(For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)
The Seattle Seahawks don't want anyone other than Russell Wilson as their quarterback, meaning they'll have to make a significant financial commitment in the coming year to block his entrance into the free-agent market. Of course, they also want his deal to fit efficiently with the money they're paying cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas and the seven other players whose salary cap numbers exceed $5.5 million.
But what if none of that mattered? What if the only variable was how much Seahawks owner Paul Allen, the NFL's richest owner with an estimated value of $17.4 billion, was willing to spend? How much would the Seahawks pay Wilson if the NFL terminated its salary cap today? What would that fantasy mean for the Dallas Cowboys and receiver Dez Bryant? (And why am I asking so many questions?)
To be clear, there is no expectation that NFL owners would ever drop such an effective cost containment tool. But the quiet period between minicamps and training camp, when most NFL employees are on vacation and news is scarce, offers us an opportunity to consider this alternate reality. (And even better, as with any fantasy exercise, there is no wrong answer!)
An informal polling this week of NFL contract negotiators and agents brought estimates of annual salaries around $30 million for Wilson and upward of $20 million for Bryant, assuming both were available on the open market. Those educated guesses didn't count a much friendlier landscape for endorsement money, but it did come with questions about the franchise tag and strong warnings that any move away from the salary cap could be accompanied by the introduction of other tools of financial suppression.
"Don't forget, the NFL has already had an uncapped year in 2010," said former agent Joel Corry, now a media analyst. "And it didn't exactly make teams go crazy. This isn't necessarily an apples-to-apples thing, because back then they knew the cap was coming back eventually, but I wonder if you wouldn't have the same type of temptation to collude and depress salaries. Some teams out there would probably throw caution to the wind, I'm sure, and then you'd have a bigger separation between the haves and the have-nots."
Major League Baseball is the most prominent professional sport without a hard cap, so it makes sense to start there. With no cap, its highest-paid player is Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who is earning $30 million in 2015 as part of a seven-year, $215 million contract. The average baseball player receives $4 million this season, almost twice that of the NFL, but it's worth noting that MLB actually spends less of its total revenue on player salaries than the NFL does, according to Fangraphs.
Why is that? There is no salary cap, but baseball has other tools for maintaining some level of financial sanity. Most notably, players need six years of major league service to qualify for free agency. (NFL players can be restricted free agents after three years.) Even in the case of young phenoms such as Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who won the 2014 MVP at age 23, big paydays can be delayed. Trout's six-year, $144.5 million contract extension pays him just $5.25 million in 2015 and withholds nearly $100 million until the final three seasons.
That's the structure Wilson could expect to receive in a recently uncapped NFL environment. For the fun of it, I'm going to say that the franchise tag has disappeared along with the salary cap. In that scenario, Wilson's agent and the team could use baseball's framework to produce, say, a 10-year contract worth $300 million, with the first two years totaling perhaps $40 million and the final eight accounting for the balance. The guess is that Wilson would receive significant guaranteed money, but that no NFL owner would fully guarantee a contract even without cap implications, given football's long-term injury rate. In addition, you could expect teams to push hard to get superstars under contract for the remainder of their careers through longer deals.
Monster contracts in baseball, where deals are fully guaranteed, can usually be traced to a team's total revenues. According to Forbes magazine, the Dodgers and Angels are among the top five revenue producers in the sport. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are there as well. In football, the Cowboys are by far the revenue leaders, per Forbes, and their recent slowdown on spending would almost certainly reverse without a cap. Bryant would figure to blow past the current wide receiver market, led by Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson at $16.2 million annually.
The Seahawks rank No. 15 among NFL teams in revenue, per Forbes, but Allen's fortune could mitigate that.
"Teams would still have their own caps, meaning budgets," ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt said. "And as with MLB teams, the team with the most revenues would be able to pay its stars more. One would think, without an artificial limit on team salary, that a team would pay its superstars $25 million-$30 million annually, depending on its budget."
A further supplement could come from team-directed endorsements, which currently are capped at market value. In the real world, the NFL would consider it an illegal circumvention of the salary cap if Paul Allen asked Microsoft -- a company he co-founded -- to pay Wilson an exorbitant annual endorsement fee. In our fantasy cap-less world, Wilson could accept as much from Microsoft as it offered.
"That's another way to supplement income without a cap," Corry said, "and it wouldn't come out of a team's bottom line, per se."
With that, however, we must offer our apologies to young Russell. He has said he hopes to play for 17 years, and I can say with some degree of certainty that he'll never see a truly cap-free environment. We can always dream, of course -- especially this time of year.