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The Commissioner steps to the podium, “The Seattle Seahawks are on the clock with the 26th pick in the first round.” Your heart races. Thousands of hours of film review, discussion, self-scouting, and strategic planning have prepared you for this moment. Twenty-five players are no longer available, but plenty of great ones still are, including a tight end who you never expected to be there this late. You do not have a real need at that position. This guy has All-Pro potential, but might not even play much this year if you take him. There are other players you like who could address an immediate need, but they are less of a sure bet than the tight end. Best player or biggest need? Who do you choose? This is an age-old debate in NFL front offices and among fans. John Schneider and the Seahawks have a demonstrated and discussed their philosophy on this question. The results have been uneven.

 

The role of team need in player selection

Every team factors need into their draft evaluations. Nobody should suggest otherwise. Schneider has been more direct in explaining that not only does need play a role in their draft decisions, but it impacts the grade they give a player. James Carpenter was a pick that was universally panned as soon as it was made. Even Carpenter’s college head coach, Nick Saban, admitted he was surprised Carpenter had gone in the first round. Was it because Schneider and the Seahawks thought they saw a first-round talent where nobody else did? Not exactly.

 

“We grade for our team. We don’t grade for the league. We grade for what our team looks like. What ends up happening, you just have specific positions that are pushed, if you will. Like the year we took (James Carpenter), everybody thought we took Carp too high. Well, we had a specific need, so that’s why he was moved up. That’s the way we’ve done it over the years. We have the same process, we grade the same way, our grading scale is the same, but we’re always looking towards the future in terms of, how do we address who’s coming up as a free agent, who can compete at left guard or who can compete at center or left tackle? Those are the things we focus on instead of saying, ‘OK, this guy’s a first rounder, why is he a first-rounder? Here’s a description of a first rounder.”- John Schneider

 

If you read the quote above, it is clear that Schneider may have had the same grade for Carpenter’s talent level as everyone else, but that he was upgraded due to a need the team identified. That is what he means when he says, “We grade for our team. We don’t grade for the league.” The Seahawks are not trying to stack rank every player from 1-N in terms of talent, and then working to grab the top talent when their pick is called. They grade talent, and then factor in need and scheme fit to arrive at a blended perspective on the value of that player to the organization.

Drafting more purely for talent

Addressing needs is nothing new. For any GM to say otherwise would be disingenuous. It is a sliding scale, though, where not all general managers treat need the same way. The Patriots, for example, drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft. Nobody would say New England needed a quarterback, yet they used a high draft pick on one. Two years later, they used a third round pick on another quarterback (Jacoby Brissett). That only happens because the organization places a lower value on addressing needs, and a higher value on drafting the best player available than a team like the Seahawks do. There is a limit to ignoring need as a factor. Would the Patriots draft a fourth quarterback with a high round pick after already having Brady, Garoppolo, and Brissett in tow? Probably not.

Still, they believe in taking the top talent that comes to them. They are not afraid of creating a surplus at a position. Many have argued the Patriots already had a surplus at that position with just two starting caliber players, but now they might have three. A needs-based GM would look at that and cringe, seeing quality draft picks sitting on the bench. The Patriots likely look at it as a way to accumulate more talent. Consider that Garoppolo was the 62nd pick of the draft in 2014. Many thought the Browns would be willing to trade the 12th overall pick this year to acquire him. It is possible some may have given up even more.

If you could travel back in a time machine to 2014, and trade your late second round pick for a guaranteed top 12 pick three years later, while also guaranteeing yourself two years of service time from a quality backup quarterback who was capable of winning a few games when your starter was out, would you make the trade? I would. It is not clear Schneider would, especially if it meant passing on another player who addressed an immediate need.

Take linebacker Reuben Foster. He was a player who many had as a top-shelf talent in this year’s draft. Peter King confirmed that the 49ers had him rated as the third overall player on their draft board. He fell all the way to #31 with the Seahawks on the clock. The Saints were going to take him at #32, and were already on the phone with him when Seattle finished a trade with San Francisco that allowed the 49ers to get their man. Reports are that Foster was not even a consideration for Seattle, and that makes sense given their need-centric philosophy.

