SEATTLE — Three sacks and eight quarterback hits did not tell the story of how much Russell Wilson was under fire during a 17-9 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the 2017 season opener.
Wilson was pressured on 44% of his dropbacks. The Seattle Seahawks’ pass block win rate of 24% still stands as their third worst in any game since ESPN began tracking the stat that year.
Afterward, Wilson tipped his cap to Green Bay’s defense, praised some of his offensive teammates and looked ahead to the next game with his typical positivity.
“We’ll have to figure out what we need to do to get a little bit better; it’s really that simple,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were far, far off or anything like that.”
Wilson answered questions that day the same way he has throughout his nine-year NFL career — without uttering a critical word. That’s why it was so jarring when he went public last week with his frustration over all the hits he has taken and stated his desire for more say in the team’s personnel decisions.
“I think that’s a big thing that we’ve got to fix,” he said of Seattle’s pass protection. “That’s got to be fixed and has to be at the end of the day, because my goal is to play 10 to 15 more years.”
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Wilson’s comments came two days after Super Bowl LV. He wants to do what Tom Brady is doing — play and win well into his 40s — but realizes that might not be realistic if the status quo continues.
He’ll be 33 next season and plays in a division with star pass-rushers such as Chandler Jones, Nick Bosa and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, whose dominance of the Seahawks continued with two more sacks in the wild-card round to send Seattle to another early playoff exit.
Those thoughts might have crystalized as Wilson watched Brady get hit just twice and win his seventh ring with the help of several high-profile skill players, some of whom he helped recruit to Tampa Bay.
“The difference between that game was Tom was taking shots down the field and getting the ball to his guys and stuff like that,” Wilson told Dan Patrick, “but he wasn’t touched, really.”
Clearly, Wilson believes that taking such a drastic — for him — step of airing his grievances publicly will put pressure on the Seahawks to improve their offensive line to whatever extent is possible as they enter the offseason low on cap space and draft capital. His comments included what came off as a veiled ultimatum when he mentioned, for the first time, the possibility of finishing his career elsewhere.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll play in Seattle,” he told Patrick. “I think, hopefully, it can be forever. But things change, obviously, along the way.”
Adding to the intrigue of Wilson’s comments is that one blockbuster trade has already occurred this offseason (Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford), and Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson could possibly be moved as well.
Here’s a closer look at his situation and what could come of it:
How problematic has Wilson’s pass protection really been?
He has been sacked 394 times in 114 career regular-season games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the most in a player’s first nine seasons since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Randall Cunningham is second at 366.
Wilson, who has never missed a game, has finished in the top five in sacks taken in six straight seasons. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that streak is the second-longest since the merger.
His 47 sacks in 2020 were third most in the NFL. That doesn’t include the five times he was sacked in Seattle’s playoff loss to the Rams, who pressured him on 50% of his dropbacks. Including playoffs, Wilson has been sacked a little more than four times per game against the Rams, compared to 2.6 sacks per game against all other teams.
Doesn’t Wilson’s style of play lead to some sacks?
Yes. His scrambling is a double-edged sword, often leading to big plays but sometimes resulting in sacks he could have avoided by throwing the ball earlier and/or throwing it away.
The Seahawks were sacked the fifth-most times last season (48) while finishing ninth in ESPN’s pass block win rate (61.9%), which measures how frequently linemen sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer. Seattle is eighth in PBWR since 2017 (59.2%), indicative of how some of Wilson’s sacks are a function of his propensity to extend plays.
Wilson acknowledged as much last week. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll cited that as part of the problem in the wild-card loss, saying: “I just wish we would have got the ball out quicker. I wish Russ would have got the ball out quicker when he has his opportunities, and when that wasn’t happening, I wish we would have given him more chances to force the ball out quickly.”
What’s been the Seahawks’ approach with their offensive line?
They’ve spent lots of draft picks on the position group but not as much money.
Since Carroll and general manager John Schneider arrived in 2010, Seattle has drafted 17 offensive linemen, tied for sixth most in the NFL during that span. That doesn’t include three converted defensive tackles, one of whom was J.R. Sweezy. Eight of the 17 were taken in the first three rounds, tied for second most.
The problem is that not enough of those picks have panned out (Germain Ifedi, Rees Odhiambo), and most that did (Russell Okung, James Carpenter) weren’t re-signed. Justin Britt remains the only one of those 20 draft picks to sign an extension with Seattle. In that span, they’ve spent the eighth-fewest cap dollars ($237.4 million) on offensive linemen, per ESPN’s Roster Management System. Since 2016, when the first of Wilson’s two megadeals kicked in, the Seahawks rank last in O-line spending percentage at 13.8% (league average is 18.53%).
