As a little intro: I'm going to make this rookie report a weekly feature here at Field Gulls - future reports will deal more specifically with the most recent game performances, but since this is the inaugural report, I gave a more thorough breakdown of each Seahawks rookie up to this point in the season. I've placed them in order of ranking (as far as their overall performances this year) and this ranking will continue as a "weekly ranking" from here on out so I'll rank them by their game performance for each week. Let's get this started!
1. Doug Baldwin - WR - Stanford - UDFA
Baldwin's initial burst off the line may be the best of any Seattle receiver. He gets behind linebackers quickly and gets his head around to locate the ball early when coming out of breaks. Most importantly though, the guy can run routes. The key to effective route running is being able to make precise cuts, and do so without bogging down or tipping your hand by slowing down into the cut. When you hear scouts talk about how well a receiver can "sink his hips" they're referring to his ability to make a sharp cut without rounding off the route or over-running the target cut point on the field, and flexible hips allow that to happen.
Watch Golden Tate and you'll see a stiff-hipped receiver who struggles to create separation on his routes despite possessing better straight-line speed than someone like Baldwin. Ever notice that when Tate makes a grab on an out route or a slant, that despite having the strong hands to secure the catch, the defender is usually right on his back? This is because he lacks that space-creating ability to sink the hips and cut sharply. All this to say that Baldwin possesses that flexibility, is displaying consistency in running precise routes each week and is really crafty in creating space between himself and defenders despite not having elite top-end speed. He's also improving on his recognition of zone space.
He knows how to locate a window and sit down in the hole, particularly on 3rd down as he did on a couple of occasions against St. Louis. As for the hands, he can snatch the ball off his frame, and even when he doesn't secure with his hands, he avoids chest-trapping the ball by absorbing the catch with the inside of his forearms (as Sidney Rice did on the TD catch Sunday). He's gutsy and shows no fear over the middle, which makes him an ideal slot receiver. Where he could struggle is if he's asked to line up on the outside and routinely go against man coverage.
There's really not a lot to be critical of so far with Baldwin. He's a long-term slot guy with ability to make things happen after the catch - something that you didn't necessarily have with Bobby Engram. I think Baldwin compares more accurately to someone like Steve Breaston (the ARI version) or Green Bay rookie Randall Cobb (a 2nd round pick, by the way).
2. Richard Sherman - CB - Stanford - 5th Round (154th overall)
Gets his hands up quickly and is good at making his initial contact count - re-directing and bumping guys off route at the line rather than just "laying" his hand on them. There's a level of violence that is required to be an effective jammer, and Sherman displays it pretty frequently. When you're this physical/violent as a corner, you have to trust in your ability to turn and run, and recover if you "whiff" on your jam because you're taking a significant gamble, particularly with speedy, quick receivers, when you lean forward and get your arms extended to jolt them at the snap.
Your hand placement is key (inside shoulder pads is preferred) and you don't want to bend at the waist, but rather absorb impact with your lower body. Sherman, for being relatively new to the position, displayed improvement again in these areas yesterday, despite making some key mistakes. He played off (soft) coverage a bit more than we've seen in previous games, and did show some vulnerability to getting beat when he's not up on the line getting physical with the receiver.
Particularly on the TD pass to Brandon Lloyd, Sherman was fooled in space when Lloyd stutter stepped, stopped and started, as Sherman hadn't flipped his hips yet, and ended up getting around late to run downfield. Where he excels is in making initial contact at the line, then turning and running with the receiver where he can stop and start more effectively on this type of a fake. If he's back-pedaling still 15 yards down field, he's going to be susceptible to stop-start, and sharp cuts. He needs to get his hips around earlier, plain and simple. But, as he got back into press, he continued to shut down his opponent, particularly the slant. His quickness and agility are "plus" for his size and his approach to breaking up passes is well timed.
You can appreciate/notice this when you watch Brandon Browner who, although equally physical and long, does not possess the timing to routinely break up passes without initiating too much contact and ultimately drawing the pass interference penalty. Sherman rarely gets called for interference but maintains his physical play, doesn't allow cushion, isn't afraid to suffocate his opponent and gets his hand out to bat the ball. As a tackler, Sherman relies more on the "hit" than he should, but has been fortunate to make those hits count for tackles more often than not. Would like to see him target lower and wrap guys up at the knee or lower more frequently.