Foster is really a middle linebacker. Bobby Wagner is an All-Pro at that position, and K.J. Wright is a Pro Bowler at linebacker as well. When the team goes to nickel defense, one of their linebackers comes off the field, and only Wagner and Wright remain. Foster would probably either be used as a backup or as a SAM linebacker who only plays 30-40% of the defensive snaps if he was selected by Seattle. Wagner is under contract for three more seasons, and Wright for two. Given the pressing needs the team has at other positions, it is easy to understand why Seattle passed on him.

But what if they did not? And what if Foster is truly a future All-Pro linebacker in the mold of someone like Patrick Willis? He still would start out with limited snaps at linebacker and be utilized on special teams. He might go the way of Kam Chancellor, who spent his rookie year backing up Lawyer Milloy, playing in certain sub-packages, and terrorizing opponents on special teams before becoming a full-time starter the next year. He might wind up being needed his rookie year if Wagner or Wright go down with injury, and give the Seahawks quality depth at a position where they have lacked it for a few years. He might even prove good enough that the team considers switching Wagner and Wright around to make room for Foster so they could get the best three players on the field. Wright is turning 30 in two years and will be an unrestricted free agent. Foster could be primed to take over that spot and give the Seahawks freedom to spend salary cap dollars elsewhere.

A surplus is not a bad thing. Talent finds a way to help, either directly on the field or indirectly through trade.

 

The role of position strength in player selection

The Seahawks selected Malik McDowell with the 35th pick of the draft this year after trading back three times. Schneider has been quoted as saying that the team would have selected McDowell even if they had been unable to trade down from the 26th spot they started in. That means he would have picked McDowell in front of players like Kevin King, Takkarist McKinley, Cam Robinson, and Ryan Ramczyk. Most fans and media take that to mean Schneider believes McDowell is a better player than those guys. Not quite.

 

Schneider is not asking himself, “Who is the best player?” when the Seahawks number is called. He is asking, “Which player helps us get the most out of this draft?”

 

The Seahawks grade every player, and put them into what they refer to as “shelves.” Imagine a player rating scale from 1-8, with 8 being an exceptional prospect who can become an All-Pro, and 1 being not worthy of being in the NFL at all. As a matter of fact, that is a common rating scale for league scouts. There are very few players worthy of being an 8, but 7 and above could be a Pro Bowl impact player, and 6 could be a starter. A very simplistic way of explaining Schneider’s approach would be that he is trying to end up with the highest total number if you added the rating of every player he drafted together.

Seahawks Draft World View

The graphic above is an attempt to visualize how I believe Schneider sees his draft board. There are a certain number of players that fall into each rating shelf. You can almost put your hands over the player names and just look at how many prospects are available at each shelf. He would probably rank players in each shelf from left-to-right, so there is some sense of who their top player would be at every rating level. When it comes to deciding who to choose, though, his decisions appear based on two primary factors:

  1. What are the team needs?
  2. How deep is that position in the draft?

Let’s revisit the King versus McDowell decision. When Seattle was picking at 26, and then again at 31, Schneider was not looking to get the best player from the 7 shelf on his draft board. Even if their was a linebacker who was close to an 8, he would not be considered. He saw a big dropoff at the defensive tackle position after McDowell. He may even have believed there was no other player like McDowell left in the draft. It did not matter whether King was a more highly rated player, who was more likely to be an impact player than McDowell. Schneider would rather exit with the best DT he could grab and a lesser cornerback because he knows he will still get a quality corner later on. Same thing goes for taking Ethan Pocic later in the second round. Pocic may have been the last offensive lineman Schneider thought could impact the team in this draft. He made the same decision in the 2014 draft with Justin Britt in the second round.

 

“I remember talking to you guys about Justin Britt. We felt like we needed to take Justin right where we did because there was a huge shelf there, a big drop-off.” – John Schneider on the Brock & Salk show last year

 

This also helps explain why Schneider values quantity of picks over moving up or staying put with higher selections. When it is about total talent drafted, you want as many of the players on your board with the potential to make the roster as possible. That is more important than getting players with the highest upside or the players who are most reliably projected to meet their potential.

