PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Nearly the entire sports world has come to a grinding halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, but NFL Free Agency has not wavered. Other than cancelling in-person visits with interested teams, the football world spins on, with every team trying to prepare for what they hope will be a regularly scheduled 2020 season.
The Seattle Seahawks are no exception, with needs aplenty. Head coach Pete Carroll and General Manager John Schneider have been active this free agency.
To analyze it all, KOIN 6’s AJ McCord interviewed Gregg Bell, Seahawks and NFL writer for the Tacoma News Tribune in a nearly 30-minute Q&A.
Read through to get caught up on all Seahawks free agency moves and the grade Bells gives Seattle’s moves so far.
Note: this interview has been edited to help keep it concise and flow easily.
Q: First off, walk me through what it’s been like in Seattle kind of at the heart of where this COVID pandemic began in the States. What’s it been like the last couple of weeks?
A: AJ, it’s been surreal here, the streets are empty the stores are closed, some shops have wood over the windows because they’re closed for a long time. People are losing jobs, the hospitals are afraid of being overrun and missing supplies, my wife works for a hospital here in Seattle. We’ve been in this most of March, I know Portland is secondary but New York City and some of the harder hit areas now, that happened later in March, we’ve kind of been at this since the early days of March. University of Washington was the first university in the country to close classes and tell kids to go away and go online only. Now the school districts are closed, which they are in most of the places in the country but this is about our three and a half or fourth week doing this and I’ve never seen it like this up here, it’s obviously a once-in-a-lifetime event. My heart goes out to the people affected by this.
Q: I know for you it had to be weird as we got into free agency with everything happening in Seattle, like you said, the rest of the world, the rest of the country was still a little bit behind as far as how serious and the measures that were being taken. But you knew what was coming because Seattle was one of the first cities. So how hard was it for you to see what’s going on in your city and know that sports is such a backseat right now, but people need this distraction, people want this distraction. So how were you able to balance both of those?
A: Well, personally AJ I thought at first it was inappropriate to have free agency. It was inappropriate to do business as usual. I felt conflicted to write about millionaires getting tens and hundreds of million dollar contracts in this situation and, and what our society was going through. I heard though from so many people that said, we need this, we need something back to normal. And this is the only sports thing going on in the world. Literally. I mean, this is it. I’ve heard from so many people, not just in Seattle, in the Northwest, around the country and even around the world telling me this matters to them and that I’m providing the Seahawks. The NFL is providing a for them, but I do try to keep the humanity in mine because this is transcend sports obviously and it’s so much more important than what goes on.
Q: So with that in mind, let’s talk a little Seahawks free agency show because they’ve made a good number of moves. Of course, we’re all still waiting to see if there’s one more major dominoes, so we’ll get to that in a second. But first let’s talk about what they have done. First and foremost, I want to talk about the offensive line. They’ve signed four different office of lineman. Russell Wilson is the most pressured quarterback in the NFL, so how critical is it for Pete Carroll to find people to protect him and do you think these four do it or are these just big body placeholders or do you think they can actually make a difference for Russ?
(Bell) Well, they’re going to have to AJ. Brandon Shell is going to get a chance to play right tackle, when Germain Ifedi left on a one-year deal with Chicago and Brandon Shell came from the Jets on a two year $11 million deal. That sound like a lot of money, but in free agency the way you see the Seahawks spend, so limitedly, that’s a lot of money. He’s going to play at $11 million for two years. He’s played right tackle in the past. That’s where he’ll get his first chance here. BJ Finney’s an interesting signing to me from the Steelers. He’s played mostly guard, left guard, right guard in his career, but center is where he’s intriguing, he’s made two starts last year when Markice Pouncey was suspended from that Browns-Steelers melee on that Thursday night game and he played well from all accounts in Pittsburgh at center, Finney did. That could be an option from the Seahawks because of the Justin Britt situation, which you can remember the season-ending knee injury in Atlanta last October. He’s 29 now and his contract is $11.4 million cap hit. That’s the fourth highest on the team behind Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and Duane Brown, it’s even higher than Tyler Lockett’s so if they can get Jadeveon Clowney to resign, which we’ll talk about later, if they want to go out and get another pass-rusher they’re going to have to find money somewhere else then just two moves they made today, releasing safety Tedric Thompson and tight end Ed Dickson. They’re probably going to have to eat into Justin Britt’s contract, maybe ask him to renegotiate. His cap savings could be $8+ million if they release him but I think he’s too important to release; a Pro Bowl alternate who’s really in sync with Russell Wilson and pass protection and audible calls, but if they did want to, or if Britt is not ready to play at the beginning of the season, then BJ Finney’s an option now at center that they didn’t have before this month started. So that was an upgrade there. Cedric Ogbuehi is a swing tackle that can replace George Fant in that role. Fant left for $10 million a year for three years from the Jets.
