By Danny O'Neil
The Seahawks' third contract extension of this offseason was their most surprising.
It also might be the most telling, because Seattle's decision to sign Doug Baldwin for the next three years shows that the Seahawks' plan for their future includes more than just their All-Pros.
It's the kind of deal that no one will disapprove of because Baldwin is the underdog everyone can root for. Undrafted and undersized, he led the team in receptions as a rookie and last year made extraordinary catches seem ordinary. That wasn't because he made those catches look easy, but because he so regularly pulled them off.
Baldwin is also precisely the kind of player who has been consistently undervalued in the NFL job market, which is the reason this extension was so intriguing.
Signing safety Earl Thomas and then cornerback Richard Sherman to new deals may have been more important for Seattle's offseason. But those deals were also largely expected. They are a pair of All-Pros, two guys you could argue are the very best at their respective positions and the question wasn't whether Seattle should keep them, but whether their asking prices would be so high that the Seahawks couldn't afford them.
Baldwin was different, and if that sounds like a slight, it really shouldn't. He has been an incredibly productive player for Seattle going back to 2011 when he became the first undrafted rookie since the AFL/NFL merger to lead his team in receptions.
Injured for much of 2012, he was simply incredible last season. Think back to the sideline catch against Carolina that was so pivotal, or his third-down grab on an all-out blitz against New Orleans in the playoffs. Plenty of players say they play with a chip on their shoulder, but Baldwin is someone who sharpened that chip into an edge and embodied so much of coach Pete Carroll's message about always competing and earning everything.
So why did his signing come as such a surprise?
Well, because 20 years of history under the salary cap has showed us Baldwin is exactly the type of player who gets shortchanged when it comes to his contract.
As productive as he was – catching 130 passes in three seasons – he was still shorter than 6 feet and more quick than fast. In this league, unbelievably fast receivers can get paid a mint like Mike Wallace did when he cashed in with Miami in 2012. Incredibly explosive guys like Percy Harvin can make that kind of money, too.
But players like Baldwin who are incredibly productive and undeniably tough can get overlooked as great fits in one team's system. It happened to Bobby Engram when Seahawks president Tim Ruskell didn't value him as much as coach Mike Holmgren.
It looked like it was happening again this offseason. Baldwin was a restricted free agent tendered with a second-round qualifying offer, which is a fancy way of saying that he was free to sign with any of the other 31 teams with two caveats: 1) Seattle would have a chance to match the terms of that signing and retain Baldwin; 2) If the Seahawks didn't match, they would receive a second-round pick as compensation from the team that signed Baldwin.
He didn't sign elsewhere, leaving him with no option to sign with anyone but Seattle.
At that point, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Baldwin would sign the one-year offer from Seattle worth $2.187 million and hit unrestricted free agency next year.
Until Thursday's announcement.
The Seahawks didn't break the bank. They didn't offer him the more than $60 million that went to Harvin. They didn't give him the four-year extensions that went first to Thomas then to Sherman. Heck, the Seahawks didn't offer him as much as they put on the table to Golden Tate before he went to Detroit.
But the $9 million Seattle is expected to pay him over the first two years of the contract is hardly insignificant, and it shows the Seahawks aren't reserving their extensions for only those top-shelf players who are deemed the best at their positions.
Seattle isn't going to use the salary cap as a vice to squeeze every penny it can out of productive players before discarding him.
Baldwin's value to Seattle is no longer intangible. We've seen it put into place with an extension that was the most surprising and perhaps the most important when it comes to the Seahawks' willingness to invest in all tiers of their roster.