NFLTR Review: Could Russell Wilson Actually Be Traded This Offseason?

     

Thanks for checking out another week of NFLTR Review! In this issue:

  • Russell Wilson *probably* won’t be traded this year, but there’s one team to look out for if Seattle makes a move
  • Think this offseason has been wild for quarterback movement? The 2022 QB carousel could make it look tame
  • Free agency landscape starting to take shape with cap cuts and franchise tags

Analyzing The Chances Of A 2021 Russell Wilson Trade

Think things were starting to slow down on the quarterback merry-go-round this offseason? Figured you could kick back for a few weeks now that Carson Wentz — the last real big-name quarterback who was truly available this offseason — had been traded? 

(I did)

Well that notion was disabused on Thursday as the simmering situation with Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson boiled over with an explosive article from the Athletic. The significant problems in Seattle between Wilson and HC Pete Carroll were spelled out for the world to see. There’s a lot to process, but at a fundamental level it can be reduced to a conflict between the two most powerful men in the organization, each with years and years of success feeding an intractable confidence in themselves, locking horns over the philosophical direction of the franchise. 

It’s no wonder trade speculation has exploded. Unless Wilson and Carroll can work it out, the situation appears untenable. But there are other complications. Beyond the loss of trading away a franchise quarterback at the height of his career, the Seahawks would be taking on a $39 million dead money hit. That would shatter the record the Eagles just set for a single dead cap charge and increase Wilson’s charge on the books in 2021 by $7 million. 

For that reason alone, a trade seems impossible. It’s the type of thing “serious” NFL experts in the past would have derided as a Madden move — an unrealistic transaction only possible for a kid playing a video game. 

The thing is, real football is starting to mirror video games and fantasy football more and more. Take the Rams’ decision to trade Jared Goff. Plenty of pundits expressed skepticism, and while I won’t claim the title of pundit, I’ll count myself as someone who questioned the practicality of the Rams moving on from their huge investment. Instead of looking at all the reasons it didn’t make sense, however, GM Les Snead took his end goal of dumping Goff for an upgrade at quarterback and worked backward to figure out a way to make it happen. 

Seattle is no stranger to swimming upstream as an organization. Their trade of two first-round picks for S Jamal Adams last summer, plus nearly all of the picks they’ve actually made in the draft the past 10 years, are proof of that. So let’s say the powers that be decide going into the 2021 season with Wilson and Carroll diametrically opposed isn’t a recipe for a Super Bowl contender, and they elect to keep Carroll over Wilson. What happens if we work backward from that conclusion? 

The two key components in any trade are the finances and the return. Playing around with the calculator at Over The Cap shows Seattle can get to $20 million in space despite the $7 million hit from trading Wilson with extensions for DE Carlos Dunlap and WR Tyler Lockett, plus restructuring LB Bobby Wagner. That’s not shabby. But when you factor in the cost of bringing on Wilson’s replacement, that hard-earned space can disappear in a flash. 

There is another way. If the Seahawks trade Wilson after June 1, the rest of his signing bonus money won’t accelerate, leaving just $13 million in dead money and relieving Seattle of his $19 million base salary. The catch is it complicates the logistics of working out a trade. Most teams are largely set in their plans by June. The draft is in the books and much of the cap space has been spent. Wilson is the type of player who teams will change plans for but it definitely makes it harder, though not impossible, for Seattle to navigate. 

As to what a potential return will look like, the word from the 10+ teams who’ve checked with Seattle is three first-round picks starts the conversation for Wilson. In addition to that massive return, though, the Seahawks will be looking for a replacement quarterback they believe can win games and keep their Super Bowl window open. Carroll is the oldest coach in the NFL. He just signed a five-year extension that could take him until the end of his career and hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 2014. He won’t entertain the idea of a rebuild. 

Wilson’s shortlist of the Cowboys, Raiders, Saints and Bears does limit the pool quite a bit. There’s Dak Prescott, but the reports from today indicated the Cowboys would rather sign Prescott to a long-term deal than explore a trade for Wilson. The best quarterback either the Bears or Saints could put on the table would be Nick Foles or Taysom Hill, so that’s probably a non-starter. 

That leaves the Raiders, and Derek Carr is a compelling enough quarterback for the Seahawks to be intrigued if they’re determined to trade Wilson, which again is the result we’re working backward from. Carr has been steadily productive throughout his career and has weathered a lot of scrutiny with the Raiders to cement his status this offseason. Wilson is still the superior option, which is why it’s easy to see Las Vegas and HC Jon Gruden pursuing this move, but Carr could fit with how Carroll wants to run things better than Wilson does at this point. 

