Well once again I have the pleasure of contributing to hawkblogger.com thanks to Brian asking me to perform another analysis. This time, we're looking at K.J. Wright and the season that he had as a rookie in 2011 for the Seahawks. This was a fun analysis to do because I learned some things on 2nd, 3rd and even 4th glance about Wright that I didn't notice initially during the season.
Often times many of us make the assumption that if we don't hear a guy's name called a lot, then he must not be doing anything spectacular. In fact it's funny how frequently we talk about guys who do a lot of things well but nothing spectacular, when in reality doing a lot of things well is pretty spectacular when you compare the performances of an "unspectacular" player with a guy who may do one thing extremely well but is insufficient in other areas. Breathe, Derek.
Did you get that?
The more accurate way to analyze a players performance is to ask "what does he do well?" and "how consistently does he do it?"
As a draft analyst and a guy who scouts a lot of players, it's consistency, proper fundamentals and instincts, and then the consistency with which a player displays those proper fundamentals and instincts that are much more important than the spectacular measurables that many scouts and media seem to be fascinated by. One of the things that I've learned very quickly in studying the draft and scouting prospects, is that the goal should be to find players to make impact plays consistently, rarely repeat mistakes, and to not worry about the measurable or numerical factors that may make a guy look bad or good on paper, save a few (i.e. completion percentage for a QB, receptions and drops for a WR, and a few others).
Take for instance Aaron Curry. Everybody loved this guy coming out of college. Scouts drooled over his physical makeup, his athleticism, his speed, and his overall look. But we quickly learned that as physically gifted as the guy may be, the instincts are simply inadequate, at least in the scheme that Seattle has been running.
Look, I was right there along with the others cheering when Seattle picked him, because I spent more time listening to the "experts" than I did watching the tape. Now that I watch the Wake Forest tape, I see that there was a big difference. One NFL scout told me, "Never scout on what you hear. Ever. Scout only on what you see." And boy was that ever true in the case of Curry.
In college, there are far more "don't have to think" schemes and plays than there are in the NFL. Guys get by on athleticism a lot more at the college level than in the NFL. In fact, name me a guy who has lasted at the NFL level on athleticism alone. There really are none. Curry had a lot of opportunities in college to simply run, blow up blockers with his power, and finish on his target, primarily by hitting them rather than wrapping them up. In coverage, he really didn't drop back a whole lot, and spent more time up on the line of scrimmage, as Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley tried to do with him last year. While it helped a bit, you could see that Curry simply lacked the consistency off the ball to generate enough leverage to hold the point of attack, disengage and make plays. In college, he didn't need as much leverage. Again, we're talking fundamentals here.
Now take K.J. Wright. He steps in for Curry and suddenly, the mistakes at the position begin to dwindle. Was he making game-changing tackles for loss right away? No. But he stopped the bleeding. He displayed gap control - a sign of discipline, which was something that Curry lacked, perhaps more than any other critical attribute. He showed that he could correct mistakes almost immediately, without coaching and knew where to be in zone situations - these are what you call instincts. He didn't need to know from a coach that he over-ran his gap and left his zone early, because he knew it when it happened, and corrected it on the next play. He didn't get excited and leave his post in an attempt to drop a guy 5 yards behind the line, when he was supposed to simply man his gap and hold position when engaged with blockers against the run. He stayed, waited, filled his hole and forced the carrier to change direction and funnel into Hawthorne, Hill, or one of the two beasts Seattle had sitting in the middle of the D-line, in Branch, Mebane and/or McDonald. And he did it all from his first start, through the end of the season. Sure, he made mistakes, but he corrected them with consistency and displayed discipline with the same consistency. In coverage, there's plenty of room for improvement in terms of when to flip his hips and get his head around to locate the ball, but he possesses the natural fluidity and awareness in space to keep tabs on his man, yet remain aware of what's going on behind the line of scrimmage.
As the season progressed, Wright began taking more chances - assumably at the prompting of coaches. He had proven that he could be a disciplined, instinctive and consistent performer, and now he started getting opportunities to put his explosiveness, "plus" range and freelance craftiness on display. Rather than simply sitting in his gap, he was turned loose to penetrate the gap, take more risks and show that he could finish on his target to convert impact plays. He went from 21 tackles and 2 tackles for loss in his first 6 starts, to 35 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in his final 6 starts. He began instilling confidence in coaches that he could be counted on.
Funny enough, looking back on his college game tape, these are attributes that Wright showed over and over at Mississippi State. Even funnier, scouts didn't seem to care for the first 3 rounds and in fact, some called him a reach where Seattle took him in the 4th. He did nothing "spectacular" in school, yet he was spectacularly consistent, disciplined and instinctive in addition to having more than enough range, burst, size, speed and explosiveness to be considered a physically "plus" athlete.
A couple of discoveries to be noted here...
1. K.J. Wright has shown that he possesses everything that it takes to be a long-time NFL starting 'backer.
2. "Everything it takes" is consistency, fundamentals and instincts. Throw in an unusual ability to correct mistakes quickly, a 6'4, 246-pound frame, natural burst, fluidity in coverage and freakish length and you have the makings of a far-above-average NFL linebacker.
3. Quiet doesn't mean ineffective. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner made more noise with their combined 10 interceptions and praise-worthy big plays in the defensive backfield, but they made far more mistakes than Wright, and they cost the team a lot more than Wright did. And that's not to say that Sherman won't be an incredible corner in the NFL for a long time - I think he will. But that's a story for another day. Mistake-free, smart football isn't simply role-playing material, folks. It's starter material. Let teams pick the Aaron Curry's, Vernon Gholstons and even the A.J. Hawks with high picks, and be just fine with getting the K.J. Wrights, Leroy Hills and David Hawthornes of the world where you get them.
4. Never grade players on what you hear, and don't take the media scout's word for it (including mine). Learn the game and watch the player on the field. This always tells the real story. Again, are they consistent, fundamentally sound, and do they display good football instincts and awareness? These are more important than their 40 time or Pro Day numbers.
5. John Schneider and Pete Carroll may be on to something. After picking what many called the weakest draft crop in the division in 2011, they ended up with 4 regular starters (excluding Browner and Baldwin in this analysis - weren't draft picks), and an improved offense and significantly improved defense to go with them. These weren't emergency starts due to lack of depth. These were earned starts by capable starting NFL players. The front office appears to grade players more by what they see, than what they hear. Though Pete Carroll carries with him a reputation that sometimes infers a healthy dose of "hype", there was nothing "hype" about anyone in this draft class, yet the Seahawks arguably had the strongest draft in the division, when considering the number of quality starters they pulled from the 2011 crop.
Looking ahead to April's draft, keep these 5 points in mind as you consider the picks that Seattle will be making, and look for K.J. Wright to be a long-term, key piece to the Seattle defense for years to come (cue the "barring injury" disclaimer).