The Seahawks didn’t tank in 2018. Despite dismantling the Legion of Boom offense and relying on an aging Doug Baldwin to carry an untested group of offensive playmakers, Seattle avoided sinking to the bottom of the NFC West and made a surprise return to the postseason last year.
And there’s one man who deserves the credit. The most credit the league’s ever seen before, according to the Seahawks.
Russell Wilson put together another low-key MVP-caliber campaign in 2018, avoiding turnovers, keeping plays alive, and creating first downs despite a cheesecloth offensive line and a relatively anonymous supporting cast in Washington state. For his effort, he was rewarded with a late-night deal that will make him the highest-paid player in the league — a four-year, $140 million extension with $107 million in guarantees.
That’s a formidable chunk of change, and while Wilson didn’t get the market-altering stipulation that he get a defined percentage of the league’s salary cap each season, his $35 million average annual salary would still take up more than 18 percent of the team’s cap space in 2019. That means Seattle will have to be a little more careful when it comes to surrounding him with low-cost, high-value talent — and the priority over the next two seasons will be finding him the players who can thrive next to one of the league’s most efficient passers.
Wilson needs protection to get the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl
The NFL’s most dependable quarterback has made 16 starts in each of his seven seasons in the league, posting a winning record in each. This is absolutely remarkable considering the offensive line he’s had in front of him.
Wilson has been sacked on at least seven percent of his dropbacks in each of his seasons as a pro. His 299 sacks since joining the league in 2012 are 32 more than anyone else in that span. He gets sacked, on average, 2.7 times per NFL game. Comparatively, the far less mobile Tom Brady has been sacked 1.76 times per contest for his career. Even Wilson’s predecessor, Matt Hasselbeck, was only sacked 2.2 times per game for the Seahawks from 2001 to 2010.
This is all to say Wilson’s protection in Seattle has been the Long John Silver’s of blocking — mediocre and a little fishy. With his contract extension now squared away, one major priority for Seahawks general manager John Schneider will be finding the blockers who help keep the star quarterback on the field for each one of his $35 million seasons.
Unfortunately for Wilson, this strategy has had limited returns in years past. The Seahawks handed out more than $80 million worth of contracts to have players like Deuce Lutui, Russell Okung, J’Marcus Webb, and Luke Joeckel try and fail to keep their pocket intact over the past seven years. The draft brought prospects like Justin Britt, Ethan Pocic, and Germain Ifedi to the lineup with uneven returns as well.
While Duane Brown proved to be a worthy blindside protector after being freed from Houston (and given a three-year, $34.5 million contract extension), he’s also about to turn 34 years old and is unlikely to keep up an elite level of play through Wilson’s new deal. Mike Iupati, who signed in 2019, can bring some veteran stability to the interior of the line, but he’s nearly 32 and has played in only 11 games the last two seasons. D.J. Fluker re-upped with the Seahawks after making nine starts in 2018 and is a relative young gun at 28 years old, but he was also Pro Football Focus’s 68th-ranked guard last fall.
This means every position along Seattle’s offensive line could either stand for an upgrade or an infusion of youth. It’s too late to acquire any game-changing talent in free agency this spring, though veterans like Jared Veldheer or John Sullivan could be useful stopgap solutions for 2019. Instead, building around Wilson over the course of his record-setting extension will require some top OL talent development through the draft — an area where the Seahawks have been deficient recently.
SB Nation’s latest round of mock drafts — from both Dan Kadar and the network’s team sites — have them focused on rebuilding their once-fearsome defense, but the Seahawks will have options with the No. 21 pick should they decide to rebuild their line. Top blockers like Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom, North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury, and Oklahoma’s Cody Ford could all present too much value to pass up in the first round or be the target of a trade-up into the early second should they fall.
That’ll a tough bargain to strike with only four total picks in this year’s draft, but trading away their first round pick is a rich Seahawk tradition under Pete Carroll — in the past two years, the club’s only make two first round selections. The editors over at Field Gulls think it’s a near certainty Seattle trades down from the 21st pick, and a handful of high-upside, low-floor blockers — Dalton Risner, Caleb McGary, Tytus Howard, Michael Dieter, Beau Benzschawel, Max Scharping, and many more — could be available with the second- and third-round ammunition that comes via swap.
Any would be a boon for Wilson, and they’d be relatively cheap additions who allow the team to build around his expensive extension. That’s not the only help he’ll need.
