Could Earl Thomas be the Solution to the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell Problem?

The first and third-most talked about contract disputes (Khalil Mack is safely at number two) in the NFL this year have dragged on into the regular season. If you are a football fan, you no doubt know that Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will not sign his franchise tag tender. You likely also know the Seahawks are locked in a heated dispute with safety Earl Thomas. Both are elite level players responsible for a lot of the success these two teams have had in recent years, but both seem equally intent on playing elsewhere in order to get a bigger paycheck. Speculation about where each could land continues to roll on, but it is possible Seattle and Pittsburgh could solve the other’s problem.

So far this year, Pittsburgh has been burned in the secondary. The Steelers have allowed the fifth most passing yards and are tied with the Saints for the most passing touchdowns given up. For Seattle, this team has stated it would like to get back to running the ball more. Unfortunately, the Seahawks rank 25th in rushing yards and have the third worst yards per carry average in the league. Even with a bevy of options in the backfield, no one has managed to really take control.

587px-leveon_bell_26_practicing_2013
Bell has missed 15 games over the past three seasons with the Steelers. (Wikimedia Commons)

The truth is, the Steelers no longer need Bell. He would still be an upgrade over James Connor, but the second year back from the University of Pittsburgh ranks eight in yards from scrimmage so far this year. The need to patch up the secondary is a big one. Earl Thomas would be a huge upgrade over Sean Davis. Pro Football Focus ranks Davis as the 41st safety in the league. Thomas tops the list.

For Seattle, they have a number of young backs, but the chance to add Le’Veon Bell and potentially reduce the number of hits Russell Wilson takes would be massive. Bell had the second most yards from scrimmage in the league last year. His ability as a pass blocker and pass catcher would take a ton of pressure off Wilson. Even though Seattle has a couple of young running backs, none of them will ever come close to playing at the same level as Bell as he enters his prime.

Financially, there is some interesting movement here. Bell is going to want a massive extension. Todd Gurley set the market in a lot of ways for running backs when he negotiated his extension with the Rams. CBS Sports reported back in July Bell wanted roughly $17 million per year in the deal, turning down a massive five-year $70-million offer from Pittsburgh. Seattle might be willing to go a little higher to land him. Using Spotrac, I put together a contract that pays Le’Veon an average of $15.1 million per year in the form of a 5-year $75.5-million deal. That is still short of his asking price, but it tops the Steelers’ last offer.

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Thomas has 28 career interceptions, including three this season. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas wants to be paid as well. Eric Berry is the highest paid safety in the league out in Kansas City. The Steelers already have a Bell-sized opening in their cap number, so absorbing Thomas’ cap hit this season would be no big deal. Signing Thomas to something like a 4-year $48 million contract should appease him. It would put him in the same category as Berry and Tyrann Mathieu in terms of average salary.

These are just some rough numbers I ran, but both seem like realistic contracts for each of them to sign. Bell and Thomas both desperately need a change of scenery. It checks a lot of boxes for both teams, filling a need, sending the player to the opposite conference to avoid playing them again and moving on from a player that clearly no longer wants to be part of the organization.

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Potential landing spots for Alex Mack

Every year, there is a premier talent that hits the open market in the NFL. Turns out that the hottest commodity is one we did not expect.

Alex Mack
Mack started every game in six out of his seven seasons with Cleveland.

Alex Mack announced at Pro Bowl practice that he would like to opt out of his current deal with the Cleveland Browns. Mack is a three-time Pro Bowler and a former All-Pro. He is widely regarded as a top five player at his position.

Mack is set to make $8 million with his current deal, but he and his agent believe that he is worth a lot more than that and that he can get a lot more than that. With few other centers expected to be available in free agency, we could see that boost Mack’s value even more.

While this does not mean that Mack is definitely leaving the Browns, the possibility now exists. So I figured it was time to find a couple of good fits for when he hits the free agent market. Something to note is that Mack definitely fits better as a pass blocker than a run blocker, so that needs to be considered.

Hue Jackson
Jackson should make retaining Mack a priority in his first days as coach.

Cleveland Browns
Obviously, Mack would have just opted out of his Browns deal, but it seems more monetary than distain for Cleveland. With the Browns under a new direction with Hue Jackson at head coach, Mack might be enticed into hanging around. The Browns would need him too. The closest thing to a backup center is either long-snapper Charley Hughlett or rookie right guard Cameron Erving, who played center at Florida State. Mack would be a center piece on a developing offense that needs a huge makeover already.

