The Morning After: Seahawks Draft Full of Intrigue
Seattle entered this draft in need of just about every position. The offseason has been taxing on the fanbase as emotions were far stronger about the players leaving than the ones joining. The Seahawks exit the draft with renewed optimism and energy. In that regard, they were successful. Whether this football team took a meaningful step forward on the football field remains to be seen. A number of high risk decisions, dating back to last season and continuing into the first round of this draft, has left the trap door open for a potentially disastrous outcome. Should some of those risks yield their potential rewards, John Schneider will have re-established his reputation and replenished the talent pool.
Pete consolidates power
Pete Carroll commented on the attitude of nearly ever draft choice. He emphasized words like, “humble,” and talked about guys who were “willing to do whatever we ask.” This was a significant factor in picking who he wanted on the roster, and it doesn’t stop there. Look at the coaching changes. Guys like Ken Norton Jr. and Dave Canales are Carroll loyalists. Brian Schottenheimer knows he does not have the juice to challenge Pete. The evidence points to a head coach who has reflected on the past few seasons and decided that he allowed the team to sway from his core philosophy by delegating too much power to coaches who were not aligned and by enabling players to become larger than the team.
The coaching changes were overdue. If nothing else, the value of having one person own offensive game-planning instead of two will lead to more cohesion. A bigger question is whether Carroll has overcorrected on the player side. Part of how the Seahawks became the dominant force they were until the past few seasons was by intimidation and swagger. They were the biggest, baddest, maddest crew in the NFL. Opposing teams were punished for playing the Seahawks, win or lose. The locker room was a pack of alphas, snarling and ready to pounce on any person who slighted them.
Nobody would describe that group as humble.
That does not mean the locker room lacked humility. Russell Wilson embodies the word. Doug Baldwin has largely been the same way. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright fit the bill as well. And look at who is still on the roster. Still, if you speak to many of the humble guys in that locker room, they would tell you they drew strength and confidence from guys like Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman.
If anyone asks, Pete let the dogs out. What he welcomed in were more docile breeds. Now we find out if these dogs can hunt. The optimistic view is players can be loud on the field and soft-spoken off it, a la Kam Chancellor. The pessimistic view is Carroll has overcorrected and left a key ingredient out of his roster recipe. Watching this latest Carroll leadership experiment play out will be among the many fascinating elements of this upcoming season.
First round running backs
If you do not follow Ben Baldwin and Nathan Ernst on Twitter, I suggest you correct that. They are both super bright guys, who are unafraid to fight conventional wisdom with data science swords and shields. Those who do follow them know they can also be [obnoxiously] insistent that the run game does not matter in football. I will not make their case for them, but there is a lot of solid evidence that suggests NFL teams run the ball more than they should and that a correction is looming like what we have seen in the NBA with 3-point shooting. We have sparred a few times because I: (A) enjoy poking the bear (B) believe they are sometimes more interested in proving their theory than dispassionately uncovering truth (C) think it is unlikely the Seahawks will abandon the run anytime soon so there is little point in ignoring how to improve that facet of the offense. Where we are very much aligned is that taking running backs in the first round is a poor use of draft capital.
I was not overly thrilled when the Seahawks traded back from the 18th pick. I have generally been a proponent of stockpiling draft choices, but I was more interested in the Seahawks adding a difference-making player this year and it becomes harder to find All-Pro talent the farther you move down the draft board. It was a foregone conclusion Schneider would be trading back, though, due to the desperate decisions to trade for Sheldon Richardson and Duane Brown a year ago that left the cupboard bare in rounds two and three.
Once they dropped nine spots toward the back of the first round, my fingers were crossed for a mauling lineman like Will Hernandez or maybe a pass rusher like Harold Landry. Instead, they picked running back Rashaad Penny. This drew snickers from many who thought there were better running back options like Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb. I winced because the risk profile of taking running backs in the first round is not pretty, especially if you take them late in the first round. Take a look at how the 44 running backs selected in the first round since 2000 have done in their careers:
Lots of teams have dipped their toes into the first round running back talent pool over the past two decades. Many of them did so in the bottom third of the round. The numbers indicate the quality of the talent has dropped in concert with draft position. Scrimmage yards includes both rushing and receiving yards. Star rate indicates what percentage of the players selected averaged over 1000 scrimmage yards per season. Forget for a second whether taking a running back in the first round is a good choice at all. Look at the return on investment for teams who have selected a back late in the first round like the Seahawks did with Penny. Then, remember that guys like Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook, Chris Carson, Tarik Cohen, and more were taken in the third round or later last year. It is hard to make the case it is worth spending a first round pick on a position that has proven time and time again it can be filled ably by later round picks.
