Friday, August 24, 2012

J.R. Sweezy: The Other Rookie Starting Audition

There is a rumor some rookie is starting at quarterback for the Seahawks tonight. That guy may, or may not, begin the season as the opening day starter. Rising from a third-round pick to opening day starter would be tremendous story, perhaps one of the best in the league. There is an even more surprising story developing, and it happens to be on the same roster. J.R. Sweezy reportedly will start tonight at right guard, and arguably has a better chance to strap on his helmet week one than his more publicized quarterback classmate.

Sweezy was the typical 7th round draft choice. It was an extra pick that came to Seattle from the Aaron Curry trade with the Raiders, so it already felt like a bonus. Most people had not heard of Sweezy. He was on the light side for a defensive lineman, but not so light to be a rush end in this defense. The pick did not make a ton of sense until the Seahawks explained they drafted him to be an offensive lineman. Wait, what? The process for how a scouting department and coaching staff can see an offensive lineman in a player who has never played that position in college is hard to imagine. To feel confident enough in that projection to spend a draft choice on the player is either arrogant or genius.

The story continued to gain steam when it became clear this was a Tom Cable pick. He saw something in Sweezy. Listening to him talk about the draft pick sounded very much like a mechanic that finds a car they want to rebuild. Sweezy was a project, but Cable saw the chassis and engine of a muscle car, and knew he had the tools to bring out the shine.

Sweezy stood out in training camp, more for his stature than his play. The Seahawks list him as 298 pounds, but he faces off against Rishaw Johnson (313 lbs) in practice every day. These two are not 15 pounds apart. Sweezy lookes almost like a linebacker standing next to the other lineman. He is trim. I dismissed him as a practice squad player based on size alone. He would be an easy guy to stash on the practice squad to give Cable time to work with him. Sweezy played his way past those humble expectations, way past.

He started getting publicity from national media visiting camp, like Pat Kirwan, which meant the coaches were talking him up. National media does not come to town and spend time watching a 7th round defensive lineman who is playing guard unless the coaching staff urges them to. Sweezy began getting some snaps with the starting offensive line in practice, then in games. He showed some powerful drive while opening up holes for Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin last week in Denver.

The word coming into camp was that Deuce Lutui and John Moffitt were going to battle for the starting right guard spot. Moffitt spent almost all the time with the starting unit before his elbow injury. He is supposed to be out until around the beginning of the regular season. Sweezy appears to ahead of Lutui at this point. The coaches have had little praise for Lutui's play through camp, and have sounded skeptical that his body type can work in this blocking scheme. Moffitt did not grade out well during his rookie season according to a few  scouting services. If $10M in guaranteed money does not buy you a starting spot at quarterback, do you really think being a 3rd round pick protects you?

Rookie risers are always worth watching. It is not easy to transition to the NFL. There is story after story about first-round talent that needs a year or two to develop. True talent finds its level. When a player rockets up the depth chart as a rookie, especially on a team with talent in front of him, there is reason to be excited. When that rookie was a 7th-round pick, the distance traveled to the top of the depth chart is even farther. When that 7th-round pick did not even play the position in college that he is playing in the NFL, you are starting to reach roads untraveled. History shows that a trajectory like that is destined to end up starting, and perhaps for a long time. Sweezy starts his second game tonight. When he stops, nobody knows.

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