 

The risk with Schneider’s approach

There is a lot of logic to what Schneider is doing. The idea of exiting the draft without any viable interior pass rusher just so he can take a great cornerback instead of a good one sounds pretty crazy on it’s face. Take another look.

Source: ESPN.com

Source: ESPN.com

The above table is from ESPN, not the Seahawks, but imagine for this discussion that it is accurate ranking of draft prospects by their likelihood to become an impact player. This view of the top draft prospects would indicate that McDowell is the 41st best prospect, where someone like King is the 22nd and Foster is 8th. Said another way, selecting a player like McDowell when higher ranked players are still available means you are passing on a better player and more sure bet in order to make sure a need gets addressed.

That means there is a higher risk your selection does not become an impact player, and it increases the odds that you passed on an impact player. If McDowell becomes Jordan Hill instead of Michael Bennett, while King becomes a reliable starter, the pressure falls to your later picks to work out. The problem is, by their nature as later picks, they are less likely to be great. Shaquill Griffin may become as good, or better, than the corners you could have taken in the first round. That would justify the risk at the top of the draft. History would say it is more likely that a number of the corners taken before him will wind up being better players.

This is where emphasizing team needs and choosing to grab the back half of a deep position in the draft is risky. Schneider looks at a deep position and sees it as a reason to trade back and wait to pick a player from the pool. That approach increases the odds that the team misses out on getting good talent from a deep position. He sees the depth at the position as a chance to get a good player later instead of seeing it as a chance to get a great player early. Five corners were taken before the 31st selection. In a normal year for cornerback depth, King might have been a top 20 pick. The depth created opportunity to get a player who normally would be much farther up the board. The same thing happened with the Seahawks second pick where nine corners were taken before the 58th selection. Some of the corners there would likely have been picked in the early second round in normal years.

Seattle wound up with a corner 32 picks later, who still represents a bargain. He just comes with less certainty, which ironically means you may leave a cornerback-heavy draft without addressing a clear need at the position.

 

It is a little bit like favoring the buffet to the steak dinner. You get variety and abundance versus the best tasting food. The Seahawks almost certainly exited this draft with more players who have a chance to stick on the roster than if they had decided to stay put at the 26th or 31st slot in the first round. The idea that Schneider got “too cute” and missed the player he really wanted is off-base. He knew exactly what he was doing, and accurately forecast that the guy he wanted would be available all the way down at the 35th pick. He did the same thing with Russell Wilson at the 75th pick a few years back, and that worked out pretty well. It is not that Schneider misjudges player talent. Quite the opposite. He simply places a heavier emphasis on need and total talent drafted than a typical general manager. If Griffin becomes a quality starter, the strategy will be have been worth it. If Griffin does not, McDowell and Pocic will need to be damn good players to warrant missing on a cornerback in a draft chock full of them.

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12 Responses

  1. Kevin

    Really enjoyed this break down. I would love to see the “hit rate” on these picks. Probably impossible to do but would be interesting to compare all the drafts from 2012 on and see where this philosophy has helped and hurt our team. For example, obviously the late picks of Russ, Sherm, Kam, KJ, etc all hit but did it really hurt us one year to trade out of a higher spot or to take Carp instead of another higher rated player. Again, that is hard to judge because we don’t know the highest rated player on the seahawks board at the time (taking away “team need”).

    To add on what you wrote, I have often thought that the Hawks front office believes that this “first round” moniker is fools gold and try to capitalize on other front offices that want that pick 29 (first round) over pick 35 (second round). Again I don’t know the numbers but picking stars still has some luck involved so why not get more picks and you wil be more likely to hit (even if the upper rounds are far more likely to miss). Just some thoughts. I think we can all look to the Tennessee trade that they pulled off last year with the Rams and see the 7 picks the got out of that (Conklin, Corey Coleman, Derrick Henry, etc). I’m rambling but I can see the validity of both arguments and each team has to balance their philosophy on team needs, number of draft picks and evaluation talent.

    Reply
  2. Brandon

    Everyone is freaking out about not drafting Kevin King. Here are a couple of reasons why it may not be the end of the world.
    First, King’s stock rose dramatically after his strong combine… but before that (based on his game film), he was rated as a late 2nd, or 3rd round pick. Perhaps the Seahawks weren’t overly impressed with his game tape, and don’t feel he is as “can’t miss” as the armchair draft experts are new opining.