None of this is to say I am down on Penny as a player. Michel is the guy who most clearly projects to stardom as an NFL back by my eye, but his medical issues are significant enough that it is understandable why the Seahawks passed on him. Penny has been durable, has broken plenty of tackles, and has shown some big play ability, albeit at a smaller school. People point to his big performances against Stanford and Arizona St. as evidence of how he will perform against better competition. I would be more convinced if those schools were Alabama and Georgia.
For Penny to be worth the draft choice used to select him, he needs to be a Pro Bowl quality back for multiple seasons. Why? Because there is so much evidence that teams can find quality starters at that position throughout the draft. Penny has to be a star to make this pick a wise use of resources. Fingers crossed that is exactly what he becomes.
When the fifth round is sexier than the first…
Seattle wound up with four choices in the fifth round. They set Seahawks Twitter and the NFL ablaze with their first selection. It is not often that everyone on Twitter across all religious, political, geographic, and team boundaries rejoice in unison. Shaquem Griffin’s name was announced, and it felt like the whole world shrieked and hugged as if Team Humanity had just won the Super Bowl. Not only did everyone want Griffin to be drafted, but everyone was thrilled to see him land with his twin brother in Seattle. Who wouldn’t be excited about a one-handed kid getting a chance to chase his dreams on the same team as his twin brother?
His story will be a treat to follow up close for Seahawks fans. It is more, though, than a human interest narrative. I am just as interested in his prospects as a player. Griffin was a standout pass rusher in college, and is an elite athlete. His speed is off the chart for linebackers.
His height and weight, though, are an issue at that position. For now, the Seahawks will train him up as a backup to Wright at WILL linebacker and allow him to excel on special teams. He is a bit of a puzzle for the Seahawks coaches to figure out as his best trait has been rushing the passer near the line of scrimmage, but his weight and height make him a much more logical fit at strong safety.
Griffin goes from being an undersized linebacker to being a freak athlete at strong safety. He is roughly the same weight as Chancellor and is considerably faster. The team likely will keep him in a more familiar linebacker role this season and work on his ability to play in space. He has played safety before. My hope is that he proves he can do that at the NFL level because if he can, Griffin could become a star at the position and play next to his brother in the Seahawks secondary.
Near the back of the long list of Griffin storylines is whether he will spark conversation about the use of prosthetics in the NFL. Griffin used one to do the bench press in the combine. Will technology provide an opportunity for him to play with a more functional hand during his career? If it does, will the NFL allow it? This kid brings all sort of intrigue. Let’s hope he can make most of the focus about his performance on the field.
Seattle’s next selection in the fifth round was Tre Flowers. Flowers played safety at Oklahoma, but the Seahawks see a cornerback. At 6’3″ with 33 7/8″ arms, Flowers is the same height as Richard Sherman with longer arms. He is also faster (4.45 vs 4.56). His physical profile is very similar to second round corner Carlton Davis out of Auburn.
Seattle has not had as much luck converting safeties to corners with the likes of Eric Pinkins and Mike Tyson failing to grasp the position. Tyson is still around, but he would have to make a massive leap this season to stick much longer. Flowers seems like a worthy candidate. Carroll mentioned some agility drills they ran him through that were likely informed by their prior experience with guys like Pinkins. It also helps that he played at a big school like Oklahoma with a lot of elite athletes. This is a pick that could supercharge this draft for Seattle if Flowers successfully transitions.
Their next pick involved trading up. Schneider rarely trades up early in the draft, but has done so a few times in later rounds. He shocked many people by picking a punter. Spending draft picks before the 6th round on specialists like kickers and punters is generally scorned. Michael Dickson is not just any punter. He was named the best punter in college football last season and some consider him one of the best punters in college football history. Pro Football Focus referred to him as the “Aaron Donald of punters.”
