By Jason Hirschhorn for TonySoftli.com
In just four short years, the brain trust of Pete Carroll and John Schneider transformed the Seahawks from NFC bottom feeder into one of the most dominant Super Bowl champions of recent vintage. So impressive is the sheer number of talent players the duo has amassed that many expect the Seahawks to become the first team to repeat as champions in a decade.
Certainly, multiple players should be credited as part of Seattle’s championship core. With his immense length and playmaking instincts, cornerback Richard Sherman takes away half of the field from opposing quarterbacks. All-Pro safety Earl Thomas uses his speed and range to allow the Seahawks’ other defensive backs to take gambles without fear of letting up a big play. Michael Bennett needed only a year in Seattle to establish himself as one of the NFL’s elite edge rushers. And without question, Marshawn Lynch and his physical running style is the key to the Seahawks’ imposing ground game. None of which would likely matter if not for quarterback Russell Wilson. Or more accurately, his contract.
When Pete Carroll and John Schneider selected Wilson 75th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Seahawks received an out-of-the-box starting quarterback on an incredibly team-friendly deal. Signed for four years, Wilson averages $749,176 in yearly salary. For context, 58 quarterbacks average more annually on their current contracts, including all but one projected starter (fellow 2012 draft pick Nick Foles). Wilson isn’t even the highest paid quarterback on his team; that honor goes to eight-year journeyman Tarvaris Jackson.
The mechanics of football have made NFL signal callers ungodly sums of money. The NFL’s ten highest average salaries belong to quarterbacks, and the only other positions represented in the top 20 are those who catch passes from those quarterbacks and those who cover said pass catchers. In a league restricted by salary cap, allocated such high dollar figures to a single player can be burdensome; when so much money is concentrated in one area, it leaves others deficient.
That’s why Seattle is so fortunate to have Wilson, a high-level starting quarterback, on an eminently affordable contract. If Wilson’s deal averaged even $7 million a year (still well below market value), the Seahawks would have lacked the required cap space to sign Michael Bennett last offseason. Give Wilson an average salary of $10 million, and suddenly the team can no longer afford to add Cliff Avril. While Seattle would still have been a title contender, it becomes more difficult to envision the team winning Super Bowl XLVIII without Bennett or Avril’s services. But because Wilson makes so little, the Seahawks were able to load up on impact free agents.
Such is a model that the Jacksonville Jaguars can learn from. Selecting third overall in this past May’s draft, the team chose Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles. Even with his Top-3 pick status, Bortles’ cap hit for his rookie year stands at a mere $3,755,420. That figure rises to only $4,694,275 in 2015, and less than a million each year after that. While that’s not quite the bargain of Seattle’s Wilson, Bortles’ deal represents a valuable window during which the Jaguars can load up on talent around him.
As it currently stands, the Jaguars possess roughly $30.6 million in available cap space, most in the NFL by a wide margin. With no core player on the roster set to hit free agency for at least two years, Jacksonville can roll over most of that amount into 2015. Add in another draft and some savvy free agent shopping, and the Jaguars could contend in the largely putrid AFC South.
Of course, that requires Bortles to provide quality play at quarterback. Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley has talked openly about the team’s plan to sit Bortles for all of 2014. While the Jaguars are understandably concerned about exposing their top investment behind a suspect offensive line after one-time quarterback of the future Blake Gabbert flamed out largely due to poor protection, jumpstarting Bortles’ development this year could make all the difference come next season.
Rookie quarterbacks often struggle early when facing the complex defenses of the NFL. The passing windows are smaller than in college, and they close much faster. The only way for quarterbacks to adjust is through playing time. Give Bortles a year to acclimate to the more unforgiving conditions of the NFL, and he can come out the other side far better prepared to lead the Jaguars to the postseason. Even Andrew Luck, touted as a “once-in-a-generation” quarterback prospect, tossed 18 interceptions as a rookie. The trials and tribulations of that first season under center proved a valuable learning experience for Luck, who cut his interceptions in half during year two. Likewise, Bortles has much to gain if allowed to start and learn from his inevitable rookie mistakes.
And for his part, Bortles has looked more than capable in the preseason. Through two games, he’s completing 64.3% of his passes and averaging a hair below 10 yards per attempt. More importantly, he doesn’t look fazed by the competition. Playing against a mix of starters and second stringers, Bortles quickly scans the defense for holes, climbing the pocket to buy time when necessary. His play is far from perfect, but the early returns suggest it’s not too big for him.
Early playing time for Bortles also provides the opportunity to build chemistry between him and his receiving corps. The Jaguars selected two receivers in the second round of this year’s draft, USC’s Marqise Lee and Penn State’s Allen Robinson. While both need to make their own adjustments to the NFL, developing a rapport with Bortles is integral to the Jaguars’ future. Every idiosyncrasy that Bortles learns of his wide receivers now makes for one less in 2015.
And 2015 is indeed an offseason with plenty of free agent firepower. Ndamukong Suh headlines a class that might also contain star edge rusher Justin Houston, three-tech behemoth Gerald McCoy, and ageless cover man Darrelle Revis. If given the opportunity, Gus Bradley will find a creative way to utilize those talents. While those players are out of reach for many teams, Jacksonville can afford to splurge on one or more due to the relatively small sum owed to Bortles.
But there’s little reason to commit to big-money deals with outside free agents if the team doesn’t know if it has a franchise quarterback to lead it. By starting Bortles now, the team can sooner identify whether it has the right guy under center. While they run the risk of the youngster accumulating too many hits in a badly built pocket and suffering irreparable harm, the combined benefit of an accelerated development and a saved year of a team-friendly contract outweighs the negatives. Given the economics of the modern NFL, the Jaguars may not get a better shot at a championship than during the length of Bortles’ rookie contract. That window only exists if Bortles proves himself a high-level starter, and the sooner Jacksonville can find out, the longer their window is open.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers and the NFL for Acme Packing Company. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn