SEATTLE – The Seattle Seahawks have been playing with house money the past few years.
Superb coaching and scouting, and general manager John Schneider's insistence to draft quarterback Russell Wilson no matter what in 2012, has led to a team that went from 4-12 in 2009 to a two-time NFC Champion and a 2013 Super Bowl winner.
Besides Wilson, who was a 3rd round pick, they struck gold on early picks in safety Earl Thomas, linebacker Bobby Wagner, wide receiver Golden Tate and tackle Russell Okung.
They also scored highly-talented players that nobody else wanted in the later rounds, including Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, J.R. Sweezy and Luke Willson. And, they snapped up undrafted receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Late round draft picks and undrafted players don't get paid that much by NFL standards, so Seattle has reaped the benefits in putting together one of the best teams in the league.
It's time to pay up, which the Seahawks have already been doing since winning Super Bowl XLVIII.
- CB Richard Sherman: 4 years, $56 million (biggest contract on Seahawks)
- S Earl Thomas: 4 years, $40 million
- DE Michael Bennett: 4 years, $28.5 million
- WR Doug Baldwin: 3 years, $13 million
- K Steven Hauschka: 3 years, $8.55 million
- LB K.J Wright: 4 years, $27 million
- DE Cliff Avril: 4 years, $28.5 million
They had to part ways with Tate, their leading receiver and punt returner in 2013, who commanded a 5-year, $31 million deal from the Detroit Lions.
Now comes the hard part
The NFL salary cap will be a projected $142 million in 2015, according to sports salary tracking website Sportrac. But each team can rollover unused cap money from 2014. That rollover money, along with incentives, bonuses and other factors, determines how much each team can spend. For Seattle, that final number is $146.8 million in 2015.
Put the complicated math together and Seattle is projected to be $23.3 million under the cap based on the current contracts of its returning players. $4.4 million of that is already allotted to the players the team will draft this spring.
Seattle will make Wilson one of the highest-paid players in the league. That much is certain. The question will be whether his contract cap-friendly to the Seahawks and if he'll take less money early in the contract and more money later.
"It presents challenges, there's no question," Schneider said of the Wilson negotiations. "We haven't sat down with his representatives yet. But we're still going to be drafting young players and playing young players. So we might not be able to dip into free agency as much as you want to here and there or compensate somebody else that's already on your team."
"I know Russell wants to play on a really good team, too, and he understands that there is no better competitor with awareness about that makeup,'' head coach Pete Carroll said.
Wagner, who was an All-Pro in 2014, is also a priority, and there were reports last week that Seattle wants to extend Lynch and possibly double his $5 million base salary for next season.
"I'm going to tell you this: The Seattle Seahawks would not be the same team without Marshawn Lynch, I promise you that," Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis told USA TODAY Sports. "Without him, you'd have a totally different football team."
Signing all three is possible but not without forcing the Seahawks to lose some talent. Starting cornerback Byron Maxwell likely won't be back. He's already said he'll test the free agent waters.
Other top Seahawks free agents include Kearse, guard James Carpenter, backup safety Jeron Johnson and backup linebackers Heath Farwell, Malcolm Smith, O'Brien Schofield and Michael Morgan.
It could be worse
Seattle's division rival, the Arizona Cardinals, are projected to be $8.6 million over the salary cap in 2015. They have one of the NFL's highest paid players in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is due $23 million next season. Reports indicate the Cardinals may need to trade or release him if he doesn't restructure his deal to take less money.
Sounds easy, right? Just let him go and you solve your cap issues. Not so fast. If the Cardinals trade or release him, they are still on the hook for $14.4 million in what is called Dead Cap money.
Seattle has its own Dead Cap money to deal with. They're still responsible for $7.2 million to wide receiver Percy Harvin, who they traded to the New York Jets in midseason last year.
The New Orleans Saints have the worst cap issue headed into 2015. They're projected to be $23 million over. Quarterback Drew Brees' cap hit will be more than that at $26.4 million. But, the Saints won't be jettisoning a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who is still productive, so that means they'll be forced to lose other quality talent.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will be a stunning $61 million under the cap.
Where the Seahawks have one of the best advantages in the NFL today is Schneider. The man has defied the so-called draft experts and picked up players nobody else wanted, and Carroll has turned them into Pro Bowl-caliber players.
The Seahawks were criticized heavily for their draft in 2012, getting an "F" by some analysts. Schneider was especially criticized for selecting Wilson in the 3rd round, partly because Seattle had just signed Matt Flynn to be their franchise quarterback.
That draft also landed them Wagner, linebacker Bruce Irvin, backup running back Robert Turbin and cornerback Jeremy Lane. Seattle also drafted Sweezy who converted from defensive line to the Seahawks' starting right guard.
A year earlier, Schneider grabbed the best cornerback in the game today in Sherman, who was even overlooked by his old Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.
There is no doubt that signing Wilson, Wagner and Lynch this offseason will hurt, but if the contracts can be structured just right, if Schneider continues with his Midas touch in the draft, and if the Seahawks can stay healthy and not test their depth too much, they can remain the favorite to win Super Bowl 50.
"We'll figure it out in time. It's going to be a big challenge. However, we do have a plan. And John is doing a wonderful job of carrying it out right now,' said Carroll.
USA TODAY's Jim Corbett contributed to this report