What would a Luke Willson contract extension look like?


With all eyes on the upcoming negotiations between the Seahawks and Doug Baldwin’s representatives, we take a look at another player approaching his final season under contract with the team- tight end Luke Willson.

Are the team and player interested in extending their employer/employee relationship? If so, what could a contract extension look like for the Handsome Hobo?

First, we need to slot Willson in with comparable players at his position to get a feel for his monetary value. With some players, this is an easy exercise either because they display obvious qualities that put them at or near the top of their positional peers or their compiled statistics fall into a specific grouping. With a situational player and roster spot such as TE2, it’s a little more difficult because opportunities to shine are fewer.

That’s OK. We have enough information, gathered from accumulated statistics and game film from the past three years, to determine where this player slots in among his fellow tight ends around the league.

Using the TE salary figures provided by the excellent website overthecap.com, let’s first identify the player grouping in which Willson belongs.

Is he top of the food chain, deserving of $9-10M contracts that guys like Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas make? Of course not.

Does he contribute as much as other “starting” tight ends such as Gary Barnidge, Martellus Bennett and Delanie Walker, who range from $4.1M to $6.6M in average annual salary? Nope. Not even close.

Is he simply a journeyman playing out his professional string like Rob Housler, Matt Spaeth, or Luke Stocker, whose pay ranges from $760K to $1.6M? Absolutely not. Willson is a better, younger player than the likes of these men and is deserving of a more lucrative contract.

Aug 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Seattle Seahawks tight end Luke Willson (82) on the sidelines during the third quarter of a preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Seahawks 21-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Seattle Seahawks tight end Luke Willson (82) on the sidelines during the third quarter of a preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Seahawks 21-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

In his first three years, 26-year-old Luke Willson has roughly averaged this stat line per season: 15 games played, 8 games started, 31 targets, 20 catches, 282 yds, 2 touchdowns. He has one splash play to his credit- an 80-yd catch-and-run touchdown late in the season vs Arizona in 2014 that helped the Seahawks chase down the Cardinals and win another division title.

Willson typically is on the field for about 40% of Seattle’s offensive snaps and also sees action on some special teams plays.

Not bad for a 5th round pick from Rice that caught 9 passes in his senior season.

Using Willson’s stats, physical capabilities and accomplishments to date along with where his salary demand seems to fit in the tight end pecking order across the league, let’s look a little deeper into the types of contracts that exist for players of Willson’s ilk.

JOSH HILL (NEW ORLEANS)- Age 26. 3-year, $7.1M deal w/ $3.25M guaranteed.

2015 stats- 16 games, 7 starts, 30 targets, 16 receptions, 120 yards, 2 touchdowns.

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Hill is a 6’5” receiving threat in the same mold as Willson and was signed to a restricted free agent offer sheet in March, 2016 by the Bears- only to see the Saints match the terms. At $2.36M per year, his contract represents the floor by which a Willson deal could be negotiated. Hill takes a backseat to Ben Watson in New Orleans, much like Willson normally defers to Jimmy Graham in Seattle. Willson’s stats better those of Hill in each player’s first three seasons and one should expect his next contract to be a step or two above Hill’s as well.

GARRETT CELEK (SAN FRANCISCO)- Age 28. 4-year, $10.2M deal w/ $3.5M guaranteed.

2015 stats- 11 games, 8 starts, 28 targets, 19 receptions, 186 yards, 3 touchdowns.

Known more for his blocking abilities, Celek had what amounts to a career year catching the ball in 2015 and signed a contract extension in February averaging $2.55M. His 2015 stats compare fairly evenly with Willson’s three-year average and are a fair barometer to use in extension talks. Willson has an edge in age by 2 years, however, and that plays a part in the equation. Making their comparison even more justifiable is a perfectly equal tale of the tape- both men are listed at 6’5”, 252 lbs.

ZACH MILLER (CHICAGO)- Age 31. 2-year, $5.5M deal w/ $3M guaranteed.

2015 stats- 15 games, 14 starts, 46 targets, 34 receptions, 439 yards, 5 touchdowns.

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This one is interesting because the age difference is significantly in Willson’s favor, but the statistical production by far favors Miller. In this case, you see only a two-year commitment from the team though it’s in line with the others above in terms of cash flow. Why is this important? In negotiations, the player’s rep will argue for longer term and more money because of youth, while the team will point to the $2.75M average of Miller’s deal and want to pay Willson less due to his less impressive receiving stats.

