The Hawkstorian: Back To The Future

It's been an historic off-season for observers of the salary cap. Not only were the basic provisions of the cap extended through 2011, but the 2006 cap was set at a whopping $102,000,000. The 2005 cap was $85,500,000.

This 19% increase was due not only to the players’ ability to increase their share of the revenue pie, but also due to extended television contracts that will make the pie much, much larger.

The Seahawks are in an interesting predicament. The team is currently under the salary cap by nearly $12 million. If they finish signing all their 2006 draft choices and make no other moves between now and the start of training camp, the team will still be under the cap by about $10.8 million. There doesn’t appear to be any remaining free agents on which the team is willing to spend more than token dollars, so the Seahawks will be left with two options.

Use it, or lose it.

In recent years, the Seahawks have let several star players enter the final year of their contracts, with many fans wondering why the team never attempted to lock they key players up before they wind up on the open market. Pro Bowl players such as Walter Jones, Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander eventually landed long-term deals with the Seahawks, but Steve Hutchinson found his big payday with Minnesota. Why couldn’t the Seahawks get deals done with these star players before they risk losing them?

The short answer is that negotiations are always slow when there’s no hard deadline. Agreeing to a contract requires two sides to find common ground. Signing deals outside the pressure of free agency leaves the player wondering if he could have made more money, and the team wondering if the player will lose his edge after landing a big payday. Another dynamic, I believe, that has made early deals more difficult recently is that without the extended CBA, an early deal would force a player to negotiate for a piece of a smaller pool of dollars. Players who could wait until the cap went up to $102 million, or $109M (the cap number set for 2007), would certainly have a greater earning potential.

What’s ironic for the Seahawks is all their top players are now locked up for several years. Looking at their key free agents for 2007, the biggest names also have big question marks. TE Jerramy Stevens and safety Ken Hamlin are both the exact types of players who have more to prove on the field before they can expect long-term contracts. The remaining names are aging veterans Bobby Engram, Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray along with backup QB Seneca Wallace and potential starting LG Floyd Womack.

Another interesting dynamic in the new CBA is the continued desire to keep rookie salaries suppressed. For 2006, the total dollars available go sign rookies went up only 5%, even though the overall cap went up nearly 20%. Also consider that the minimum salary, which is usually non-guaranteed for rookies increased 17% from 235K to 275K. With the rookie pool increasing less than minimum salaries, the guaranteed bonus dollars for rookies can only DECREASE in 2006. What that means for most draft picks is the bonus money they receive with their first NFL contracts will be less than the same player would have received in 2005.

The pie does get bigger, but not for everybody.

The next question is, if the rookies aren’t getting the additional dollars, then who is?

That question hasn’t been answered yet, because the market hasn’t had time to adjust to the new financial realities. When Peyton Manning received a $35 million signing bonus in 2004, most were shocked, but that same bonus today would be a bargain. In 2004 the league-wide cap was $80.5M. In 2007 it will be $109M. If you take that 35% increase and take it on to Manning’s contract, his bonus would be over $47 million. At some point in the next year, some player will receive a huge payday that the general public will perceive as exorbitant, but will be perfectly justified in the context of the overall dollars teams are asked to spend on players.

Experienced players are often considered to be “high-risk”, due to the physical demands of the NFL. Teams aren’t allowed to pay big dollars to the youngest players, and they are foolish to give them to the oldest. In the middle lies a window where most players get one shot at the contract of their lives. These players have played 3 to 5 years in the league, have proven they are starting-caliber and haven’t had any serious health concerns. These players are going to start earning contracts beyond their wildest imaginations – and they’re going to start getting them very soon.

Teams like the Seahawks need to identify their core players and lock them up before they hit free agency. Even letting guys hit restricted free agency is a huge risk. For the Seahawks, a great example is cornerback Marcus Trufant. Trufant may still be exploring his potential, but he is a proven starter, and he’s the kind of player the Seahawks will want to lock up before he becomes a free agent in 2008. One way for the team to use up its extra cap space from 2006 is to extend Trufant’s deal, and front-load his dollars into the current season.

Of course, there can still be tricks to re-work existing deals to shuffle cap space from one year to the next. The Seahawks have played that game in the past, and they surely will again.

However, the team has an opportunity to truly look towards the future with their current cap dollars, and it would be a shame to waste it.

Pro Bowl Seahawks


Contract Expires

Matt Hasselbeck


Shaun Alexander


Walter Jones


Julian Peterson


Mack Strong


Robbie Tobeck


Lofa Tatupu


"The Hawkstorian" writes about Seahawks history, the salary cap, and many other things for Seahawks.NET on an alarmingly regular basis. You can reach him at Top Stories