Last week, an NFL general manager was reflecting on the 2022 free agency and trade period when he posed a question about the most impactful moves across the league.
“What do you think was the best quarterback move in terms of a signing or trade?” he asked.
I took a moment to think about it, running a finger down a list of AFC and NFC teams. It didn’t take long to arrive at the realization that the offseason of quarterback movement was more of a wasteland than I’d thought only a few months ago.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” the GM said. “I think it’s pretty clear.”
I began rifling through the carnage. Deshaun Watson has yet to take a snap with the Cleveland Browns and already has the most stunning contract in NFL history. Matt Ryan and Baker Mayfield have each been through benchings with the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers. Mitchell Trubisky had his job taken by Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett after only four starts. The Washington Commanders put Carson Wentz on injured reserve with a finger issue and now look less inclined to give him his starting job back. Marcus Mariota has been a solid bridge for the Atlanta Falcons, and Russell Wilson, well, we don’t even need to get into that mess.
That really left one guy. Geno Smith.
“Yeah,” the GM replied. “That’s mine. They re-signed him in the offseason to compete as a starter, so he counts.”
Geno Smith's 2023 salary range: $23.8 million vs. $38.4 million?
Pound for pound, there’s little question. Seattle signed Smith to a one-year deal with a $3.5 million base salary and incentives that could push his earnings as high as $7 million. In return, the Seahawks have gotten a season so remarkable from the 32-year-old that you’d have to go all the way back to Rich Gannon’s signing with the Oakland Raiders in 1999 to find a player who blossomed so unexpectedly at a late stage in his career.
Through 10 games, Smith has led the Seahawks to a 6-4 record and first place in the NFC West. And he has done it with a remarkable 17-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and league-leading 72.8 percent completion rate.
He has also proven to be an easy fit with the downfield passing options on the roster and is running a scheme that doesn’t constantly rely on dink-and-dunk plays that can make statistics misleading. Indeed, everything about what Smith has done to this point looks like the stuff of a seasoned veteran quarterback running an offense that should compete for postseason wins.
With seven games left on the slate, he’s undeniably one of the best stories in the NFL. And soon enough, Smith’s future is going to be one of the most-watched contract negotiations, too. As Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told reporters last week, “[T]here’s a conversation that’s coming. We understand that.”
At this point, only an implosion could stymie the Seahawks and Smith from hammering out a long-term contract. Barring that, Seattle has some difficult math to do. Consider how Smith’s value is being calculated by the two of the most astute contract/salary cap sites on the internet, spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com. Take note of the chasm.
According to a calculation that measures a player’s performance and value versus those of his positional peers, OverTheCap estimates that Smith went into the Seahawks bye week performing at a level commensurate with a 2022 salary of $38.4 million. Essentially, he’s slotting as worthy of the 10th-best quarterback salary in the NFL. Now compare that with Spotrac’s 2023 market value analysis, which uses an algorithm that factors essentially three years of performance rather than just 2022. Using a three-year weighted window, Spotrac estimates the average salary of Smith’s next deal to be in the neighborhood of $23.8 million.
That Spotrac figure will likely increase as Smith finishes 2022 (which is the third year of the analysis). That’s still an eye-opening split, nearly $15 million, between his calculated 2022 value and his weighted value over a longer period of time. What’s even more interesting is the number that splits the difference right down the middle: $31.1 million.
That middle ground is remarkable because the franchise tag for the quarterback position in 2023 is expected to be roughly $31.5 million. That's right about where NFL general managers believe Smith’s contract talks will start next offseason. It's a stunning sum when you consider that Smith’s total NFL earnings through his first 10 years (depending on which incentives he reaches this season) are on pace to fall in the range of $14 million to $17 million. Basically, if 2022 finishes as it began, Smith’s 2023 salary will likely be twice what he made in the previous decade … combined.
Smith appears to be perfect fit in Seattle, which takes away some leverage
That’s a realistic target, according to five GMs and three agents who spoke to Yahoo Sports about how they’d approach a similar negotiation.
“I think $30 [million] to $35 million a season is about right,” one general manager said. “Although it wouldn’t surprise me if they used the franchise tag on him just to take it one more year to be sure.”
“He’s playing like a top-10 quarterback,” another general manager said. “Maybe even a little better than that. The risk is that it’s happening later in his career and it’s just not a lot of track record there. But he also has been [in Seattle] for a few years, so it’s not like his skill set is a mystery to anyone there. And he’s showing them he can take it onto the field for them, so their comfort level is probably better than anyone else.”
Leaning into that point, an agent who has negotiated high-level quarterback contracts added: “His value is highest with Seattle. He’s been there and he’s a leader who fits the culture of what they do. I honestly don’t know if anyone else would be willing to pay him what Seattle will. He’s just worth more in Seattle because there’s proof it already works there.”
That’s ultimately going to be the rub for Smith. With a deep rookie quarterback class and the recent trend of some veteran quarterbacks being available in trade — not to mention his age — a free agency run for him likely wouldn’t be the same bonanza it was for Kirk Cousins back in 2018. Although Cousins was 30, he had a longer track record of success and more than a few wildly desperate teams lining up in free agency.
It’s hard to know what Smith will ultimately be worth in terms of commitment, but for Seattle it’s shaping up to be a lot. The question is how long the Seahawks see this performance peak lasting and how quickly it gets the franchise back into a Super Bowl window. Not to mention what it will do to the team’s rebuild adding another significant quarterback contract almost as quickly as it shed Russell Wilson’s last offseason.
But one thing is clear: The Seahawks can get this done using whatever avenue is necessary. Whether it’s a one-year look with a franchise tag or a multiyear deal that cements Smith behind center into late in the decade, they are going to have more than $50 million in salary-cap space to make it happen.
Either approach is going to take a bite out of their offseason of maneuvering. But given how Smith has played, that’s better than staring at another quarterback hole and wondering how long it will take to resolve it.