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March 13, 2013 at 10:43 AM

The quarterback jackpot, Russell Wilson and the license to spend

Having a rookie quarterback like Russell Wilson is a license to spend on playmakers like Percy Harvin (above) in today's NFL.

Having a rookie quarterback like Russell Wilson is a license to spend on playmakers like Percy Harvin (above) in today’s NFL.

The Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks all started a rookie quarterback in 2012.

Each concluded that season with reason to believe it had found its franchise player at that position.

Those three teams were among the most aggressive when the NFL’s new year began on Tuesday.

Those three facts are all tied together, representing a new reality in today’s NFL. Draft picks are cost-controlled for four years in a way that they weren’t prior to 2011, and if a team happens to draft a quarterback who steps in as a rookie, well, it has a couple of years worth of found money to spend any way it chooses.

So if you’re looking how Seattle could afford to pay Percy Harvin the largest contract in franchise history, you have to consider how much Seattle will be paying Russell Wilson for at least the next two years. And by “how much” I really mean “how little.” He was a third-round draft pick and the team is forbidden by NFL rules from renegotiating that deal until he has completed three of the four years on his contract. He will make $526,217 in base salary in 2013 and $662,434 in 2014. That’s peanuts at a position where the top-end players average $20 million a year.

It’s not just a third-round pick like Wilson who’s a bargain. It’s also the first-rounders like Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Ryan Tannehill in Miami. Used to be that when a team drafted a quarterback at the top of the draft, it paid through the nose. Sam Bradford earned $50 million guaranteed when he was the top pick in 2010. A year later — after the lockout and a new collective-bargaining agreement — Cam Newton was paid half that by the Carolina Panthers.

In 2012, it was the Colts who picked Luck No. 1 overall. The fact that the city of Indianapolis didn’t spend the entire season whining about the Colts’ decision to release Peyton Manning spoke to not only how good the rookie was in 2012 in leading the team to the playoffs, but how good he will be for the next decade.

Luck’s salary-cap hit for 2013? About $5 million, and while that’s not nearly so inexpensive as Wilson, it’s still an absolute steal.

So when you look at the first day of free-agency agreements and see the Colts spending big bucks on players like guard Gosder Cherilus, linebacker Erik Walden and cornerback Greg Toler, well, you understand that some of that is fueled by the fact the Colts essentially got a blue-light special at the most expensive position in football.

Tannehill wasn’t nearly so effective as Wilson and Luck last season. But as the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Tannehill was good enough for the Dolphins to believe that re-signing backup Matt Moore solidified that position to the point Miami could splurge elsewhere. They brought receiver Mike Wallace aboard, and then pulled the surprise move of Day One by landing linebacker Dannell Ellerbee from Baltimore.

That brings us to Seattle and Wilson, who as a third-round pick is undeniably the best bargain of the bunch. He won’t count more than $1 million against the salary cap in any of his first three years and given the way he played in the final month of the regular season and into the playoffs, there isn’t a more cost-effective player in the league right now.

That leaves Seattle with a unique window over these next two years when it will be filling the most expensive position in football at nearly minimum cost.

Did Seattle go out and add Harvin because of that fact? General manager John Schneider would tell you no, that Harvin is a unique talent and the Seahawks didn’t add him because they had money to spend, but rather this was a player worth the money (and picks) the acquisition cost Seattle.

The reality is that Wilson’s contract situation — at the very least — helped make it possible for the Seahawks to consider the move, and if you look at the addition in Harvin combined with the aggressive free-agent spending of two other teams who also had rookie quarterbacks, you can see the possibilities that a team has if it’s lucky enough to land a rookie who becomes the team’s starting quarterback.

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