Dickson is a rugby-trained kicker who has the ability to kick for distance and hang time, but his most precious talent is how he can deaden the ball inside the opponents 10-yard line. He was actually named the MVP of the bowl game he played in by kicking 10 of his 11 punts inside the opponents 15-yard line. Seven landed inside the 10-yard line, four inside the 5-yard line, and none were touchbacks.
Everyone loves Jon Ryan. I wish him the best. It is also past time to move on. He is expensive and nowhere close to the difference maker a player like Johnny Hekker or Marquette King is. A great punter can be a huge weapon in the type of ball control games Carroll likes to play. Your defense gets to be more aggressive near the opponents goal line and has more field to yield before points are scored. The offense benefits from having less distance to cover for points of their own. Teams like the Rams gain yards with their special teams because they net more yards per punt than their opponent. Those yards are just as valuable as the ones gained by the offense.
Dickson has the potential to be a difference maker for the Seahawks over the next decade. I, for one, was thrilled to see them exit the draft with him on the roster.
The Seahawks closed the fifth round by selecting offensive tackle Jamarco Jones. This was arguably the most celebrated Seattle pick by analysts. Jones has been a standout starter at left tackle at Ohio St., but performed terribly at the combine. Some thought he would still go as high as the second round, so the Seahawks getting him in the fifth round was considered a great value. Jones will begin as a backup to Duane Brown, and has the ability to become a swing tackle or a future starter. I am always a bit cautious about players with questionable athleticism. The NFL is a bloodsport generally won by biggest, strongest, and fastest players.
Perhaps, Jones rounds into better shape in Seattle or becomes one of those guys who excels as a technician more than an athlete. Spending a late fifth round selection on a guy who could become a starting tackle seems like a worthy risk.
This fifth round is the perfect microcosm for the team’s entire 2018 draft. It could become a major infusion of talent or a bust that only improves special teams. Dickson is the surest bet of the bunch.
Best of the rest
Seattle invested in the line and in the run game when they selected Will Dissly at tight end. Dissly is considered the best blocking tight end in the draft. Schneider called him the closest thing they have seen to Zach Miller. Dissly was a defensive end in college before converting to tight end. He brings that nasty tenacity to the position. After suffering through a few years of patsy cake blocking from finesse tight ends, Dissly will bring a love of contact back to the role. His success will not be measured by how many touchdowns he catches, but by how many holes he opens for others.
That said, he never dropped a pass in college, and could show some potential as a receiver. I like what the team has at the tight end spot with Ed Dickson and Dissly, with guys like Nick Vannett and Tyrone Swoopes behind them. Swoopes may wind up being the best of the bunch. Vannett should not feel comfortable with his roster spot.
Rasheem Green is a pass-rushing defensive lineman out of USC who the Seahawks spent a third round pick on. That was the pick they received from the Packers in order to move back in the first round. Green is a promising athlete who many compared to Michael Bennett. His physical profile compares more closely to some other notable edge pass rushers.
Shawne Merriman, Justin Smith, Charles Grant, and Cory Redding jump out from that list. The knock on Green was an old knee injury from high school. Seattle said multiple times they tried to be more careful this year in selecting players with injury or other red flags. They believe the injury is not an issue. They also believe Green can add more weight beyond his current 275 pounds.
Green is another example of the quiet athletes the team went after this year. Penny, Green, Griffin, Dissly, and on down the line. All these guys are going to listen more than they talk. I generally prefer a little more bark in defensive players. Green comes across as a bit timid off the field, but shows flashes of dominance on it. How he competes with the alpha dogs of the NFL will have a significant impact on how this class is graded.
Impossible to read, impossible to ignore
This draft class will be pivotal one way or another. Schneider and Carroll dug themselves a huge hole by trading away their second and third round selections last season. The most optimistic outlook is that the Seahawks just added a star running back and rare blocking tight end to drastically improve their run game, a difference-making pass rusher on the defensive line, a freak athlete at strong safety and cornerback, a starting left tackle, and a possible hall of fame punter (hey, I said optimistic).
The most pessimistic outlook would be that the Seahawks added a good blocker at tight end, a rotational running back, and a good punter.
I was not excited for this draft coming in because it did not set up well for the Seahawks and they really needed an influx of talent across the entire roster. I exit the draft rejuvenated. Heck, I even wrote an article for the first time in months. I cannot say with confidence that this group will make the Seahawks a great team this season, but I know I’m pumped to see them try.