Green grass on blue clear sky, spring nature theme. Panorama or banner. Super high resolution, premium quality.
Evaluating a draft class before any of the players have played a snap is generally a waste of time. The number of variable involved is staggering, as are the number of unanswerable questions. Could the team have drafted him later? Is he more valuable in our system than in another team’s system? Will he be a starter? How much better can he be than he is right now? What we can do is compare the known needs of the team heading into the draft with the players selected, and take some educated guesses about what needs remain.
Heading into the 2010 pre-season, I ran a series breaking down and ranking every position group on the team. Here’s how things stacked up:
Now, remember as you look at this that these rankings are relative. When a team is lacking talent overall, being the #1 position group does not necessarily mean that much. Exiting the season, the offensive line had done little to change its ranking. The defensive line proved how well it could play when healthy, but had key question marks with Brandon Mebane’s free agency and Red Bryant’s knee injury. The wide receiver group showed a lot of growth, but lacked a vertical threat. The linebackers were NFL average, at best, outside of David Hawthorne. And, of course, the quarterback question mark is well known. If I had ranked needs 1-N before the draft it would have looked something like this:
#5 5-Tech DE (Red Bryant partner)
#8 Back-up LEO
#10 Big-play WR
Let’s try to match-up the team’s new draft picks with where they might fit relative to this list of needs:
#2 OG (John Moffit)
#4 CB (Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell)
#5 5-Tech DE (Lazarius Levingston)
#6 RT (James Carpenter)
#8 Back-up LEO (KJ Wright)
#9 Center (Moffit allows Unger to slide over to Center)
#10 Big-play WR
Not listed: Kris Durham, Mark Legree, Malcolm Smith
You can interpret this in a variety of ways. One, the front office very well may have a different Top 10 list of needs than I do. Two, the front office likes what it can do via free agency and/or trade for some of these gaps more than what was available in the draft. Three, the front office is committed to taking the highest rated player on their board even if it is not a key need for the team. Likely, it is a combination of all these things.
What I find most instructive is the players they drafted that don’t fill a major need. Start with Safety Mark Legree. Legree was a 5th round pick, which is still relatively high. It is not unheard of for 5th round picks to play some snaps in their rookie year outside of special teams. Legree is not a player I know well, but all accounts describe him as the anti-Kam Chancellor. He’s a speed coverage safety who is not great near the line of scrimmage, but can run with almost any slot receiver or TE. Earl Thomas is a fixture in the defensive backfield. He is the guy who can probably cover anybody. Lawyer Milloy will probably be back for one more season, and will compete with Bam Bam Chancellor for the starting safety spot opposite Thomas. Both Milloy and Chancellor are exceptional near the line of scrimmage, supporting against the run and even blitzing on occasion. Both also struggle at times in coverage. Legree is a guy the Seahawks are likely hoping can be a 3rd and long safety compliment to Thomas. Thomas was used to cover some receivers one-on-one toward the end of the season, and Legree could potentially allow him to do more of that. He also could give the team a back-up should Thomas ever be out for a bit. There was literally nobody on the team that could be considered a coverage safety other than Thomas last season. Legree needs to prove he can cover in the NFL, but the logic behind the pick is pretty clear. It also illustrates a continuing trend toward specialization on the roster. Having specialists, guys that might be great at something but bad at something else, allows coordinators to mix and match lineups for a variety of situations. This is a different philosophy than coaches that want do-everything guys who never come off the field, but are less likely to be exceptional at any one thing.
Take a look at Kris Durham next. At 6’5″, 216 lbs, with a 4.43 40-yard dash and a 35-inch vertical, Durham is an intriguing prospect. Analysts talk about him as a possession receiver similar to Mike Williams, and a red-zone threat. That’s a pretty athletic possession receiver. He’s also pretty strong with 17 reps of 225lbs. Here’s a highlight video that give a decent view of what he brings. Pay particular attention at ~1:50 and ~3:50 with his catch and run acceleration:
The kid has good hands, will catch over the middle, and looks extremely comfortable finding the seam in the defense. The seam route may be one of the most important in the West Coast Offense, and since John Carlson seems less able to run it than we all hoped, players like Brandon Stokley and Durham become more valuable. It would be ideal to bring Stokley back for one more season to teach this kid the ropes, but it is not hard to imagine the mismatches presented by 6’5″ Williams, 6’5″ Durham and Ben Obamanu 6’1″. Durham will need to learn how to find holes in the zone, and be more than seam/fade guy. He may end up helping with that big-play WR need, but that seems less likely given his projected role in the offense.