    Second, the Seahawks feel they have an advantage in the way they coach up the cornerback position.
    In a league where you look to gain any competitive advantage, they feel they can draft corners later, and coach them into playing a certain way. In fact, it is highly unlikely that King would have been able to step right in, and start this year, let alone make a big impact. For a team that wants to compete this year, it makes sense to draft a pass rusher who can impact plays more dramatically and quickly (who, in turn, can positively effect the play of the DBs).

    Reply
    • Doug

      Agree with Brandon’s comments about the Seahawks’ belief they can ‘coach up’ players, particularly in the secondary. King might possibly be a better CB *for the Seahawks* than other DBs they picked, but the Seahawks probably believe the guys they picked will be as good or better than King once they have brought them into the system.

      Great article that I enjoyed up to this comment: “It is a little bit like favoring the buffet to the steak dinner. You get variety and abundance versus the best tasting food.” Higher draft picks are more expensive food, but not necessarily better tasting–that gets back to the coaching as well. Skirt steak or tenderloin? Properly prepared skirt steak is a very tasty dish indeed! And a mistreated tenderloin can be a miserable waste of money.

      Reply
  3. Uncle Bob

    Well Brian, have to commend you for not going full Howard Beale here. Good control. I think your analysis of JS style is pretty close based on outcomes. Kapedia pulled together some interesting numbers recently about O-line drafting since the arrival of PC and JS here. In that period, the Hawks have drafted more O-linemen than any other team in the league…………three of them in the first round. Yet here they were/are, the team perceived with the greatest need for O-line improvement in the league. While I’m not a PFF fan, they have them ranked last in performance scoring in the league for 2016. Schneider has done better in other positions, but for whatever reason(s) they keep falling on their face with the O-line. Many will be quick to blame Cable, and he may share some, but in the end JS makes the choice(s). He’s not alone by any means. Most of the QB needy guys pretty much follow the same pattern when forcing a high QB choice…………that track record probably makes the Seahawk O-line pattern look more successful by comparison.

    It will be fun to see how some will rationalize the choices, we’ve seen a bit already. Take McDowell as perhaps the biggest example. Yeah, he has some serious gifts for the role proposed, but that’s not the issue to be concerned about. It’s the near universal (Every single article or commentary I’ve seen or heard since the draft has called his “motor” into question………something that universal is troubling, even if you adjust for meme imitation) concern about attitude. Obviously the management/coaches think they can handle it………….we’ll see. I still say that’s a higher risk than should be taken on a high pick. But they’re the ones being paid to make those decisions not me. Good luck guys……………

    Reply
    • andytyl003

      If you read the first reactions from the draft compared to the later posts, we can see Brian has a change of heart. I am not very bright, but all I know is when your biggest investment is not protected, then what is the point of having the investment in the first place. During JS and PC era, I believe they’ve had 64 draftees.
      Eight of them have had made at least to one Pro Bowl or an All-Pro but not one since 2012 class with an exception of Tyler Lockett in 2015 (as a returner, not a positional one). The “successful” rate is 12.50%. I don’t know what the league average is so I don’t know if that is good, bad or just average. Regarding the OL, you made some good points, however, before TC’s arrival, they drafted RO whose traits are very different from most of the draftees since he became the OL coach. RO is much more a finesse player compared to the later OL. Those players tend to be more raw, tough, strong, and not very good in techniques, especially in pass protection. About this class, I don’t know much about those players. I saw McDowell, Hill, and Darboh played a few times. I like Hill a lot but don’t know if they have a position for him right now. They probably are counting McDowell to become another Frank Clark (I didn’t think he will be good but he proved me wrong so far). I saw McDowell played a few times in 2015, and he dominated the competition in the Big-10, but he didn’t show up in 2016. So I don’t know. We shall see.