One qualm is how Carr would mesh with Seattle’s play-action and deep shot-oriented attack — he has been 23rd, 25th, 35th and 38th in the NFL in play-action percentage the past four seasons. Play-action makes most quarterbacks better, but the lack of usage could indicate a lack of effectiveness, as his PA passer rating in that same span has ranked 32nd, 13th, 22nd and 33rd. Still, Carr takes care of the football which is something Carroll values and he fits the game manager profile he’s looking for. 

In terms of base salary for 2021, Carr and Wilson are essentially a wash. It still would be difficult for Seattle to take Carr on in a trade before June 1, as his $19 million base added to the $39 million dead cap for Wilson would be a staggering $58 million, close to a third of the projected 2021 cap. After June 1, though, there would essentially be no difference to Seattle’s cap this year. 

As far as the actual return, for the sake of simplicity with our scenario let’s say the Seahawks decide to trade Wilson after June 1. In theory, the Seahawks and Raiders could agree to a trade in principle before then and work something out to include draft picks this year, perhaps in different deals. But that would be unprecedented and I’m not going to even try to unpack that. So assuming the trade comes together after the draft, a potential deal could look something like this:

There might need to be additional tweaking, but the overall framework could look something like this. Rather than a third first, the Raiders give up Crosby who’s flashed as a productive pass rusher and fills a need for Seattle. The Seahawks might also be interested in someone like RB Josh Jacobs or CB Damon Arnette, both of whom are relatively tradable and on rookie contracts. You could also argue this isn’t enough for a potential Hall of Fame quarterback and flip that 2023 two into a first and I wouldn’t debate it, even if that does make this an immense haul for a single player. 

Despite all of this, though, my read on the situation is that a Wilson trade, if it happens, is far more likely to go down next offseason when the two sides have given things one last try in 2021. Wilson is certainly Carroll’s best chance to win another Super Bowl and Wilson could find that the grass is not greener outside of Seattle. The uniforms definitely won’t be. 

However, things move quickly in the NFL. The landscape is shifting fast and we’ve already had several long-held principles of team building challenged with quarterback trades this offseason. If the situation between Wilson and the Seahawks escalates any further, this scenario might not seem so far-fetched. 

This Week In Football

  • Cap cuts continued to trickle in as the whole league readies its books for an unusual offseason. This week we saw:
  • All of those players can sign immediately with other teams. The rest of the free agency market is taking shape in the meantime. Franchise tags will whittle things down like they always do as teams take some of the top players of the market. The list of players who appear likely be tagged includes:
  • While the tags look like they’re poised to take the edge off what had been looking like an elite receiver group in free agency, there’s still some good news for teams hoping to find an upgrade, as Houston won’t stop WR Will Fuller from testing the market. The Packers also don’t appear to be discussing a return with All-Pro C Corey Linsley, which some other team will reap the benefits of. 
  • Packers RB Aaron Jones’ status is still up in the air, as Green Bay could conceivably tag him given the projection this year is lower than the average annual salary on their offer to Jones last season. But if Jones makes it to free agency, it appears he and the Dolphins have mutual interest in helping him move to Miami. 
  • There wasn’t really any movement between the Texans and QB Deshaun Watson. Both sides are dug in on their stances on a trade. But we learned that a week ago, Watson finally spoke with new HC David Culley, if only to tell him he had no intention of ever playing for him. 
  • After raising a lot of eyebrows last week, the Steelers publicly committed to QB Ben Roethlisberger as their starter in 2021. The two sides still need to work out his contract to lower his cap hit for the season, as while Roethlisberger met with owner Art Rooney, it was apparently more to find reassurance about his status after last week. Something still kind of smells, as this kind of contract move should be very simple once the team decides to pull the trigger. But the alert level isn’t as high as it was last week. 
  • After the Eagles traded away Wentz, the next big domino on the quarterback market that everyone turned their attention to was Jets QB Sam Darnold. But that one will apparently be a while before it falls, as the Jets are thoroughly evaluating this incoming quarterback class against Darnold given they have the No. 2 pick. Pro days alone will take that through March, with interviews potentially longer. Looks like the time to check back in regarding Darnold is in April. 
  • Raiders QB Marcus Mariota has been the other name on the trade block, but his status went from supposedly having offers on the table to cooling significantly in reports from the same reporter in the span of 48 hours. Teams apparently realized Mariota triggered incentives in his one appearance in 2020 that would boost his contract to $20 million if he becomes a team’s starter in 2021. Giving Las Vegas a draft pick for that contract is a little rich, so it now seems like any interested teams might just wait for the Raiders to release Mariota. 
  • For what might be the billionth time in the past two years, 49ers GM John Lynch reiterated the team’s commitment to QB Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback in 2021. He acknowledged Garoppolo’s health has been a major obstacle for most of his tenure in San Francisco, though, and that could lead the 49ers to make a significant investment in their backup quarterback this upcoming season. 
  • With the report that Washington is unlikely to be interested in Patriots QB Cam Newton, that takes the most obvious landing spot for the former MVP off the board. Most of Carolina’s former coaching staff under HC Ron Rivera was transplanted to Washington, so the familiarity there for Newton was obvious, especially given their need at the position. If New England doesn’t bring Newton back, there all of a sudden are major, if inexplicable, questions about where he’ll be able to find a job.