Malcolm Smith is a 7th round pick, so spending too much time evaluating him is silly. A guy picked that late is slotted for special teams if he makes the club. However, Carroll mentioned how fast he was and how good he was in coverage. Again, here’s a specialist that could replace Hawthorne in certain coverage situations. Curry is already taken off in those scenarios.
Now let’s look at KJ Wright. At 6’3″, 236 lbs, Wright is a decent size linebacker. Two immediate roles come to mind for this kid. First, and most commonly mentioned, is to back-up Chris Clemons at the LEO position. That’s a pass-rushing spot that can allow for somewhat lighter players. The more provocative role would be a hedge against Aaron Curry’s future with the team. Curry makes serious cash, and is not producing anywhere near the level he is being paid for. He’s not even one of the ten best players on a pretty bad team. Wright has the size to play over the tight end, and could prove to be a better football player than Curry. Pay close attention to where Wright is getting his snaps come pre-season.
Lazarius Levingston is another 7th-rounder, but the team may rightly believe it can address that 5-tech spot with guys that are less valuable to other teams and systems. Remember, Junior Siavii moved over to that spot for one game against Atlanta and made an immediate impact. The role demands a player that can stand up the right tackle, and not a ton else. Siavii was 6’5″ and 315 lbs. Levingston is 6’4″ and listed at 292 lbs. He’ll probably need to add some weight, but the real hope is Bryant is healthy enough to make the back-up role less critical.
The two selections at cornerback are revealing. We know Carroll prefers tall corners, but what gets less discussion is his desire to be able to press with regularity. He wants his corners rolled up on the WRs a lot, disrupting their routes off the line. Both Sherman and Maxwell are over 6′ (Sherman is 6’3″!), and excel in press coverage. This is a classic case of being more valuable in this system than in others. Where these guys were graded lower was due to their pure coverage ability in a back-pedal. Picture the Bears Charles Tillman. That’s what Carroll is looking for. If he gets his hands on you as a WR, it’s over. If you can get past his press, you’ll probably be open. Sherman plays with a nasty edge, and likes to hit. He is the anti-Kelly Jennings on the field. There is some potential there as a blitzer as well.
Capenter and Moffit are going to be given every chance to start, and that’s putting it mildly. The offensive line has a proven coach, a cornerstone left tackle, and strong young players at every position except left guard. It is a given the team will sign a veteran left guard, and there are plenty of great ones to choose from. Assuming that gets done, the front office has put together a group that should be reaching its prime in two seasons, but will be better running the football immediately. It typically takes less time for a young lineman to deliver production in the running game than as a pass protector. What we don’t know is how good these young guys will be at little things like false starts and handling stunts or blitzes. That’s where Cable will be held accountable. The importance of building a strong young offensive line cannot be overstated. It improves every facet of the offense, and in turn, can elevate a defense. Championship teams rarely have a less-than-stellar offensive line.
The team is, however, left with some glaring holes. Carroll implied yesterday that the Seahawks have a plan for the quarterback position that, “we just can’t execute yet.” Captain Obvious tells me that is either a free agent or a trade. It that guy is going to be the team’s starter, and that person is not Matt Hasselbeck, it will be almost impossible to get him ready for the season if the lockout goes on for a few more months. Hasselbeck can probably roll in and be reasonably effective right away. Carson Palmer, Kevin Kolb or others would need a few months to adjust. There is also the chance that they elevate Charlie Whitehurst, and sign a back-up (Matt Leinart anyone?). If that’s where things end up, take solace in the fact the team could be in position to nab Andrew Luck next year at this time.
Defensive tackle is a more stressful gap than quarterback. At least there are tons of options at QB. If the Seahawks don’t sign Brandon Mebane, there are very few difference makers on the free agent market. Albert Haynesworth anyone?
All drafts take on a life of their own, almost a personality. Last year’s draft was a celebration. The Seahawks made splashy, popular picks in each of their first three choices. Even a guy like Walter Thurmond was a high-profile player coming off an injury and Anthony McCoy was a highly thought of tight end that fell due to a failed drug test. This year requires a lot more faith in the front office. Few draft analysts are celebrating the choices the Seahawks made. There is no reason to think it is a bad draft yet, but Schneider has put more pressure on himself by picking players many felt were chosen above their value. Seahawks fans have every right to feel nervous about a “no-name” draft after suffering through some duds, and seeing their division rivals grab some exciting prospects. Keep in mind all the roster shuffling last season, even at the end of training camp. The front office has a pretty darn good track record of finding talent to plug in. Trusting that these were the right choices will be tough. Something tells me, though, this off-season is just beginning. Don’t be surprised if the Seahawks make some major splashes in free agency or via trades.