Just like the rest of the world, NFL teams have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways. Some have altered their approach to certain areas of the sport, while others have more or less gone about business as they normally would.
One area this is most evident in is the draft, which, over the last two years, has been greatly impacted by the suspension and/or outright cancellation of college games, seasons, in-person workouts/visits and more. Evaluating young talent has never been more difficult and that has understandably scared some teams away from partaking to a significant degree, including the Seahawks.
In fact, Seattle may be on the most extreme end of the spectrum in that regard. Prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll directly pointed to the uncertain nature of the amateur scouting world as a determining factor in their decision to trade two first-round picks and a third for Jets safety Jamal Adams during the summer of 2020.
“It’s definitely a unique year,” Schneider said on the matter. “It factored into the equation with [the Adams trade] last summer as we were reviewing and trying to project what the [college football season] was going to look like.”
In addition to the capital shipped off to New York, the Seahawks also dealt their 2021 fifth-round pick to the Raiders for guard Gabe Jackson, their sixth to trade up with the Dolphins in the 2020 draft to select tight end Stephen Sullivan and their seventh to the Bengals for defensive end Carlos Dunlap. That left them with a league-low three selections and the worst pick value of any draft since 1999.
Defying expectations, Schneider and friends did nothing to dig themselves out of that hole—not in the long-term, at least. After surprisingly sticking with their first scheduled pick, No. 56, to take Western Michigan receiver Dee Eskridge, they moved down from pick No. 129 to No. 137 and netted No. 217 from the Buccaneers in the process. That brought their pick count up to a whopping total of four, which was whittled back down to three when they zeroed in on Florida tackle Stone Forsythe. In order to secure Forsythe, they packaged No. 217 and No. 250 to acquire No. 208 from the Bears.
If their comments and actions beforehand didn’t make it clear enough, the Seahawks proved they were uncomfortable committing significant resources to this particular draft class. And they had levers to pull that would have bolstered their arsenal of picks, including the use of future picks to trade back into the fifth, sixth and/or seventh rounds—something they have shown a willingness to do in previous years.
The biggest lever, of course, is the one they opted to pull one year later: trading superstar quarterback Russell Wilson.
With a little under two months to go until the draft, after beginning to publicly voice his displeasure with the organization, Wilson and his agent, Mark Rodgers, purposely leaked four teams he would have waived his no-trade clause for. One of those teams were the Bears, who were speculated to have a deal lined up for Wilson before it was apparently vetoed by Carroll. The structure of that deal would have sent multiple draft picks and players to Seattle, which is ultimately what the Seahawks received from the Broncos earlier this month.
So what changed? Why would Carroll approve of a trade similar to the one he reportedly blocked a year ago?
Sure, the relationship between franchise and quarterback naturally became even more strained as the two sides combined for their worst year together. That includes Wilson missing games for the first time in his professional career after suffering a significant finger injury, as well as the Seahawks finishing fourth in the NFC West for the first time since joining the division in 2002.
But as Michael-Shawn Dugar, Jayson Jenks and Mike Sando of The Athletic penned in the wake of Wilson’s eventual departure, there was evidence of a fractured—or even irreparable—relationship for years.
Certainly, the headache became too much for the Seahawks to endure any further, and Wilson’s unwillingness to engage in extension talks added even more pressure on the organization to get something done before they found themselves at too severe of a disadvantage. So perhaps it’s as simple as both sides realizing that, without a doubt, they would not be able to patch things up, thus giving more clarity to the situation than what was there last spring.
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That said, the circumstances around the league—and the world as a whole—also changed. COVID-related restrictions were gradually lifted as vaccination rates went up in the United States, marking a return to something resembling pre-pandemic life. The 2021 college football season went off without much of a hitch and events like the Senior Bowl and NFL combine have operated in normal fashion in 2022, providing teams the most access they’ve had to players, data and everything in between since February of 2020 .
Banking on this being the case would have been a risky venture a year ago, however, considering the fluid nature of the pandemic and the lack of information on the efficacy of COVID vaccines at the time. Therefore, teams like the Seahawks were forced to work with the worst-case scenario—restrictions staying in place for the foreseeable future—in mind.
Fast-forward to present day; the information and access available has afforded Seattle a level of confidence it had lacked with the draft, which was already a crapshoot prior to the pandemic. There has never been a perfect rhyme or reason to drafting, so adding another major hurdle to overcome in attempting to properly scout and identify talent made last year’s draft daunting for teams.
But with that hurdle now being removed, the value of draft picks has gone back up. For the Seahawks, specifically, that likely made the idea of trading Wilson more palatable. After all, in Carroll and Schneider’s first media appearance following the Wilson trade, the former made note of a “business opportunity” that changed his reluctant stance on parting ways.
“I love Russ and loved him on the show,” Carroll stated. “That’s the way I was committed to doing it and I felt that way all the way throughout. The opportunity became available. A business opportunity became available. We can see it, now we have the chance to take a look and we did. We took a look and were surprised at how good a deal came to us.”
Schneider was more blunt about it.
“When we made the Jamal [Adams] trade, you’re talking about COVID years—two really funky years,” Schneider acknowledged. To be able to get the ninth pick, be able to get to No. 40 and No. 41 for us was big, especially in this draft. We’re going to pick eight times [in 2022]. It’s really big, especially next year when the majority of the cap space comes into effect with Russell’s contract [coming off the books]and then the draft capital next year with the two first-round picks and two second-round picks.”
To Schneider’s point, the wealth of picks Seattle received and where they slot is especially appealing to a team that, thanks to its long-running success, has consistently drafted near the bottom of each round for the past decade.
In the end, playing the long game worked out for the Seahawks in a multitude of ways. The circumstances surrounding the pandemic improved and Wilson got a chance to reassess his options from him, giving the team a more favorable avenue to go down than what he and his agent presented them with last year.
Chicago was the most ideal fit of Wilson’s four desired destinations a year ago, but it could only offer picks No. 20 and No. 52 in a draft shrouded with uncertainty. Instead, Denver came to the table with picks No. 9 and No. 40 in a draft Seattle is more comfortable scouting, along with another pair of first- and second-round picks in 2023.
Of course, parting with the face of your franchise on bad terms is never a good thing, and there’s been a flood of theories from fans as to how it could have been prevented. But if Wilson’s departure was truly an inevitability, no matter what the organization could have done to appease him, then the Seahawks maneuvered the situation better than first thought.
At the very least, due in part to its concerns relating to the pandemic, Seattle stumbled into a more ideal situation. Under different conditions, it’s hard not to wonder if Wilson would have made his exit from him a lot sooner, though an already complicated financial situation would have been even more so in an earlier deal.
Nevertheless, given the way things played out, the timing of the trade makes more and more sense. Whether it was the right thing for the Seahawks to do or not remains to be seen, but they found arguably the best possible outcome to make life without Wilson’s work. Now they have to stick the landing.