      Reply
  4. Andrew

    A couple things you forgot to mention. Specifically you mentioned Reuben Foster. He has a shoulder issue that has many GM’s nervous about taking him and this, not the off-field incidences, was the reason for his slide down to the end of the first round. He may end up being a more risky pick than McDowell. Kevin King was originally anticipated to be a mid round talent until he stole the show at the combine. Pete and John have an insiders view into UW husky prospects, frequently watching UW practices, etc. They would know Kevin King as well as anyone, and if they really liked him more than the other corners they would have taken him with their first pick. They honestly believe Malik McDowell has the potential to be another Calais Cambpell. These types of interior pass rushers are far more rare than cornerbacks like Kevin King. Furthermore, you listed prospects based on ESPN. This may have come from a Mel Kiper or Todd McShay, and they are proven wrong in their scouting each year.

    Reply
    • Hawksince77

      Agree completely. McDowell fell due to his poor showing in 2016. If he reaches his potential and becomes the next Campbell, the Seahawks just hit it out of the park. Not unlike drafting Clark in the second, who fell for different reasons.

      Elite pass rushers are worth more than elite corners. And given PC’s track record with the secondary, and how they have been drafted in the past, we should be very impressed that he used third round picks, higher than any before, excepting Thomas. We can also expect other players to emerge, as it is unlikely that a rookie CB would start anyway.

      Reply
      • Robert

        I’ll go a step further: the Hawks teach a different technique for CBs than other teams. That means they may evaluate prospects differently as well. The guy that they draft in round 4 might be the #3 CB on their draft board, and maybe only a hair behind #s 1&2.
        As for McDowell’s motor, we know they meet with him pre-draft. They may also have done the kind of deep research they performed on Clark, and may feel there is less to worry about here than meets the eye.

  5. STB

    The reason JS’s approach is smart is because the media and most GMs are vastly over-confident in their ability to accurately rank talent and vastly underestimate the role of herding and group think. Imagine if every draft writer operated completely in a vacuum with zero pre-conceived notions about any player, armed only with hours and hours of tape and their own ability to identify talent. Would there really be this broad national consensus that Kevin King should be a late round 1 pick? I’d bet my house that truly independent rankings on any given player would vary *wildly*.

    Think of the complex variables in evaluating players: small school vs large school, technique vs. raw athleticism, production vs untapped upside, length, height, hand size, what games you happen to watch (no single person can watch but a tiny fraction of each prospect’s overall body of work), scheme fit, how the player was coached, whether the guy was playing hurt, what traits each evaluator notices and cares about, position importance, translation of talent to pro-style game, not to mention “character” traits like intelligence, perseverance, leadership, adaptability, or affinity for intoxicants. Despite this huge complexity we get sucked right in and think King is a slightly better prospect than McDowell as he’s slightly ahead on the majority of published boards and we assume if everyone is so consistent in ranking King slightly ahead they must really know something. Personally, I have no idea which is better.

    Now Griffin has an athletic profile about as freaky as King with some good numbers but from a small school and somewhat ambiguous tape (according to Stanton). I sure as heck like the combination of McDowell, Griffin, Tedric Thompson, and Chris Carson (our haul with trade backs) compared to King alone.

    Reply
  6. Scott Crowder

    We used to have a GM that drafted Best Player Available instead of need. That thinking, that somehow he could identify BPA in the first place, when need was a known factor, is what got us Aaron Curry.
    I’ll take Schneiders approach any day over the BPA approach.

    Reply
  7. Steven Dominguez

    Brian – great piece. Very helpful to understand shelf concept.

    The quality vs. quantity argument will always be fuzzy. I think the issue is that the Hawks have actually disproportionately invested in OL with the “quantity” approach and this roster spot is actually the exception to the overall talent evaluation rule because versatility and mindset trump talent with Cable being especially influential with OL picks.

    The dearth of OL prospects, coupled with our worship of the Cable merry-go-round training approach means we end up with very coach-able/versatile guys that at best settle into playing below average at a spot after failing completely at other spots. And this has eroded the overall “value” we’ve extracted from the draft given our disproportionate investment there.

    At least with Pocic, we avoided the Joey Hunt/Cable lovefest that we heard Schneider mention last draft. Suggest breaking down our OL picks by resulting # of quality starts vs. a league average for OL picks and then assessing how much of our total draft investment since 2012 has varied from what should be expected.

    Reply

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