Barnwell makes sense of the Russell Wilson trade: Seattle’s return, Denver’s aspirations and what comes next

16 min

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If you’re a Denver Broncos fan, you probably weren’t expecting to spend Tuesday riding a rollercoaster, but you’re also probably thrilled with where you ended up. The morning started with reports that Aaron Rodgers would be returning to the Green Bay Packers, ending the long-rumored dalliance between the reigning NFL MVP and a move to Denver. By the time lunch rolled around, though, the Broncos had consummated a stunning deal, agreeing to send three players and four picks to the Seattle Seahawks for 33-year-old quarterback Russell Wilson.

On the other hand, if you’re a Seahawks fan, you might be wondering what you’re missing. As recently as last Wednesday, coach Pete Carroll said that his franchise had “no intention” of trading Wilson. The bad blood between Wilson and the organization we saw last spring had seemed to settle, and while the Seahawks were coming off of their worst season in the Wilson era (7-10), they didn’t seem desperate to move their star quarterback for anything short of a breathtaking haul.

But what they got from the Broncos might have caused Seahawks fans to lose their breath for totally different reasons. There’s no single spectacular draft pick in here, no unprecedented haul of draft capital and no young superstar heading back to Seattle. The most valuable piece the Seahawks are getting back from Denver is the No. 9 overall pick in a 2022 draft which might not have a franchise quarterback.

In breaking down all the angles of the trade, I keep coming back to one question. Let’s start there and explore what this deal means for both franchises and what comes next.

What are the Seahawks thinking?

The immediate responses on social media and television after a team trades away a franchise player for a package built around draft picks are never pretty. It’s always easier to see the value of the bird in the hand than the two in the bush. Those trades don’t always work out well for the acquiring team; the Los Angeles Rams feel great about dealing four first-round picks for Matthew Stafford and Jalen Ramsey, but the Chicago Bears haven’t won a playoff game with Khalil Mack, the Houston Texans melted down around Laremy Tunsil, and these very same Seahawks are apparently going in a different path after trading two first-rounders for Jamal Adams.

All of the teams that traded away those star players were essentially admitting that they were starting over. The Detroit Lions underwent a regime change and were rebuilding. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 2-4 and starting Gardner Minshew at quarterback. The then-Oakland Raiders had just hired Jon Gruden as coach and were purging their roster. The Miami Dolphins were actively tanking. And the New York Jets had just hired a new general manager, had Adam Gase as their head coach and were dealing with a player who had asked to be traded. None of these teams were close to competing.

So trading Wilson indirectly tells us that the Seahawks felt the same way about where they stood in the NFC West, especially without a starting-caliber quarterback or a path to a top-five pick coming their way in return. NFL teams don’t make this sort of deal unless they’re either forced to by a player’s behavior or think they can’t win a Super Bowl without radical changes. It doesn’t appear that the former was happening with Wilson, so unless it comes out that Wilson was raiding Carroll’s gum stash, I think this deal suggests that the Seahawks believed they couldn’t win another Super Bowl with Wilson as the focal point of their roster.

I think you can probably understand why the Seahawks would be right to feel that way. In a division where three teams won 10 or more games and made it to the postseason a year ago, Seattle went 7-10. Part of that owed to Wilson’s thumb injury, which caused the star passer to miss games for the first time in his professional career, but the Seahawks were also 6-8 with Wilson as their QB. The Rams just won a Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals have a 24-year-old with superstar upside as their quarterback. The San Francisoc 49ers have one of the best rosters in football and just went all-in for Trey Lance. But the Seahawks were three games back and didn’t have a first-round pick in 2022 as a result of the Adams trade. It didn’t feel like they were getting better as an organization.

Take a step back further: For all the regular-season success the Seahawks have had, the roster hasn’t made a deep playoff run with Wilson at quarterback since that crushing loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2014 season. That game took place seven years ago, which might as well be an eternity in NFL times; Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner were the only players left on the Seattle roster from that game.