Mina Kimes reacts to Russell Wilson’s frustrations that he is getting hit too much.
Schneider often cites the paucity of quality offensive linemen being produced in college as part of the problem. The short supply of top-tier talent usually runs out well before the latter part of the first round, where the Seahawks typically pick as a perennial playoff team.
The offensive linemen Schneider has signed in free agency have mostly been bargain buys. One of them, Brandon Shell, had a nice debut season with Seattle. But Schneider would admit there have been too many Bradley Sowells and J’Marcus Webbs and not enough Shells.
“You know that we’re not break-the-bank, free agency people,” Schneider said last offseason. “We look for commonalities and fits, and what’s important for our quarterback. We love our quarterback … We want to have as many grown men in front of him as we possibly can.”
Duane Brown, acquired via trade, has one of only five Pro Bowl nods by a Seahawks offensive lineman since 2010. That ranks tied for 18th in the NFL in that span, per ESPN Stats & Information.
So what are their prospects for improving their line this offseason?
The Seahawks don’t have picks in the first or third round as a result of the Jamal Adams trade and aren’t projected to receive any compensatory selections. Like many teams, they’ll have to cut a high-price player (Carlos Dunlap?) or two and possibly restructure one of their bigger contracts (Bobby Wagner?) for some breathing room against a salary cap that will drop significantly from last season. An extension for Adams, depending on the structure, could cut into that total and would take a big chunk out of their cash budget either way.
They don’t have a ton of currently available resources. So to add them, they’d have to make significant subtractions and/or be more willing than they have been to push cap charges onto future years with multiple restructures or extensions.
It’s not like they need an overhaul up front. Brown will be 36 in August as he enters the last year of his deal, so they’ll need to find his successor at left tackle. But with Brown still playing at a high level, he and Shell give Seattle a strong tackle tandem while Damien Lewis, last year’s third-round pick, looks like a mainstay at right guard.
Left guard and center are two spots Seattle could stand to upgrade from last year’s starters, Ethan Pocic and Mike Iupati. As much as Wilson might want those upgrades to come via a previously franchised player such as Joe Thuney or an All-Pro like Corey Linsley, those types of signings would be out of Seattle’s norm, and potentially its budget as well.
How does new OC Shane Waldron fit into this?
One of several key questions with the hiring of Waldron pertains to Wilson’s role in the Seahawks’ new offense. Will it feature Wilson as it did at the start of last season — after he pleaded with the organization to let him “cook” — or will the Seahawks recommit to their run game like they did over the second half at Carroll’s behest?
This much is known: The Seahawks expect the new scheme to help with the pressure Wilson has faced by increasing emphasis on short and intermediate throws. That has been a staple of the Los Angeles Rams’ offense under Sean McVay — Waldron’s boss the past four seasons — but less so with Seattle’s. It was an issue late last season as defenses started taking away the Seahawks’ deep passing game.
Over the past four seasons, the Rams allowed the third-fewest sacks of any team (108) while Seattle allowed the second most (190).
Sources have told ESPN that Carroll involved Wilson in Waldron’s hiring. The new offensive coordinator becomes a key figure as he tries to balance his boss’ directives and the desires of his frustrated QB.
Is there any chance Wilson is traded?
The Seahawks have received calls from teams interested in Wilson, who has three years and $69 million remaining on his contract. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, they’ve made it clear to suitors that he won’t be dealt.
The cap ramifications alone would be a major disincentive. Seattle would incur $39 million in dead money by trading Wilson this year, and all of it would count against the 2021 cap if it happened before June 1.
The only way it could happen this year is if Seattle was blown away with an offer that either (A) included a young quarterback the Seahawks believe they could win with right away or (B) put them in position to draft one. The corresponding cheap contract for the young QB would make Wilson’s dead money more palatable. Wilson has a no-trade clause, so he’d have to approve the trade partner.
Trading Wilson would be more realistic next offseason if he’s still frustrated with his pass protection, doesn’t like his fit in the new offense or is unhappy for any other reason. The dead-money charges for a pre-June 1 trade would be $26 million next year and $13 million in 2023.
The Seahawks would have to be willing to part ways with the best quarterback in franchise history, incur the requisite cap penalties and start over with an unproven replacement. Their pre-draft interest in recent first-round quarterbacks Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes suggest they’ve flirted with the idea — long before Wilson went public with his frustrations — of trying to replicate their 2013 Super Bowl model of building their roster around a young, inexpensive quarterback.
It hasn’t gotten to the point of Wilson requesting a trade. But everyone just saw — and heard — the realest sign yet that one day it could.