Russell_Wilson
Wilson suffered the most sacks of his career this season.

Seattle Seahawks
This past offseason, Seattle outsmarted itself in trading for Jimmy Graham. It was assumed that the former All-Pro tight end would push the Seahawks of the brink and turn them into a true powerhouse. However, the lack of a steady offensive line proved to be the constant issue for the offense all year. Part of the deal to acquire Graham involved sending Pro Bowl center Max Unger to New Orleans. Bringing in Mack would truly make Seattle’s offense scary. If they cut down on the 46 sacks allowed this past season and give Russell Wilson more time to pick apart offenses, look out.

Blake Bortles
Bortles was sacked 106 times over the last two seasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Even though spending big every season in free agency hasn’t seemed to work, adding Mack could be a savvy move for this young Jaguars squad. Blake Bortles is clearly coming into his own and the skill positions for Jacksonville look to be improving. Solidifying the offensive line by signing a proven veteran like Mack would make a major impact. Jacksonville allowed the fourth most sacks in the league this season and failed to impress in the running game. Mack would immediately remedy both of those issues, along with replace soon-to-be free agent Stefan Wisniewski. In the end, Jacksonville should push very hard to sign Mack.

NFL: Preseason-Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans
Mariota only managed to start 12 games in his rookie season.

Tennessee Titans
Another AFC South team could use some help on the offensive line, especially when you consider the circumstances. Tennessee has a young quarterback in Marcus Mariota who got banged around this season and missed some time with various injuries. The Titans also match up twice a year with the Houston Texans, which means a nice dosage of J.J. Watt. The Titans allowed the most sacks by any NFL team this season and had a ground game that was average at best. Plugging in Mack and then drafting Laremy Tunsil first overall makes this group look like one of the better ones in the league. Mack’s presence could make a huge difference in whether the Titans continue to falter near the bottom or start showing signs that the rebuild has worked.

Free agency is still a long way off but Mack seems intent on exploring his options. If Mack does leave Cleveland, I think his first choice would be to play in Seattle, but I would not be surprised to see him land in Jacksonville either.

NFL Playoff Predictions: Wildcard Round

I wish I had a rooting interest in this year’s playoffs, but all the same, this is going to be a year to remember. There are tons of great storylines and some incredible games to be played and that starts today with Wildcard Weekend. Let’s start predicting some matchups.

Kansas City vs. Houston
2014 NFL Pro BowlFar from the sexiest matchup of the wildcard round. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is the least exciting. Still well worth watching though, which lets you know how great these playoffs will be. This projects to be more of a defensive struggle. Duane Brown’s injury is already a big blow to the Texans offense. Houston overall was lucky to make the playoffs. I think Alex Smith will show everyone his ability to handle the pressure of a playoff game. Charcandrick West and Stephen Ware should also help wear down a stout Texans defensive front. Mixing a mediocre Houston offense and the league’s third best scoring defense sounds like a recipe for disaster. I think the Chiefs will win this comfortably, 24-10.

Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati
DeAngelo_WilliamsNothing beats a divisional battle in the playoffs. If it couldn’t be Steelers-Ravens, (one of the best rivalries in NFL history) then I’m happy it could at least be Steelers-Bengals. These two split the season series, with the road team winning each matchup. I don’t think we are going to see that trend continue. I know Cincy is still without Andy Dalton but an even bigger blow comes on the other side. Pittsburgh will be without DeAngelo Williams, meaning that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will be carrying the load for the Steelers. For as much as this team relies on Ben Roethlisberger, I think they are going to be too one-dimensional. Throwing the ball constantly doesn’t allow you to control the game offensively and I don’t think the Steelers will be able to close it out late. A.J. McCarron has had a few weeks to learn the offense. Hue Jackson is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league and I think he will have a plan to upend the rival Steelers. Final score, Bengals 31 – Steelers 27

Seattle vs. Minnesota
Russell_WilsonMany are pointing at the midseason meeting between these two teams as the reason for why Seattle will win again. I don’t think it means anything how these two previously played. The Seahawks rode Thomas Rawls for a good portion of that victory. Rawls will not be playing on Sunday and neither will Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson is truly going to have no running game to support him in this one. Christine Michael will be the starting running back for the Hawks. Going up against a defense like Minnesota’s, that doesn’t bode well. That being said, this defense knows how to bottle up Adrian Peterson and will force Teddy Bridgewater to beat them with his arm. Bridgewater does not have a ton of weapons of his own in the passing game that will likely win one-on-matchups with this Seattle secondary. If this is a duel between Bridgewater and Wilson, I am taking Wilson every time. Seattle wins this blizzard bowl 21-10.