Since then, the Seahawks have failed to make it out of the divisional round, where they’ve been overmatched in virtually every appearance. In 2015, they went down 31-0 to the Carolina Panthers by halftime. In 2016, they trailed the Atlanta Falcons by 16 points in the third quarter. In 2019, they went down 21-3 against the Packers before launching a late comeback. Their playoff wins came over Teddy Bridgewater (in a game where Blair Walsh missed a chip-shot field goal to win), Matthew Stafford and Josh McCown. Add in wild-card losses in 2018 and 2020, and the Seahawks haven’t looked like a conference championship team over the past six years, let alone a Super Bowl contender.

Is it fair to view the Seahawks that way? I don’t think so. The Seahawks’ underlying performance in 2021 was much better than their actual record, as Seattle finished eighth in DVOA and had a positive point differential. After two years of winning an unsustainable number of their close games, the Seahawks were 2-5 in games decided by seven points. Those factors suggest that they were extremely likely to improve in 2022 if they were able to keep Wilson on the field.

As many Seahawks fans will also tell you, it’s not necessarily fair to pin those playoff disappointments on Wilson. Carroll’s reticence to commit to the pass and make Wilson the focal point of the offense has been maddening in key moments (with what happened at the end of that Super Bowl as the most obvious exception). In the Packers game, for example, the Seahawks handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch 12 times for 26 yards. The Seahawks went down 21-3 at halftime before putting the ball in Wilson’s hands. Seattle scored 20 points in the second half, as Wilson went 15-of-18 for 172 yards with a touchdown, but it was too little, too late.

What’s critical in evaluating this trade, though, is that gap between how most people perceive the Seahawks and how the Seahawks have seemingly perceived themselves. For years, everyone has looked at them and wanted them to throw more. Outside of a half-season in 2020, the Seahawks haven’t been willing to make that commitment. Carroll has repeatedly harped on the importance of running the ball and playing great defense. Seattle has invested significant draft capital in running backs, focused on offensive linemen who are solid run-blockers and sent two first-round picks to the Jets for a safety whose best role is as a blitzer and run defender. The Seahawks were 21st in defensive DVOA a year ago.

As much as the Seahawks are moving on from Wilson as an individual, this is an ideological shift for them back to what Carroll believes is the correct formula for winning football games. They won a Super Bowl with a dominant defense, a physical running game and a quarterback they drafted in the third round who was making peanuts and threw the ball 25 times per game. They evolved into a team with one of the most expensive quarterbacks in football and that couldn’t rush the passer. I don’t think Carroll, in his heart, believed that change was for the better.

On top of all that, this move is likely a product of the decision to trade those two first-round picks for Adams, a deal I preferred for the Jets at the time. That move only confirmed the issues we saw with Carroll and Seattle’s evaluation process, including an antiquated focus on players who impact the run and an over-investment in players who don’t play premium positions in the modern NFL. I’m not sure the Seahawks make this deal today if they still have those first-round picks and just go out and sign somebody else to play safety.

If the Seahawks were ever going to make the Wilson trade, you could argue now was the time. The Broncos, having spent the past two years desperately agitating for a superstar quarterback, had just been let down by Rodgers staying in Green Bay. Wilson has two years left on his deal, which realistically means that he was only one year away from a de-facto deadline for negotiating a new deal. Wilson’s first two negotiations were contentious, and the 33-year-old was about to take another huge financial leap on his next negotiation.

So if Seattle decided that it couldn’t win a Super Bowl with this sort of roster construction or got sick of its personal relationship with Wilson, it wasn’t going to make sense to do a new deal. Trading him now, after a season where an all-in team won a Super Bowl and before the deadline started ticking on his deal to come, is probably better than what would have happened if the Seahawks traded Wilson next offseason.

I can try to get in the Seahawks’ head and understand where they were coming from in making this deal, but that’s not the same thing as agreeing with what they’re thinking, which leads to the next question …

Is this enough of a return?

No, I don’t think so. The Seahawks are certainly getting plenty of volume back for one of the best players in franchise history, but it’s more quantity than quality. In return for sending Wilson and a fourth-round pick, the Seahawks will receive two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick and three players from the Broncos.