Big Picture: 2022 Quarterback Carousel

Last year, we saw a number of high-profile quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Cam Newton change teams. This offseason, it kicked up another notch. We’ve already seen blockbuster trades involving Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, with potentially more in the pipeline for guys like Sam Darnold, Marcus Mariota and the great white whale of the offseason, Deshaun Watson

But if you look closely, it’s clear the quarterback carousel is setting up to be even more frenetic in 2022. Nearly a dozen big names could be on the move, including:

  1. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson
  2. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
  3. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott
  4. Falcons QB Matt Ryan
  5. Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
  6. Browns QB Baker Mayfield
  7. Giants QB Daniel Jones
  8. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
  9. Raiders QB Derek Carr
  10. 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Let’s dive into some more detail. We’ve already hit on the Seahawks’ situation with Wilson, and that relationship could break up well before 2022. But next year still makes the most sense as far as timing given Wilson’s contract becomes far less of a drag to trade in terms of dead money hit. 

The Packers have an out in Rodgers’ contract and will be entering first-round QB Jordan Love’s third season, after which they have to make a decision on whether to pick up his fully-guaranteed fifth-year option. Ideally, you’d have to think the Packers would like to see Love play before making that decision but that’s not necessarily a given if Rodgers continues to perform at an MVP level. As long as he keeps that up, the Packers will be happy to ride the wave. 

If Rodger’s play slips, however, then a trade potentially enters the discussion, especially if Love is starting to put things together behind the scenes. Indications are that as a rookie, he was not, which isn’t surprising. He was drafted as a talented but raw prospect. The 2021 preseason is sneaky huge for those on the outside to get a look at Love and his progression. He was drafted to be the future and unless he flops Green Bay is going to pull the trigger on swapping out Love for Rodgers at some point. That point could very well be next offseason. 

If the Cowboys can’t agree to a long-term deal with Prescott, he’s staring at either a $54 million franchise tag or the open market. Dallas would absolutely destroy its cap by tagging Prescott at that number, and Prescott would be nuts to take a deal without seeing what’s on the market given he’ll be the only franchise quarterback to ever see true free agency in their prime. The Cowboys have about four and a half months to negotiate and make sure that doesn’t happen. 

Ryan is not on the trading block for the Falcons this year. Swallowing the hit his contract would have in a trade is pretty much impossible for Atlanta and they’ve already indicated he’s a part of their plans for 2021. 2022 is a different story, as Ryan will be turning 37 and has a much more tradable contract than he does this offseason. 

There’s also the possibility the Falcons draft someone, perhaps as high as No. 4 overall, who’s itching and ready to go behind him. That would absolutely signal 2021 is his final season in Atlanta but regardless the Falcons are approaching the end of a chapter in franchise history with both Ryan and WR Julio Jones. There’s not a lot of sand left in the hourglass for either. 

Speaking of running out of time, the pressure is on for the Vikings this coming season. Since joining the team in 2014, HC Mike Zimmer has yet to string together consecutive winning seasons or playoff appearances. Last year was one of those retooling years but if Minnesota’s struggles continue into 2021, ownership could lose patience and put everyone on the chopping block, including Cousins, as they push the restart button and try to build a consistent contender from the ground up. It doesn’t help that Cousins is set to count $45 million against the cap in 2022, only $10 million of which is dead money. No matter what happens, he’s not staying at that cap hit. 

