Seattle's deal for Whitehurst most intriguing QB move of free agency

Friday March 19th, 2010

So far this month, with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick still sitting tight in Philadelphia, I can't help but notice it's more of a backup quarterback carousel spinning furiously around the NFL.Since free agency opened, Seneca Wallace, David Carr, A.J. Feeley, Jake Delhomme, Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Shaun Hill, Jim Sorgi, Rex Grossman and Charlie Whitehurst have all found new homes -- and not a single one will definitively be his team's starter in 2010.

Combine the other nine of those moves, and it still wouldn't be anywhere near as intriguing as the roll of the dice Seattle took by boldly trading for San Diego's Whitehurst in a deal that has boom/bust potential written all over it. Whitehurst was the little-known and even lesser thought of No. 3 quarterback in San Diego, behind starter Philip Rivers and backup Billy Volek. Four years into his NFL career, he's still waiting to throw his first regular-season pass.

But that didn't stop the Seahawks and Cardinals from getting into a bidding war of sorts over him, a war Seattle wound up winning by swapping second-round picks with San Diego (the Bolts make an eye-opening jump from the 60th overall pick to the 40th) and sending the Chargers a third-rounder in 2011. The Seahawks then capped off the stunning turn of events by reportedly awarding the unproven ex-Clemson product a two-year, $8 million contract that includes another $2 million of incentives.MORE: Seahawks acquire QB Whitehurst from Chargers

That's a ton to give up for a 27-year-old QB who hasn't started or won a game since 2005. The Seahawks are clearly gambling on Whitehurst being ready to take over for Matt Hasselbeck as the team's No. 1 at some point in 2011, if not late in 2010. Whitehurst's arrival doesn't guarantee that Seattle won't draft a quarterback with one of its two first-round picks in April, but it's safe to assume that's a lot less likely today than it was Wednesday morning.

So what exactly did the Seahawks see in Whitehurst to justify their leap of faith? In regular-season action, he's rushed twice for 13 yards. That's it. In preseason games, he owns a dreary 61.5 passer rating, with five touchdowns and seven interceptions, mostly in mop-up duty. He's got good size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and good bloodlines (his father, David Whitehurst, played quarterback for Green Bay and Kansas City from 1977-84), but identifying greatness in the 2006 third-round pick requires a fair amount of projection at this point.

Wanting to know more about Seattle's would-be savior, I called Chargers general manager A.J. Smith Thursday afternoon. I couldn't see him, of course, but Smith certainly sounded like the cat who ate the canary after landing a pretty fair bounty for a player who was only going to get on the field for San Diego if disaster struck. Smith didn't say so, but my read is that he was almost as surprised as anyone by what Seattle was willing to pay for Whitehurst -- both in compensation and contract.

"We just fell into it," Smith said of the trade talks that emerged after San Diego tendered Whitehurst, a restricted free agent, at a third-round level (his original draft slot). "We tendered a third, at a $1.1 million (salary) this year, [thinking] if he returns to us this year, we'll have the same rock and roll band again this season with Rivers, Volek and Whitehurst.

"But now here comes the activity, and it's between Arizona, which had a standard third-round pick, and Seattle. But there's a little bit of a twist because the Seahawks didn't have a three. So I presented a package to them that I thought was attractive to us, and it's accepted. They wanted the player. And that's how it went down." (It feels like the words "lo and behold" should be in that quote somewhere, but I checked, and they're not.)

I asked Smith if he knew of any obvious linkage that tied Whitehurst and new Seattle head coach Pete Carroll together -- other than that both of them spent the past four years in Southern California -- but he had no inside information about the possible cause of the Seahawks' comfort. It came down to scouting, Smith said, and Seattle liked what it saw. Even if there hasn't been much to see of late.TRUTH & RUMORS: Carroll refusing to play it safe in Seattle

"I think they liked him in Clemson and they tracked him through college and in the preseason," Smith said. "They've done their research and made a judgment. They've looked at his intangibles, his background, where he's been trained, what kind of a guy he is, and what his study habits are. I think that's all positive. I think the only thing missing is the body of work as an NFL player."

No small detail, that. But Smith also revealed that the gap in San Diego between the experienced Volek at No. 2 and Whitehurst at No. 3 wasn't as large as most assumed. Volek somewhat surprisingly re-signed with the Chargers in 2008, blocking the still-not-ready Whitehurst's path to the backup job. But since then, Whitehurst's improvement under the tutelage of offensive-minded head coach Norv Turner has been steady, and some opposing teams were clearly aware of his value. Whitehurst possess an NFL arm, a quick release, and has the requisite brains to handle the most complicated position in the game. That's a pretty good start, especially since game experience is the missing component the Seahawks can most easily rectify.

In many ways, Seattle's gambit echoes the successful move it made nine years ago, when then-Seahawks head coach/general manager Mike Holmgren traded for untested Green Bay backup Hasselbeck, who had yet to make an NFL regular-season start. That one worked out pretty well, and now we'll get to see if history repeats itself in the Pacific Northwest. Come to think of it, Hasselbeck was the son of a former NFL player, too, so Whitehurst has that mojo going for him.

"I'm prejudiced for the guy, because he was our third guy," Smith said. "I think he's going to be a success, and obviously Pete Carroll in Seattle feels the same way. It's a judgment call. But he's a very talented player and he's been a great pro for us. He's a great team guy, and his work ethic and preparation are excellent. Especially for a guy who's not a snap away from playing. We think he's gifted and has all the tools. And he's been in the NFL and with a great program here, with other good quarterbacks.

"I think he's ready for the challenge. He hasn't played in the NFL, due to the circumstances here, but we have to say that about college players coming out in the draft every year. They're getting an outstanding player."

Long term, this may wind up being a steal for Seattle. But until Whitehurst proves himself, it'll be scored as a heck of a coup for Smith and the Chargers. Especially if San Diego lands itself a blue-chip player at No. 40 in April.

"Your words, not mine," Smith said after listening to my instant analysis of the trade. But he was laughing when he said it, and I think I know why.

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