Green Bay vs. Washington
Kirk_CousinsThis is not a game many would have predicted at the beginning of the year. I for one though Washington would not come anywhere near the playoffs. I doubt many would have guessed that Green Bay would be on the road either. As much as I like Aaron Rodgers, especially in the playoffs, I don’t think he will be leaving the nation’s capital with a win. The Packers have failed to find any consistency on offense, whether it be running or passing. On the flip side, Kirk Cousins has been on fire for Washington. He’s been yelling, “You like that!” a lot, which is good news for this DC team. I think Washington’s passing attack will prove too much for an underwhelming Packers’ secondary to handle. Momentum has a lot to do with this one. Washington has won four straight while Green Bay has dropped its last two.  It will be close but I think Washington will win its first playoff game in 10 years, 27-24.

Seattle tried to fix what wasn’t broken

Jimmy_Graham
Graham joined the Seahawks this offseason after five years in New Orleans.

On paper, it seemed like it would boost them to another level. No one would be able to touch the Seahawks after adding Jimmy Graham.

Fast forward a few months and Seattle finds themselves on the losing end of a game with the Rams in which the defending NFC champions they allowed Russell Wilson to be sacked six times. On a critical fourth and one, the offensive line got absolutely no push and Marshawn Lynch was stopped in the backfield. In the process of trying to elevate their offense to another level, the Seahawks created a whole new issue.

Max_Unger
Unger was elected to the Pro Bowl twice in his five years with the Seahawks.

Landing Graham was a big addition but it completely gutted the offensive line. As part of the deal, Seattle had to send All-Pro center Max Unger and a first round pick to the Saints. Remember also that left guard James Carpenter left this offseason in free agency and right tackle Breno Giacomini hit the road a year earlier. Suddenly, Seattle only has two of its offensive linemen that won the Super Bowl in 2014.

These problems should not come as a surprise to the Seattle front office either. The Seahawks have been great at finding the next man up to fill the void but that can only work so often. They rolled out a very inexperienced line. Center Drew Nowak made his first career start. Right tackle Gary Gillman made his second. Justin Britt entered only his second season as the starter. Everyone has to get their first start at some point but usually you don’t throw that many inexperienced players out to play at once and expect a good result.

Now, they look like a team without an identity on offense, stuck between wanting to join the vertical passing trend and sticking to their hard-nose grind it out approach they’ve had for the last five years. It has created a difficult situation for Seattle’s offense.

Between all four preseason games and the season opener, the Seahawks’ offensive line has allowed 20 sacks. That’s an average of four sacks a game and that doesn’t even take into account how many other times Wilson gets hit. Sure, the preseason does not count but more often than not, those tendencies you see in the preseason can continue to persist come the regular season.

Graham, over the course of the season, should prove to do well over the course of the season but not enough to justify dismantling the offensive line. I also don’t think Graham will ever be as effective as he was in a Saints uniform.

In addition to trading away Unger, Seattle could have spent that pick to improve their line even further with players like Nick Morse, Donovan Smith and Jake Fischer still on the board at number 31. Even if they weren’t starters, they could end up with some good line depth. Especially with Gillman listed as questionable heading into the season. The only depth they have is the inconsistent Alvin Bailey. Had they gone that route, we would be looking at the Seahawks offensive line as a strength rather than a weakness.

Russell_Wilson
Wilson signed a four-year $87.6 million contract this offseason.

Over time, this offensive line can develop some chemistry and gain confidence. This was not the start they needed or one that should have happened. Seattle did not have a proper contingency plan in place to deal with these major losses. Instead, they brought in Graham, who does not fit the system at all. On top of that, the Seahawks just invested a ton of money in Wilson, but what good is that if he consistently finds himself on his back. Wilson is definitely mobile enough to avoid the pressure but he cannot be counted to do that on every play.

The Seahawks panicked after the Super Bowl and tried to make a major change. If you ask me, Seattle just greatly shortened their championship window. Marshawn Lynch probably won’t play more than another two years in the league and now Seattle is trying to recreate their offensive line rather than making that push to win another title.

