This is not how Seattle’s season was supposed to end. I don’t mean the 41-23 loss to a loaded 49ers team. That was predictable. I’m talking about the fact that the Seahawks even made it to wild-card weekend after entering the season looking like one of the NFL’s worst teams.
There were a variety of reasons Seattle overperformed this season: They nailed the draft, made smart signings in free agency, and got some help (thanks, Detroit) along the way. But perhaps the biggest reason was journeyman quarterback Geno Smith who, in the greatest shock of all, beat out Drew Lock in a preseason QB competition, led his team to the no. 7 seed in the NFC, and now looks to be Seattle’s pick at QB in 2023.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Smith already has the job locked down. But he still needs a contract. The 32-year-old is slated to hit free agency this spring, and Seattle will be looking to get a deal done before then—though Rapoport also reported the Seahawks would use the franchise tag on Smith if a long-term deal doesn’t get done before the March 7 deadline. The tag value for quarterbacks is projected to be around $30 million, which sets the starting point for negotiations awfully high. This won’t be some low-risk, high-reward deal—not after Smith broke the franchise record for passing yards and completion percentage while leading the Seahawks back to the playoffs this season. The Smith contract, whatever it looks like, will have a lasting impact on the franchise—for better or worse.
Had Geno lit up San Francisco and led Seattle to a massive upset on Saturday, a big money deal may have been on the table. And if he had stunk, just saying LOL JK about the whole “it’s Geno’s job” thing and cutting ties would have been understandable, too. Instead, his performance was somewhere in the middle. There were a number of high-level plays, including the perfectly weighted touchdown pass to DK Metcalf that gave the Seahawks their first lead of the game.
But things were a lot rougher in the second half. Smith coughed up the ball on strip sack late in the third quarter, which was the beginning of the end for Seattle. And his fourth-quarter interception (on a lazy route by Tyler Lockett, to be fair) put the game away for good.
This game was essentially a microcosm of Geno’s breakout season, which makes his contract situation so difficult. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a long-time backup find himself in the right place at the right time and put up top-10 numbers. But this wasn’t Case Keenum throwing YOLO balls to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen for the 2017 Vikings, or Brock Purdy riding Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers loaded offense to success. There was a bit more substance to his game, the kind of substance you usually see in the best quarterbacks. For instance, Smith was the most accurate quarterback in the NFL this season, leading the league in on-target throw rate, per Tru Media. Pro Football Focus credited him with 34 Big Time Throws, defined as “excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” Only Josh Allen had more. And Smith’s combination of pocket presence and arm talent wowed film watchers all season. He made a play like this seemingly every week:
geno isn't the step QB ... he's the QB who steps up pic.twitter.com/pPjnMFUM6V— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) October 14, 2022
But there are also major red flags. Smith’s efficiency metrics were impressive on first and second down, when defenses have to respect the run and are vulnerable to play-action. But he was in the bottom half of the league on third down, when defenses throw their curveballs and offspeed stuff. Unsurprisingly, Smith had issues against the blitz and there was a steep increase in turnover-worthy plays in the second half of the season, which coincided with the regression of Seattle’s offensive line. The common theme: Smith struggled when he had to speed up his process and adjust to shifting defenders after the snap.
Paradoxically, Smith was quite good when throwing with pass rushers in his grill. He was the NFL’s most accurate quarterback when under pressure and ranked fourth in success rate, per TruMedia. To extend the baseball metaphor from the last paragraph, Smith is basically a power hitter who crushes fastballs when he gets ahead in the count, but struggles when he falls behind. But with how long Geno has been around, it’s easy to forget how little on-field experience he actually had going into this season. As he tweeted last week, we could see a much more streamlined process out of him next season now that he has a year’s worth of game tape to grind through.
Funny thing is I’ll be WAY better with a full off-season to focus on improvements from actual game reps.— Geno (@GenoSmith3) January 9, 2023
But that can wait
With all these questions, just tagging Geno and calling it a day seems like the safest bet for Seattle. But it would also be the most costly one for 2023. As mentioned before, the tag value will be around $30 million, and while a multi-year deal would require a bigger financial commitment long term, the structure of the deal would likely keep the Year 1 cap hit pretty low. That’s usually how quarterback contracts are set up.
The Seahawks are projected to have more than $45 million dollars in cap space this offseason, so they have the budget to support a big cap hit, but it would limit what else the front office could do—and Seattle figures to have an active spring given all the resources the front office has compiled over the last calendar year.
With an impressive young core and some new additions, the Seahawks could be next year’s new “All In” team—but that would be harder to do if Smith is taking up a large chunk of the cap. Getting a multi-year deal done would give Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider more room to make aggressive moves, and this brain trust has never shied away from those.
The deal Tennessee gave Ryan Tannehill after he broke out in 2019 provides Seattle with a good blueprint for a possible contract structure. The Titans gave Tannehill, who was 31 at the time, a four-year, $118 million deal that was really a three-year deal worth about $29.5 million a season. His cap hit the first year took up 10 percent of the cap. Accounting for cap inflation, a similar deal would pay Smith about $33 million a year with a first-year cap hit of around $22 million.
In the years that followed, Tennessee had to restructure Tannehill’s deal twice, extending what was supposed to be a three-year commitment into one that’s now past four. But the Titans haven’t won a playoff game since Tannehill put pen to paper, and that’s the worry for Seattle: The option that carries the least long-term risk, the franchise tag, would hold them back in the short term; yet a short-sighted gamble could lock the team into mediocrity if Geno is just fine over the next few seasons.
If Carroll and Schneider have already decided that Geno is their guy going forward, the decision on how to pay Smith could come down to their evaluation of the other players on the roster (and their capacity to improve it over the next few months). If they feel this roster is a few pieces away from becoming a legit threat to San Francisco in the NFC West, they should attack these next few months aggressively, which would start with a multi-year deal for Smith that lowers his immediate cap hit. They have the picks and money to address all of the team’s weaknesses—mainly the offensive and defensive lines—while leaving enough money for some luxury moves, and enough draft capital to take a developmental QB prospect in what’s been viewed as a weak class at the top.
It would be a risky move, but betting on Geno worked out well for Seattle last summer—and we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it hadn’t.