I think that the offensive line is in still in a transition, frankly. They went from athletic, smoke and mirrors, shading type of blocking with Tom Cable in the zone blocking scheme. Then two years ago they hired Mike Solari and they said, no, we want road-grater, master types that we’ll put guys faces in the ground. DJ Fluker, Mikey Iupati and their they’re still trying to find a balance between those run blockers like Fluker and somebody can pass protect, especially on the edge. Duane Brown is great at it, but he’s 35 coming off a knee injury, knee surgery that he had in December. His contract ends after 2021 all of a sudden. So you’ve got to think about the edge for pass protectors, who are tackles for the long term? Brandon Shell’s just the two year stop gap at the moment, but they are, I think in transition between being run block first offensive line and having at least serviceable pass protection for Russell. You’re right. It dooms them offensively at times when they can’t protect Wilson.
Q: And you think about run versus pass, the last two years really, Pete Carroll has been so emphatically preaching, “we’re getting back to the run back to the run, back to the run” and then all the running backs got hurt, it seemed like in 2019. So with this offensive line, do you think we’re going to hear more of that commitment to the run game despite the fact that they did sign Philip Dorsett, they brought back Malik Turner, they have Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, etcetera, I mean they’ve got a good wide receivers corps.
Bell: They do. And don’t forget about Josh Gordon. If he somehow gets reinstated, he wants to play in Seattle again. He really thought he found a home here. That’s a big if, Roger Godell reinstates him after his eighth suspension for drugs. Here’s what I know, could be Carol wants to run, but he is still scarred by the first two weeks of the 2018 season. They went into that season, thought they were better with Mike Solari as the new line coach, better in pass protection, they go out and they throw it all over the yard at Denver and Chicago, Russell Wilson’s the most set quarterback in the league through two games, 12 sacks. They go 0-2 to start the season and on that flight home from that game Carol said ‘that’s it, we’re going back to the run, we got to give it to Chris Carson.’ The next week Carson got 30 plus carries, they beat the Dallas Cowboys at home and that started them back to getting back to the run. They ran last season because they had to, not just because they wanted to. They had to in order to have a chance to pass protect, to slow down the edge rushers, to keep guys like the Von Millers of the NFL from just pinning their ears back and coming after Wilson. You got to run at those guys in order to give the offensive line a chance. The last couple of years that’s why they’ve run so much, especially early in games, it seems to me they’re trying to get more versatile, pass-blocking linemen where they aren’t so dependent on having to run. We’ll see if it works this year. But there are times, yes, Russell Wilson can absolutely take over the game with his arm, his 4,000 yard passer rating though the last five years, 30 plus touchdowns again last year. He just needs time to do it and so far they can only generate that time by running the ball and that’s been the biggest weakness.
Q: So let’s talk about what he has at his disposal when he has time to find someone down field. because the Phillip Dorsett signing to me was very interesting, this is a very good wide receiver coming off of playing with Tom Brady. What do you think he adds to this wide receiver core that Seattle was missing?