The saying goes though, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. Clearly that wasn’t something John Schneider heard enough in Seattle.

How much do you pay for a franchise quarterback?

Two Super Bowl appearances. One ring. Two-time Pro Bowler. Yeah Russell Wilson has a pretty impressive resume for a player entering only his fourth season. Yet he ranks 44th among quarterbacks in terms of how much he is paid. Wilson is paid less than Kellen Clemens, Bruce Gradkowski and Blaine Gabbert who combined attempted 13 passes all year for a grand total of 60 yards. In fact, Wilson only stands to make $200,000 more than Tavaris Jackson, Seattle’s backup quarterback.Russell_Wilson_with_Lombardi_Trophy

Obviously, Wilson is being grossly underpaid. His earnings for the 2015 season will come out to about six percent of what Drew Brees stands to make on the year. The Seattle signal caller obviously benefits from a strong running game and a smothering defense but the reality is that Wilson has put up nearly 10,000 career passing yards and 72 touchdowns in three years. And that’s while throwing to a group of largely unspectacular receivers. In his three seasons, Wilson has played with 12 different wideouts, who combined for three Pro Bowls among all of them. None of those Pro Bowl appearances were in a Seahawk uniform either.

It is only a matter of time before Wilson lands a big pay day. Between his spectacular play and his entering the final year of his rookie contract, there is no doubt it will be coming soon. The question that has started to form in many minds though is will it be from Seattle?

The Seahawks have negotiated with Wilson for several months now and it appears that the two sides are at a bit of a stalemate. Seattle wants to lock their franchise quarterback up for the next five or six years but they are trying to be creative with how they do so. The team has a number of other high profile players, mainly on defense, who could be in line for a new contract soon as well. If Wilson’s deal becomes too cap consuming then Seattle would likely have to watch a lot of talent walk out the door.

That isn’t sitting too well with Wilson though. He has always come off as a team player and an excellent teammate but he is maintaining that he wants to be paid like the high-profile quarterback he is. Wilson has gone as far as to say that he wants to be paid like a free agent now, despite still being under contract. It is a really interesting scenario that the Seattle front office finds itself in as they try to keep their Super Bowl window open.

Russell_WilsonWhat eventually comes from this situation could greatly alter the NFL landscape for the foreseeable future. It is starting to look possible that the Seahawks will let Wilson play out the last year of his contract. That could pay off as it allows Seattle to keep their financial flexibility and make another Super Bowl run with their plethora of talent.

Seattle could also choose to resign Wilson but to an unconventional contract. The general thinking is that the Seahawks could offer Wilson a deal that would only pay him 14 million dollars per year but that would be mostly or fully guaranteed. For example, if Seattle gave him a fully guaranteed 5-year, $70 million contract, this would offer an interesting balance. The $70 million total would rank as the 14th richest contract among quarterbacks. However, Wilson would have more guaranteed money than any quarterback in history. This appeals to Seattle as well because Wilson’s cap hit wouldn’t skyrocket. He would be tied with Tom Brady for the 14th largest hit in the league.

Should the latter occur, then we could see the model for which teams attempt to sign star players transform. By giving deals that focus less on lucrative incentives and more on less, but fully guaranteed, money teams would be able find more cap flexibility. It is certainly a risky move on the part of the team who would be locked in to paying the player all of the money regardless of performance, but it would be a high-risk, high-reward move. By avoiding having an exorbitant cap hit at the quarterback position would allow the team to pursue talent at other positions. For Seattle this could mean finding a way to pay Bruce Irvin as well as Wilson, prolonging the team’s Super Bowl window even further.

The outcome of Wilson’s contract could take some time to pan out. We really might not find an answer until next summer if the two sides cannot reach an agreement. The whole situation could really alter the playing field though in the NFL. If Wilson decided to walk away from Seattle, then we could start to see the NFL trend toward resembling the NBA with star players frequently switching teams. It is a bit of a stretch but it a conceivable trend.

The bottom line remains that Wilson will get paid, one way or another. It is simply a matter of when not if. He has threatened to join the MLB but realistically he won’t make the jump. Seattle struggled for year’s to find Matt Hasselback’s replacement. If they fail to play their cards right, they could be scrambling to find Wilson’s successor next year.