely in the fold, contentedly extended for three or four or five years, it will have been a productive offseason.

But if that wave crashes and leaves damage in its wake, well, the Seahawks might be sending out an SOS. The last thing this team needs is a disgruntled QB with an unsettled contract situation entering a promising 2019 campaign.

Wilson’s pride and professionalism – with the undeniable motivation to increase his market value by playing lights out – would ensure no drop in effort or likely performance. But the Seahawks know from recent experience what simmering, latent tension can do to a team.

Now, if Wilson were a Major League Baseball player, as he once strove to be (he still goes to spring training, this year with the New York Yankees), there would be local panic over the possibility that he could play out his contract and explore free agency in 2020. Once that happens, well, former Mariners heartthrob Alex Rodriguez can remind you what usually comes next – a megacontract that can’t be refused.

But Wilson chose the NFL, which means there are mechanisms in place that almost certainly preclude free agency. The system doesn’t seem remotely fair to the superstar player, but that’s a thesis for another time. For now, suffice it to say that even if Wilson and the Seahawks don’t reach an agreement before the start of next season, the unofficial deadline, the team would ensure his continued presence for 2020 by slapping the franchise tag on him.

That’s something they could possibly do again in 2021, and even (far more unlikely) 2022. It’s not that Wilson would suffer a hardship under that scenario. As a franchise-tagged player, he would stand to earn $30 million the first year, $37 million the second (and $53 million the third, which is why that won’t happen). Then Wilson would have a chance to finally hit the open market, still young enough to score a massive deal.

But that would be a largely unsatisfactory conclusion. For the player, it means no long-term contract, and no chance to determine for himself where to play (at least for a while). For the team, it has major salary-cap ramifications. For both, it means an uneasy marriage of convenience, not love.

The Seahawks, one can only presume, have been girding themselves for where the elite quarterback market is headed (hint: forever upward, with the latest standard set by Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers with his $33.5 million annual salary, and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan with his $100 million guarantee).

The question will be how high Wilson’s camp wants to take it, with what benchmarks in terms of guarantees. According to former agent Joel Corry, in a post Friday on CBSsports.com, “it may not be a matter of whether Wilson becomes the NFL’s first 35-million-per-year player, but how far he gets above this mark. There could be upwards to $125 million in overall guarantees, if not fully guaranteed at signing, should Wilson choose to exploit his leverage.”

So, yes, it will be painful for the Seahawks – just not as painful as the alternative. As for Wilson, this past season was billed as a referendum on his future, based on how successfully the Seahawks retooled their roster and how well he meshed with new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

By all accounts, Wilson and Schottenheimer forged a strong relationship. The retooling resulted in a playoff berth that few saw coming, and a seemingly brighter future for the Seahawks.

Wilson put up what in many ways was his best season, with the third-highest quarterback rating in the NFL (110.9) and an exquisite touchdown-to-interception ratio of 35 to seven. But whether, in private moments, Wilson felt reined by their run-oriented offense (a sentiment that prevailed among many Seahawks fans after the season-ending loss to Dallas) is a mystery.

The ultimate resolution of Wilson’s contract, in fact, is a deep mystery. As he cleaned out his locker Jan. 6, the quarterback said, “I think good things will happen.” He also said, “I see myself being in Seattle. … I love Seattle.”

The next day, coach Pete Carroll said negotiations on an extension would begin soon. He also said, “We have a quarterback that you can absolutely count on.”

It will get messy, because contract negotiations at this level almost always do. A point of impasse may arrive where a deal seems impossible, because, well, see above.

But let’s hope that in the end, perhaps the 11th hour, these two sides realize that it’s simply too mutually beneficial to allow this relationship to get torn asunder.

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