Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Future Proofing: Seahawks Rookie Class In Question

There may be no better combination of general manager and coach in the NFL than John Schneider and Pete Carroll. Schneider's keen eye for talent with unique traits in obscure locations is cosmically combined with Carroll's ability to take advantage of unique talents and willingness to play young players. Their approach has led to a talent turnaround of historic proportions in their first four seasons in Seattle. There is no one objective measure for talent, but consider a few clues. There were no Pro Bowl players on the 2009 roster they inherited, and the Seahawks had not had a 1st Team All-Pro player since 2007. They turned that into six Pro Bowl players and four 1st Team All-Pros in just three seasons, while also taking one of the oldest rosters in the NFL and making it the second-youngest. This accomplishment cannot be overstated. They have done this in large part through shrewd drafts that have each included at least one Pro Bowl player. This year's Seahawks draft class is not yet measuring up, either in accomplishment or playing time. With just three games left in the season, it is a good time to examine how this rookie class is impacting the roster, both now, and in the future.

There is a myth that fans tell themselves, and front offices propagate, that when rookies do not play, it is because the players in front of them are too good to either come off the field or be replaced. The truth is that talent finds the field. Take the Seahawks defensive line this year. It is a strength of the team with deep talent, but if you don't think DT Jesse Williams and DT Jordan Hill would be heavily involved if they were difference-making rookies, I would recommend going back and reviewing how Carroll and Schneider have handled rookies in each of the prior seasons. The coaching staff gave both of those players every opportunity to win a spot in the rotation during training camp. Veterans Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald opened the door further due to injury and release, respectively, but neither rookie could take advantage. Hill had his own injury issues, but he had fallen down the depth chart prior to being hurt.

Just last season, 11% of the team snaps were taken by rookies. Even if you remove Russell Wilson's 979 snaps, 7.3% of the snaps were still rookies. Through 13 games this season, just 5.2% of snaps have come from rookies and just 0.6% by rookies on defense. Exactly zero defensive rookies have been active on game day since the game in Atlanta four weeks ago, and the rookie active for that game, Michael Brooks, is no longer on the team.

The hope for future contributions to the defense from this rookie class fall to Hill, Williams, Benson Mayowa and Tharold Simon. There is a very real chance Williams will never play again due to a degenerative knee condition. None of that matters in a season when the contract flexibility afforded to the Seahawks from finding such dynamic young talent through the last three drafts has allowed them to sign a number of talented veterans to short-term contracts, but it will matter very soon when the team has to make decisions about who to lock up for the longer-term. Having a rookie step up in one spot gives the team options on how to handle others.

That is part of why it was surprising to see the team let rookie John Lotulelei leave. He was already emerging on special teams, but the front office chose to keep a player like Michael Morgan instead who is a known quantity with limited upside. With the injury to K.J. Wright, the team would be in a much stronger position to weather the storm if they had another natural weakside linebacker on the roster like Lotulelei, who has been earning some playing time for the resurgent Jaguars.

A strength of this rookie class may come from three big men on offense. Luke Willson (5th round), Michael Bowie (7th), and Alvin Bailey (undrafted) may very well become key pieces to the roster puzzle. Each player will be on rookie contracts through 2015, and they could replace more expensive options like Breno Giacomini, Zach Miller, and veteran depth at guard or tackle. Every penny will count when the team tries to fit talent around a massive Russell Wilson contract in a couple of years.

Willson has made the most of his opportunities, and looks like a future starter. It will be hard for any receiver or tight end to have a Pro Bowl season in this offense, but he appears to have that upside. Bowie played well as a starter. People may not fully realize how difficult it is for a rookie to come in and start unexpectedly on the edge of a line, especially when the player next to him is also inexperienced. Bowie showed he will be in the conversation to start at right tackle as soon as next year when Giacomini is a free agent. Bailey got precious few opportunities, but may end up being the most valuable of the bunch as a player who looks like he can start at either guard spot and either tackle spot.

The wildcard for this draft is top pick Christine Michael. He has just 32 snaps on the year, but has flashed game-breaking talent. The team has to find a way to get him on the field next season, if not sooner, which could mean a trade of another young player like Robert Turbin. Michael could have All-Pro upside as a starter in this run-heavy offense. His question marks are around durability and ball security.

One might think the light contributions of this draft class has led to an older team in general. The truth is that the team has largely remained the same age as last year. Snap-weighted age is a statistic I like to use to better judge the playing age of a team's roster. Instead of just taking the average age of every player on the roster, snap-weighted age accounts for the age of the players taking the field the most. A 35-year-old player getting 20 snaps should not be equally weighted to a 24-year-old player getting 754 snaps.
Seattle is barely older this year than last

The Seahawks finished last season with a snap-weighted age of 25.4. After fourteen weeks of the 2013 season, they are at 25.6. Compare that to where the 49ers were last season at 26.9, and it becomes more clear that this Seahawks roster is not just talented, but still incredibly young.

Some of that is credited not to rookies, but to players like Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith replacing Leroy Hill and Turbin and Jermaine Kearse replacing Leon Washington. Kearse also has helped to replace Braylon Edwards and Charly Martin.

Bailey and Bowie have replaced Frank Omiyale's 211 snaps, and James Carpenter has started receive a higher percentage of the snaps from Paul McQuistan. Doug Baldwin stepping in for Sidney Rice and Derrick Coleman playing for Michael Robinson earlier in the year also plays a role.

Carroll came to Seattle wanting to Win Forever. Seahawks fans would be pretty darn happy to just Win Once. I happen to have grown greedy over the decades of non-existent championships. This Seahawks team is setup better than any other to win for a long time, but they must continue to invest in their young players, and find ways to get them involved early. The 2014 draft is going to be a crucial one in determining how much talent the team can surround players like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson with.



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