Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider offered some advice back in 2012 when his team used a second-round draft choice for a speedy linebacker from Utah State.
"Don’t ever steal anything from him," Schneider said of Bobby Wagner at the time, "because the guy can run you down in a heartbeat."
Re-signing Wagner to a four-year extension late Saturday night made sure the first-team All-Pro would not use that speed to slip away from the Seahawks when the free-agent signing period opens in March 2016. That is when Wagner's rookie contract was set to expire, but now he joins a list of overachieving Seattle draft choices signed for the long term. Those players' contracts and the deals for a few veteran acquisitions have become part of a salary-cap puzzle that now has some big pieces firmly in place.
Those big puzzle pieces -- Wagner, quarterback Russell Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor, safety Earl Thomas, linebacker K.J. Wright, defensive lineman Michael Bennett, defensive end Cliff Avril, running back Marshawn Lynch, tight end Jimmy Graham -- will make it tougher in the future for the team to supplement its roster with high-priced veteran luxury buys. Graham, Avril and the since-traded Percy Harvin come to mind as pricey veteran additions from recent offseasons.
Schneider and coach Pete Carroll began putting together this roster right before the NFL and NFL Players Association put into place a system that locked young players into their rookie contracts for at least three seasons. Teams that drafted well (especially outside the top half of the first round) and felt comfortable putting young players on the field locked in low prices for major contributors. By the time those top young players became eligible for second contracts, they would be hungry for financial security. This was especially true for players drafted outside the first round -- late enough so they did not qualify for fifth-year contract options that would raise the floor for negotiations on second contracts. These players typically have strong incentive to reach extensions as soon as possible and before free agency, when prices spike. Seattle has worked this system to its benefit.
"When Seattle did its four-year extension with Richard Sherman, he had one year left at $1.5 million," an executive from another team said. "In my mind, they paid him $11 million a year for five, but how did it get valued? As a four-year extension worth $56 million, or $14 million a year. Yet, on their books, they said they hit it big with him, so let's step up and reward him at $11 million a year."
That gap between perception and reality could explain why Chancellor is holding out from training camp with three years remaining on the extension he signed before the 2013 season. That extension was worth $28 million over four years, but Chancellor would have to play five seasons before reaching free agency. The team knew it needed to get only three good seasons from Chancellor to reach a comfortable exit point, if necessary. Now, after Chancellor toughed it out on a bad knee in the Super Bowl, he has no financial security beyond this season. If the team were to cut him after this season, his 2016 cap charge would drop from $6.1 million to $2 million, and his $11.9 million in combined base salaries for 2016 and 2017 would vanish.
That means the team won big early when Chancellor performed at a high level on a cheap rookie deal, and now the team enjoys great flexibility on the back end of his extension. That is the reward for drafting well under the current labor agreement. Chancellor made his millions, but he never held the upper hand in negotiations.
Time will tell whether Wagner will feel similarly a couple of years down the line. The team does face some restrictions in the future with so many core players signed to deals worth much more than the rookie contracts of the past. But as Carroll mentioned after a recent camp practice, many of the veteran players on the roster are only 26 or 27 years old, and the most important ones aren't heading for free agency anytime soon. That means the championship window should remain open for a couple more years, at least.