Let’s start with the players. The most notable of the three is probably quarterback Drew Lock, a 2019 second-round pick who hasn’t looked like an NFL-caliber quarterback. Across 710 pass attempts, Lock has been below-average in virtually every statistical category. Playing with what is regarded as an exciting group of young receivers, Lock has failed to complete 60% of his passes or average seven yards per attempt. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Lock can’t be treated as much more than an emergency option under center.

The other players might be more impactful. At tight end, the Seahawks will add former first-round pick Noah Fant, who has flashed athleticism and receiving upside without putting together a single standout season as a pro. With Gerald Everett and Will Dissly both free agents, Fant will inherit the starting job after ranking ninth in yards per route run and 14th in yards per target among tight ends last season. The Seahawks will likely pick up Fant’s fifth-year option, which will keep the Iowa product under contract through 2023.

The other move is for Shelby Harris, who will likely join the defensive tackle rotation in Seattle. Harris’ market didn’t develop after what felt like a breakout season in 2019, which led the Raiders draftee to return to the Broncos on a one-year deal. After contributing further in 2020, the Broncos signed Harris to a three-year, $27 million extension last March. Harris has two years and about $17 million remaining on that deal, only $5 million of which is guaranteed. But I’m not sure he solves Seattle’s need for pass-rushing help or plays a position the Seahawks couldn’t have addressed in free agency.

The four draft picks help replenish what was lost by the Adams trade. Leaving the midround selections aside, the Seahawks will reportedly pick up the No. 9 and 40 selections in this year’s draft. They’ll also have first- and second-round picks coming due after this season, although it’s unclear whether those will be in 2023 or beyond.

It’s easy to assume that those future picks will be at the end of the first round, given that the Broncos are acquiring a quarterback who has gone 104-53-1 as a starter. Yet we also know that assumption is flawed. The Texans had been regular contenders when they sent two first-round picks to the Dolphins for Tunsil, but despite having Deshaun Watson at quarterback, they went 4-12 and sent the No. 3 overall pick to Miami. The Seahawks had been a winner every year with Wilson, but with their starter missing time, Seattle will send the No. 10 overall pick this year to the Jets.

If they do come in the bottom quarter of each round, though, it’s difficult to see this shaping up as a great return for the Seahawks. They came away with more for Wilson than the Rams did for Stafford, but the Lions were in a less competitive situation and were trading away a quarterback who hadn’t been as productive as Wilson over the past several seasons. The ninth overall pick could help the Seahawks land the sort of impact pass-rusher or left tackle they need (Duane Brown is hitting free agency), but it also sacrifices the most important player on Seattle’s roster to get there. The Seahawks will also realize a significant cap savings, but that doesn’t come until 2023, as they’ll eat $26 million in dead money on their 2022 cap as part of this trade.



Marcus Spears cannot contain his joy when discussing Russell Wilson and the possibilities ahead in Denver.

Of course, Seahawks fans might wonder whether they should be optimistic about their team’s chances of turning draft picks into superstars. GM John Schneider had a sterling track record early in his run at general manager, landing future Hall of Famers like Wilson, Wagner and Richard Sherman in the middle rounds, but his recent track record has been far more mixed. The Seahawks have generally been aggressive about trading up and down the board, and while that landed them DK Metcalf at the end of the second round in 2019, the halo came off of Schneider’s drafting years ago. What he does with these picks will end up determining the general manager’s future in Seattle.

I’m surprised that the Seahawks were not able to get a more significant draft haul as part of a Wilson deal, but maybe that wasn’t in the cards for a player in his mid-thirties who is about to get a massive extension. Wilson had a no-trade clause, which might have limited his destinations, and reports have also suggested that the Seahawks wanted to deal Wilson out of the NFC. Carroll won’t have to compete with Wilson for a playoff berth, but he won’t have to wait long for a reunion; the Broncos travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks this upcoming season.

The Seahawks could end up trading out of that ninth pick to add extra picks. They might also use it to add a quarterback. I can’t imagine Seattle coming out of this offseason with Lock and Jacob Eason as their only two options at quarterback. And to that end, the last question for them in this deal revolves around replacing Wilson.

What does Seattle do next at quarterback?

