Does Russell Wilson deserve the richest contract in the NFL?

Russell Wilson, Asked About Contract: I've

By Katie Sharp
The Cauldron

There is little doubt that Russell Wilson has arguably been the biggest bargain in the NFL since being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks. He's far outperformed his rookie contract — which will pay him a total of just $3 million over his first four seasons — and with a 2015 salary of $1.5 million, Wilson is scheduled to earn less than 39 other quarterbacks in the league in the upcoming season.

To put his compensation (or lack thereof) into perspective, backups like Chase Daniel ($3.8 million), Matt Hasselbeck ($3 million), and Kellen Moore ($2.9 million), all of whom are buried on the depth chart behind established starters and destined to see but a few garbage-time snaps this season, will make twice as much money as Wilson.

Under the terms of the CBA, rookie wages are set according to a sliding scale based on the player's draft position — hence the low figure for Wilson as a third-round pick — and a team cannot renegotiate the player's contract until after his third season. As such, until now, the Seahawks literally could not have paid Wilson more even if they wanted to.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the team would jump at the first opportunity to give the underpaid Wilson a long-term extension this offseason to ensure that he wouldn't hit free agency next winter, and that he'd spend his prime football years in Seattle as the face of the franchise. Oddly, however, talks between the Seahawks and Wilson's camp have produced little progress towards a new deal and speculation about his future with the team continues to grow every day.

Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported last week that Wilson's agent wants his client to be the highest-paid player in the NFL, surpassing the five-year, $110 million contract Aaron Rodgers signed with the Packers in 2013. The Seahawks so far have balked at meeting those demands, and when asked about the situation, general manager John Schneider reiterated his stance that no single player is bigger than the team:

"Every negotiation is unique in and of itself, and this is no different," Schneider said on KIRO radio in April. "He's our quarterback. We'd love him to be our quarterback. But the thing is ... we have to be able to protect ourselves as we go and make smart decisions in trying to keep this whole thing together as long as we possibly can."

Surely, contract discussions between Wilson and the Seahawks are complicated by NFL salary cap realities, player/team leverage, and the ever-changing dynamics of the quarterback market. But let's just consider the cold-hard facts and strip the decision to pay Wilson down its core question:Does the 26-year-old Wilson deserve to be the highest-paid player in all of football?

In today's pass-happy NFL, the value of a quarterback is undoubtedly at an all-time high. Former agent and current scribe Joel Corry noted that quarterback is "the hardest position to find somebody competent," and that scarcity has driven up the cost of both acquiring and retaining such players. A team simply cannot contend for a Super Bowl title without at least an above-average guy under center — regardless of how talented the rest of the roster is.

And if the goal is to lead a team to wins and championships, then by definition, Wilson passes this first test with flying colors. In the four years before he arrived in Seattle, the Seahawks lost more games than all but three teams and had little stability at the quarterback position. Since his debut in 2012, only Denver has a better record than Seattle, and Wilson has been at helm for every one of their 36 regular-season victories in that span.

Those 36 wins also happen to be the most by any quarterback in his first three NFL seasons, and among quarterbacks that started at least 30 games in their first three years, only Dan Marino (33–8) has a better record than Wilson (36–12). Not only has he been a regular-season star, but Wilson also shined in the postseason. No quarterback has started and won more playoff games in his first three seasons than he has. Wilson, of course, has led the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, and delivered the franchise's first-ever title in 2013.

It sure seems like Wilson deserves the richest contract in football, doesn't it?

But determining value goes beyond wins and losses. Teams simply afford to cannot ignore an individual player's stats and talent level, especially when other factors may have as much impact on the overall success of the team. This relates to Wilson often being cast as a "game-manager," with critics pointing to his strong supporting cast — the league's best defense and top-ranked rushing attack — to explain why the Seahawks have enjoyed so much success during his tenure.

There is more than some truth those sentiments.

By the numbers, Wilson has hardly proven that he's an elite quarterback, even when looking at rate-based stats which take into account the Seahawks' run-heavy gameplan. He ranks fifth in passer rating, sixth in touchdown-to-interception ratio and 10th in completion percentage. In comparison, Rodgers — the league's current highest-paid player — ranks first, first and fifth, respectively, in those same categories over the same span. 2012.

The advanced metrics are even less kind to Wilson, revealing a quarterback that was barely above-average last season. He ranked 12th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks in ESPN's all-encompassing Total QBR, 14th in Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted DVOA statistic, and 13th in Pro Football Focus' grading system. Rodgers, meanwhile, compiled the second-best Total QBR, and was the top-ranked quarterback in both Football Outsiders' and Pro Football Focus' ratings in 2014.

Wilson's greatest asset as a quarterback is his ability to extend plays with his feet — no quarterback has rushed for more yards since 2012 than he has — but those playmaking instincts often get him into trouble. Despite dropping back the fewest times among regular quarterbacks over the last three seasons, Wilson has taken the second-most sacks in the NFL. That's not a great predictor of future performance if you assume he will run less as he ages.

It is fair to point out that Seattle's offensive line has not been a strength over the past few seasons — Wilson has been under pressure more than any other quarterback since 2012 — but some of that blame also lies with the quarterback. He holds onto the ball longer than anyone else (3.1 seconds, per Pro Football Focus) and his performance really suffers when he doesn't release the ball quickly.

The conventional wisdom is that Wilson's mobility and improvisational skills are difference-makers on his quarterbacking résumé, but in reality, negative results sometimes outweigh the positive ones (and ultimately cancel out much of the value created by his legs and athleticism).

Another area where Wilson really struggled during the 2014 regular season on third downs. His passer rating of 77.1 in those situations ranked 27th out of 33 quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts, and the 18 sacks he took on third down were more than all but two QBs last year. The league leader in third-down passer rating was, of course, Rodgers, who averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and posted a ridiculous 121.7 rating with 15 touchdowns on third down last season.

In making "the smart decision" on whether to meet Wilson's high-salary demands, one of the key factors the Seahawks have to weigh is how much their talented young signal caller is really worth to the team.

On one hand, it's hard to argue against Wilson's value as a winner, and he certainly possesses all the intangibles — leadership, character, poise — necessary to dole out an elite quarterback contract. The numbers, however, tell the story of a good-but-not-great quarterback, who probably shouldn't get the top-of-the-market money that is reserved for the absolute best players in the league.

Wilson's case stands as a near-perfect football example of stats v. intangibles debate, and depending on the outcome, one that ultimately could define the quarterback market for several years to come. Is he worth the money? Probably not, but it's hard to argue with the team's performance under his watch.

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