In other words, both sides will look for favorable numbers within comparable player contracts to use as ammunition in talks. All of this stuff matters and is used to outline contract offers and acceptances.

JAMES HANNA (DALLAS)- Age 26. 3-year, $8.25M deal w/ $3.25M guaranteed.

2015 stats- 14 games, 7 starts, 14 targets, 9 receptions, 79 yards, 0 touchdowns.

Ok, now it gets gritty. Like Willson in 2013, Hanna blazed a 40-yard dash in the 4.50 area prior to the 2012 draft and was taken on day 3 of that year’s selection process. Similarly built at 6’4, 252 lbs, Hanna was seen as a seam-stretching TE prospect, like Willson. However, in his four-year pro career, Hanna has gone from receiving prospect to passing game afterthought (zero career touchdowns) while surprisingly becoming Dallas’ best zone blocking tight end.

The Cowboys appear to have slightly overpaid for Hanna when comparing his pass-catching contributions to like players in this price range ($2.75M per). They are paying for blocking here, not catches. No matter- Willson’s agent will quickly point to his client’s superior numbers and argue for more. The team will counter with Willson being being the inferior blocker of the two.

The dance continues.

VIRGIL GREEN (DENVER)- Age 27. 3-year, $8.4M deal w/ $3.2M guaranteed.

2015 stats- 16 games, 5 starts, 15 targets, 12 receptions, 173 yards, 1 touchdown.

Another fast, athletic tight end known more for receiving ability than blocking coming out of college, Green re-signed with Denver in 2015 at a $2.8M per year average. Again, we see Willson’s stats are a step above in comparison, though in the same neighborhood. It appears both Denver and Dallas were willing to pay for increased future production at the TE2 position rather than established accomplishments.

Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Confetti falls as Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green celebrates after defeating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi /

After looking at the qualifications of these five tight ends and comparing them to what Luke Willson has done for the Seahawks, we get an idea of what Willson’s value to the league probably is. If Luke plays out the 2016 season, puts up similar numbers to his 3-year average and is allowed to hit the free market next March, he should expect an offer from someone in the 3-year, $9-10M range with $3.5-4M guaranteed. This translates to a $3-3.3M per year player at the tight end position.

Assuming the Seahawks have interest in locking Willson up before he is allowed to exercise his right to shop his wares to any team in March of 2017, we can estimate what a contract could look like between the two parties that is a win for both sides using the market value established above from comparable peer contracts.

The team will seek to secure Willson’s future services at a discount, for lack of a better word. If Willson is a $3-3.3M player in the free market, expect the team to offer maybe 70% of that at first with willingness to go to 85 or 90 percent of that if Willson’s people deftly hold out for a better deal.

You may ask why Willson would sign now for less money than just waiting it out and getting every last penny next spring. The answer, of course, is what the player always has to consider- football mortality. If Willson gets seriously injured anytime between now and March, he risks entering free agency as damaged goods, possibly having to accept a 1-year offer at low money with little to no guarantees as a back half of the roster player.  There’s even a risk of not getting an offer at all, depending on the timing and severity of an injury.

By accepting a team-friendly contract extension this summer when he’s fully healthy, Willson assures himself a signing bonus in the $3M range, which would be more money than he is making in his entire 4-year rookie deal. It may prove to be too tempting to pass up for a player that hasn’t yet ‘cashed in’ as a professional football player.

Assuming he is amenable to such an offer, we could see a contract extension for Luke Willson that looks something like this: 3-years, $8.5M with $3.75M guaranteed (signing bonus + first year salary).

Keeping Willson in the fold would be a low-key but significant chess play for Seattle, considering the severity of Jimmy Graham’s recent injury and the fact that Graham only has one additional year remaining on his contract after this season.

As a guy that always looks a year or two ahead in his roster models, John Schneider understands that having to replace Graham is not far away. Until that happens, having Nick Vannett and Luke Willson in the TE room at digestible salary cap numbers will provide enough stability for the position to prevent it from being forced to use its most valuable draft assets to shore up the position.

Let’s hope both player and team mutually feel like extending their relationship is best for everyone.