In part, this will be informed by what the Seahawks think about their roster without Wilson. If the rebuild is on, they’ll likely cut or trade Wagner, look into a Tyler Lockett deal (probably after June 1 for cap reasons) and build a new core around Adams and Metcalf. If Carroll and Co. think they can transition quickly and win as early as 2022, they’ll keep those veterans around and go for a more experienced option at quarterback.

The trade options in the veteran group aren’t overwhelming, especially now that Rodgers and Wilson are off the board. The 49ers probably wouldn’t trade Jimmy Garoppolo within the division to their rivals. Watson’s future is uncertain. Players like Jared Goff and Sam Darnold would be expensive guesses.

The best choice available would likely be Carson Wentz, who appears to set to leave Indianapolis by trade or release before the new league year begins. Wentz would count for $28 million or so on Seattle’s cap this year, which would eliminate the cheaper option from the equation, but the Seahawks also wouldn’t need to give Wentz any sort of massive extension before proving himself as a starter. The former Eagles standout has his limitations and would get exposed behind a porous offensive line, but he also finished 13th in QBR last season. Getting Wentz for a midround pick would make sense for the Seahawks if that’s a viable option.

Otherwise, the Seahawks might be waiting for the quarterback market to shake out. They probably won’t get Garoppolo, but if the veteran ends up with the New York Giants, Seattle could be the one to end up with Daniel Jones. The same could be true with Cleveland if the Browns want to move on from Baker Mayfield. Borderline starters like Teddy Bridgewater and Mitchell Trubisky are also available in free agency.

Regardless, it’s pretty clear that the Seahawks won’t be able to approximate Wilson’s performance with a veteran replacement. I also wouldn’t have much faith in them succeeding, given that this same braintrust traded for Charlie Whitehurst and signed Matt Flynn to be their starting quarterback before eventually landing on Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. Landing a successful quarterback on the cheap is a nifty trick, but I’m not sure it’s one the Seahawks will be able to repeat.

With that in mind, then, the ninth overall pick looms as a possible landing spot. The Seahawks will be ahead of teams like the Washington Commanders (No. 11), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 15), New Orleans Saints (No. 18) and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 20) in the line for potential rookie quarterbacks, although the Seahawks will be behind the Lions, Texans, Giants and Carolina Panthers, each of whom could draft a passer. Teams could also move ahead of Seattle by trading up with the Jets at No. 4 or the Atlanta Falcons at No. 8.

The other option would be to roll with a short-term option like Bridgewater in 2022 and re-evaluate things in 2023, when the Seahawks will likely have two first- and second-round picks in what is expected to be a deeper, more exciting class of quarterbacks. Given Carroll’s near-pathological emphasis on competing, I can’t imagine the Seahawks willingly tanking or giving up on a season, but I can see a universe where they try to win like it’s 1979 and end up with a win total that would have been more in line with a 14-game season as a result.

In the long run, that’s what will end up defining this deal for the Seahawks. If Seattle can make this trade and make a successful transition to the post-Wilson era in the process, this will have been the right move for the organization, especially given Wilson’s unhappiness over the past couple of seasons. But if they can’t find a replacement for Wilson and spend years wandering in the wilderness as a result, ownership will look back and wonder if they should have chosen Wilson over Carroll.

Are the Broncos a Super Bowl contender?

From Denver’s side of things, the immediate comparison has to be the last NFL game we watched. The Rams traded for Stafford and promptly won a Super Bowl. The Broncos aren’t quite as all-in as the Rams were, given how many first-round picks Los Angeles had traded even before the Stafford deal, but you don’t make this sort of move unless you think it turns you into a Super Bowl contender.

So I think the answer is yes, but the case isn’t quite as clear as it was for the Rams before 2021. The 2020 Rams were 10-6 and coming off of a season where they were the league’s ninth-best team by DVOA. The strength of that team had been the defense, which led the league in points allowed per game and finished fourth in defensive DVOA. Adding Stafford was designed to take the offense to a new level, and while there were hiccups along the way, it worked out just fine for Sean McVay and Co.