Bell: Deep speed, he’s a 4-3 guy, former first round pick from Miami who can just take the top off of defenses by running past everybody. They’ve got Metcalf to be bigger and stronger down the field, they’ve got Lockett who is quick but he’s more quick than he is fast. More straight line fast, that’s Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett was not utilized as the top receiver because they had Gronkowski for so many years there. The interesting thing about Dorsett is that he was in Indianapolis when Brian Schottenheimer was the quarterbacks coach there in 2017, Dorsett had his career high in catches that season when Schottenheimer was coaching him in the Colts offense, so Schottenheimer knows him better than anybody in Seattle. You can bet that’s a reason why he’s here now.
Q: Let’s switch sides of the ball now because the defense is something that was so hot, so cold, and of course in free agency, the most talked about thing it seems like with the Seahawks. So first and foremost, a Quinton Dunbar signing at cornerback; tell me your initial impressions of him and what you think he can add to the defense.
Bell: He’s a prototypical Pete Carroll corner, 6’2″ 200 plus pounds, 32 plus inch arms. Everyone up here in Seattle knows the story. If you don’t have 32 inch arms, not playing cornerback for Carroll. People keep comparing him to Richard Sherman, which is quite a lofty comparison, Sherman was a fifth round pick out of Stanford, a former wide receiver as was Dunbar. Dunbar came into the league as a wide receiver. It got changed in his first year with Washington a few years ago. Started 11 games last year then got a hamstring injury, went on injured reserve, he got his career-high 4 interceptions last year for Washington. Then Ron Rivera came in and a new coaching staff in Washington and Dunbar wanted out. He didn’t want to start over with a new coaching staff and so we asked for a trade and got one. Another Schneider heist in trading- a fifth round pick for a guy you’re going to give a chance to start.
One thing that’s going to slow him in integrating into the defense and the technique that Pete Carroll likes, the step-kick technique is that, it looks because of this pandemic, they’re not going to get on the field until maybe late July to start a training camp. Usually they have OTAs, mini-camps, in May and June, that looks like none of that’s going to happen. That will slow the integration of new players and guys, technique wise, there’s no guarantee right now that training camp’s going to start at the end of July either.
Q: That kind of transitions to our next piece, the biggest piece, the Seahawks wanted to work in free agency, which is Jadeveon Clowney. As soon as the Seahawks were done, he expressed how much he wants to be in Seattle, but he’s also expressed that he expects to get paid this off season shooting for that $20 million mark. But right now he can’t meet with anybody. So the longer this goes on where he is a bit hogtied in his ability to get out to other teams, how do you think that benefits Seattle? They know him, know his play, doctors know his injury; how do you think that benefits the Seahawks as they continue to pursue him in free agency?
Bell: In the short term, it’s certainly to the Seahawks benefit. They know him, as you mentioned, better than anybody. They know what his rehab is after that sports hernia surgery in January. But in the longer view, if it looks like Clowney wants to wait until he’s able to travel and the coronavirus pandemic eases. that doesn’t help the Seahawks. The assumption was he would want to sign when he could in the free agency period. Then when he got into the secondary waves he’s like, well wait a minute. I know what the Seahawks are offering. A couple of different sources that it was $18.5 million a year and for multiple years. But he wanted, as you mentioned, $20+ million, he thought he was a top tier set the market type of edge rusher, no team in the league wants to an $18-20 million a year deal without knowing his medicals. They need to know it firsthand.
The injury history, the sports hernia surgery just in January, the fact he’s played six years in the NFL edge and only had one complete season injury free in 16 regular season games play, you’re not going to give a guy that much money without having your doctors see him and that’s what he’s run into.
So what I thought was an advantage for Seattle originally, initially in the longterm is not because if he does want to wait until the summer and whenever the pandemic eases and he can travel, then he’s back in the open market for a team that wants to get him. I think that’s where it looks like he’s trying to play.
The problem with Seattle, is this is holding them up from doing other things. Everson Griffen, how much are we going to give to him? Do we want to make him a free agent offer now before you know how much Clowney’s going to resign for, do you want to trade for a Yannick Ngakoue, or any of the other franchise tag pass rushers that would cost you a first and second round pick? All those decisions are going into based on Clowney who it looks like will go past the draft now.
You can follow Gregg on Twitter @gbellseattle, and AJ @AJ_McCord.
Follow KOIN 6 for the latest news and weather