Flipping over to Pittsburgh, it appears the two sides have settled on giving Roethlisberger one last ride in 2021 (though the cynic in me noted that the owner’s statement made sure to mention the big contract meeting still has to happen). But what if Roethlisberger decides he doesn’t want to retire after 2021? It’s not hard to get the sense Pittsburgh wouldn’t have been disappointed had he called it after this past season. Bringing him back again in 2022 at the age of 40 seems even less appealing. Would Roethlisberger become the latest veteran to play for a new team late in his career?

Mayfield and Jones are going to be the first test cases about whether the middle class quarterback bubble has popped given how the big-money deals for Goff and Wentz have aged. Will the NFL revisit the wisdom of giving middle-tier starters top-tier money? Or will the fear of the unknown strap them to their guys in the hope they’re a buoy, not an anchor? 

For instance, Mayfield rebounded from a sophomore slump, improving his completion percentage back toward his rookie year levels and cutting dramatically down on the turnovers. He led the Browns to their first playoff win in decades. But there were times where he still looked limited and overwhelmed against better competition, much like Goff did with the Rams. He looked more like a player being carried by Cleveland’s tremendous supporting cast than a quarterback elevating his teammates. 

Los Angeles gave Goff an extension after he quarterbacked them to the Super Bowl in his third year. Cleveland seems more inclined to exercise Mayfield’s fifth-year option and wait to see how things play out. What happens if Mayfield slumps again in 2021? Could the Browns jump at a chance to upgrade like the Rams did by trading Goff for Stafford? 

It’s not hard to make the parallel with Jones to the other New York quarterback, Darnold. Both had huge fans in the evaluation community and both have struggled to really find their footing so far in their young careers, partly due to issues with injuries and poor supporting casts — although Jones reached statistical heights as a rookie that Darnold has yet to see.

Jones plateaued in his second season, however, tossing just 11 touchdowns and showing the same flaws he had as a rookie, namely turnovers and fumbles. It hasn’t stopped the Giants from expressing the utmost confidence in him, preemptively ruling out a run at Watson for instance, but if Jones stalls again in 2021, where does that leave the Giants? Potentially in a very similar spot to where the Jets find themselves with Darnold, weighing an upgrade and potentially trying to salvage what they can from a team that once was as high on their young quarterback as they were. 

Rounding out the middle class of quarterbacks are Carr and Garoppolo who both will be entering the final year of their contracts after 2021 as things stand right now. Is 2022 finally the year they move on? For the first time since Gruden joined the team, Las Vegas doesn’t appear to be itching to replace Carr. 49ers GM John Lynch chose Garoppolo over Brady last offseason and reiterated his commitment to a healthy Garoppolo in 2021 again this week. 

Both guys ran out of guaranteed money in their deals some time ago, though, and have essentially been playing year by year. Being affordable as the rest of the quarterback market has skyrocketed helps, as has the varying degrees of success the two have had. But their contracts make their position tenuous and dependent on what happens in 2021. A strong season, and they put themselves in line for a potential extension, either from their original team or elsewhere. A bad year, and they get tossed on the quarterback carousel in the hope of landing another job in the madness. 

This isn’t a comprehensive list. This offseason has shown that there are very, very few quarterbacks who can be considered truly safe. Change is the only constant. Guys like Titans QB Ryan Tannehill could enter the picture, while Wentz and Goff could be on the move again if the fit with their new teams is bad. That’s not even including the teams who have to settle for bridge options at the position this offseason and will be back in the market in a year. 

For as active as this offseason has been in terms of quarterback movement, it’s clear from connecting the dots that 2022 is likely to be even wilder.  

Check This Out

  • Any time ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham publishes a piece he’s been working on for a while, it’s an auto-read. He’s incredibly plugged in to the inner workings of the league and various teams. He’s gone behind the scenes to reveal the drama in Seattle, New England and now the league and NFLPA offices, as Wickersham writes an expose on the last few rounds of CBA negotiations led by lightning rod NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.
  • Ohio State QB Justin Fields has been the target of some anonymous draft criticism, honing in on Fields’ ability to read the field. USA Today’s Steven Ruiz explains why that’s a simplistic and potentially problematic take on Fields’ skillset. 
  • Here’s another reminder that this quarterback class is absurdly deep at the top, as Derrik Klassen goes in-depth for Football Outsiders on North Dakota State QB Trey Lance. Klassen writes about why Lance’s polished fundamentals despite being a Division-II prospect who’s played only 17 games should make any team who takes a chance on him wildly optimistic.

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