Wilson needs playmakers — either from developing Seahawks or elsewhere — to unlock his true MVP form
Wilson has hung around the periphery of the regular-season MVP race almost every year he’s played as a pro thanks to his efficient passing, ability to extend plays, and turnover-averse game. But he always falls to the wayside late in the season thanks to a limited supporting cast of targets that’s peaked at good but never been great.
The good news is he’s got a running back capable of replicating some of Marshawn Lynch’s lead back prowess in Chris Carson, who ran for 1,151 yards in 14 games last fall. The bad news is his receiving corps leaves questions about who will be around to bail Wilson out when his pockets collapse in 2020 and beyond.
Doug Baldwin remained Wilson’s favorite target in 2018, but he’ll be 31 this September and is coming off his least productive season since 2012 thanks, in part, to injuries that limited his ability to create space downfield. His position atop the Seattle receiving food chain will soon be ceded to Tyler Lockett, who rewarded Seattle’s faith in him with a breakout 965-yard, 10-touchdown campaign last season.
After that, things get murky. Former seventh-round pick David Moore was a useful deep threat in spurts but caught less than 50 percent of his targets last fall. Nick Vannett emerged as the team’s top receiving tight end and more than doubled his previous career highs in all major statistical categories ... and still had just 269 yards and three touchdowns. 2018 fourth-round pick Will Dissly was solid in a four-game audition, but his pre-draft measurements (namely a 4.87-second 40-yard dash time) don’t exactly paint him as a difference maker in the receiving game.
While any of those young players could make a leap to prop up the Wilson-Baldwin-Lockett triumvirate, the Seahawks could use some additional support to give their high-paid quarterback a little extra help when he’s scrambling for his life and searching for targets downfield. Seattle passed up the chance to overpay for an underwhelming crop of wide receivers in free agency.
Picks in rounds three, four, and five should give the club the chance to take swings at interesting but flawed receiving and tight end talent like Georgia’s Mecole Hardway, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, UMass’ Andy Isabella, Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, or Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson. There will still be plenty of pass-catching talent on the board for the Seahawks’ final three picks — the question is whether they’ll find a Lockett type or wind up with another Amara Darboh.
Of course, these needs may fall to the wayside because ...
The Seahawks need defensive reinforcements
Seattle’s path back to the playoffs in 2018 wasn’t the result of a renewed defensive effort, but the fact Wilson and his upgraded supporting cast boosted their scoring by nearly four points per game. Wilson got his team back on track thanks to a rebounding run game and a “fine, whatever” offensive line, and that was enough to overcome some extremely unfamiliar lapses in defense in the Pacific Northwest.
The Legion of Boom is dead and buried, and replacements still need to be found for everyone from Richard Sherman to Earl Thomas to Michael Bennett. Neither Tre Flowers nor Shaquill Griffin was particularly inspiring in coverage last year, and the team’s top slot corner, Justin Coleman, is now a Detroit Lion. While K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Frank Clark make up an imposing trio along the team’s top seven, the other four slots in that group — Quinton Jefferson, Mychal Kendricks, Cassius Marsh, Jarrad Reed, Nazair Jones, Poona Ford, among others — failed to live up the early 2010s defensive standard in 2018.
From 2012 to 2016, the Seahawks never ranked lower than third in the league in scoring defense. If they’re going to return to that identity, they’ll need more playmakers — and that means coaxing big development from recent draft picks like Griffin, Jones, Reed, Rasheem Green, and Delano Hill.
Extending Russell Wilson ensures the Seahawks will have their most important player locked down through 2023, and even at $35 million per year he could still be a bargain. Now Seattle has to parcel out the remaining 82 percent of its salary cap to continue fending off the rebuild that remains a firm dot on the horizon even as the franchise sails forward.
There are plenty of gaps to fill, with a rebuilding defense trending toward the top of the priority sheet. But the Seahawks still have to punch up the offense that dragged them through what looked like a down year and back into the postseason in January. Nothing is going to make Wilson happier than being the league’s highest-paid player, though a young core of reliable blockers and receivers would come close.
The Seahawks aren’t all the way back yet, but with Wilson in tow they can fend off the bottoming-out that looked to be coming in 2018. The question now is if they can rebuild their roster efficiently to make sure they don’t waste their upcoming lease on one of the league’s best — and now, the highest-paid — quarterbacks.