The Broncos were much further away from a Super Bowl than the Rams were a year ago. Denver was in playoff contention at 7-6, but an injury to Bridgewater stifled the offense, and Vic Fangio’s team lost their final four games of the season. Like the Seahawks, the Broncos finished in last place in a division where the other three teams made the playoffs. Unlike Seattle, though, Denver finished 18th in DVOA. While the Broncos narrowly outscored their opponents, they basically played like an average team in 2021.

Of course, it’s also true that the Broncos are making a bigger upgrade. Since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season, Denver quarterbacks have posted a collective QBR of 42.8. Only the Bears, Jaguars and Jets have been worse over that timeframe. Wilson and the Seahawks have generated a 62.5 QBR over that run, which is the sixth-best mark in football. Bridgewater was competent under center in 2021, but the Broncos are basically going from a question mark to a sure thing.

I’ll be intrigued to see just how much they’re willing to commit to the pass. New head coach Nathaniel Hackett last called plays in Jacksonville during the 2018 season, and while the Jags weren’t a pass-happy team on early downs in that era, I’m willing to believe that Hackett will throw the ball more often with Wilson than he did with Blake Bortles. Hackett’s coming from a Packers team which threw the ball at the seventh-highest rate in football on early downs in neutral situations over the past three seasons, so if that sticks, Wilson should get plenty of opportunities to throw.

The Broncos are also implicitly committing to extending Wilson as part of making this deal. While Wilson did miss time with the finger injury and generates significant value with his scrambling ability, I don’t see any reason why the Broncos should have hesitated with regards to Wilson’s age as part of this deal. The former baseball player has otherwise been remarkably healthy as a pro, doesn’t take unnecessary hits and might have better touch on his deep passes than anybody else in football. There’s nothing in Wilson’s recent history that should give Broncos GM George Paton meaningful pause in getting a deal done.

To get back to the question, though, the only really concerning part of all this for the Broncos is that getting Wilson might not even give them the second-best quarterback in their own division. The AFC is absolutely stacked right now in terms of superstar quarterbacks, and Wilson is in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert (and even Derek Carr is very good). Josh Allen’s lurking in the AFC East. The North has Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson. Watson, if he returns to the Texans, might only be the seventh-best quarterback in this conference.

Compare that to the NFC, where Rodgers is king. Dak Prescott and Stafford are somewhere behind him, and Kyler Murray has been great at times. But is the fifth-best quarterback in the NFC Kirk Cousins? Matt Ryan? Garoppolo? There’s a much clearer path to the top in the NFC, so while the Broncos probably had no hope of competing without making a move for someone like Wilson, I’m not sure it gets them more than a seat at the table.

What happens next for the Broncos will help establish their chances in 2022. Von Miller has been tweeting about wanting to return to the Broncos, and a reunion would give Denver a second edge rusher alongside Bradley Chubb. The Broncos probably need to add a new right tackle after getting by with Bobby Massie last season. Albert Okwuegbunam will step in as the primary starter at tight end, but with Fant leaving, the Broncos will likely need a second one to mix in. If the Kansas City Chiefs lose safety Tyrann Mathieu and the Los Angeles Chargers don’t land a key free agent to upgrade their defense, the Broncos will only look better for making this move.

In the big picture, though, the Broncos have traded their way into NFL relevance. You can win a Super Bowl without a superstar quarterback, but so many things have to go right for that to happen. You need to somehow have home-field advantage and have your backup get hot, like the Eagles in 2017. You need a dominant defense to carry an average passer over the line, as the Baltimore Ravens did in 2000, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did in 2001 and the New York Giants did in 2007. We’ve seen Eli Manning and Joe Flacco get white hot for a postseason. Garoppolo came within one throw of winning a Super Bowl. A broken-down Peyton Manning was carried to his second Super Bowl by Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson. It can happen.

If you want to pursue the most likely path toward winning a Super Bowl, though, you get a great quarterback. The guy the Broncos ended up agreeing to acquire might not be the one we expected when the day started, but I don’t have any reason to believe that Wilson will disappoint in Denver. It might only be a spot at the Super Bowl contention table, but the Broncos can feel like they belong there for the first time in years. And after the Seahawks spent a decade entering every season feeling like they also belonged in that conversation, the Broncos just took their chair.

Source: ESPN

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