Sherman appears to be another great value pick (5th round) for Seattle who was initially thrust into the role as a patchwork starter, but is solidifying himself as a permanent starter.
3. K.J. Wright - LB - Mississippi State - 4th Round (99th overall)
Wright's zone discipline and gap control are exactly what Aaron Curry lacked. Playing on the strong side, he works well in tandem with Red Bryant in controlling and maintaining the inside gap where Bryant is able to redirect the runner by setting the edge and closing off the outside. Wright is active with his hands to shed 2nd level blocks, and displays good initial burst (quick first step) to close on the gap and finish on the runner.
He does tend to get a bit upright when engaging a blocker rather than keeping his pads low, so he loses some leverage, but his long arms and quick hands allow him to disengage and recover. When scraping down from the far side, he displays good speed to chase down the runner from behind. Solid, fundamental wrap up tackler. Will get lost in coverage from time to time or follow a man crossing the flat when he should stay put, but he rarely repeats the same mistakes, and he possesses the natural fluidity in space to be a good coverage ‘backer.
Against the Rams, Wright did a great job of diagnosing the run early and getting into position, sitting down on his gap and waiting for the runner to counter when plays were going to the opposite side (he didn't chase or over-pursue and leave his side vulnerable to the cutback), and was equally responsive to plug the hole when a run did come his way. Appears to be a quick learner. Could probably hold his own getting some reps at the LEO considering his good burst off the snap, long arms and active/quick hands.
He'll be tough to supplant as the starter because he learns so quickly and rarely repeats mistakes. Looks like a mainstay there for several years. There are two types of rookie starters in the NFL - permanent starters and patchwork starters. The former are guys who have earned their starting role and competed their way to the top of the depth chart, and the latter are guys who have been forced into a starting role due to depth chart issues (i.e. injuries, etc.).
Typically, 4th round picks who end up starting as rookies are patchwork starters. Wright is an absolute permanent starter, and has arguably been Seattle's best value pick from this year's draft.
4. Malcolm Smith - LB - USC - 7th Round (252nd overall)
Smith is being worked more into the defense, particularly on passing downs where his elite speed and athleticism enable him to be utilized as a rusher or in coverage. He struggles to shed blocks, so he relies on leverage and speed to beat bigger blockers and has fared decently in limited action. It's on special teams where he's had his greatest impact. He gets downfield quickly and possesses the strength and quickness to break the wedge or simply evade blockers laterally.
He's a run-and-hit tackler who can really lay a pop, and has targeted nicely as a gunner. As a linebacker, Smith is a developmental project whose athleticism offers the versatility to drop into coverage, rush the passer or even cover the slot. Look for him to compete for a more significant role backing up the weakside linebacker position (Leroy Hill's spot now), next season. In the meantime, he provides value on special teams.
5. Byron Maxwell - CB - Clemson - 6th Round(173rd overall)
Maxwell, like Smith, has been used primarily on special teams, although he definitely possesses some upside as a cornerback. In the preseason, Maxwell played tough press coverage at the line and also flashed the ability to cover the slot with better-than-expected foot quickness and straight line speed. He's physical, loves to hit and knows how to tackle.
Where he needs to show improvement if he wants to factor into the secondary on a consistent basis, is in his decision making and ability to correct mistakes. His aggression can be a bit overkill, and on special teams, he hasn't displayed the greatest judgment at times, repeating penalized mistakes. We haven't seen enough of him as a corner to evaluate his ability there yet, but in the meantime, he's a really valuable gunner on punt coverage in particular, and his style of play fits the physical nature that Pete Carroll is establishing with this team. He had a critical fumble recovery Sunday that may have saved the game for Seattle, when Leon Washington muffed a punt down in what would have been the red zone for St. Louis.
Seattle is getting good value out of Maxwell on special teams, but he'll need to show that he can stop costing the team yards with unnecessary penalties.
6. Lazarius Levingston - DL - LSU - 7th Round (205th overall)
Levingston has gotten limited reps rushing from the 3-technique position over the last two weeks, so we have a little bit of action to grade him on. Essentially, the ‘Hawks are hoping to capitalize on his plus quickness, to help generate an interior pass rush on throwing downs.
His quickness off the snap is evident, although he leads too often with his shoulder rather than extending his arms to engage from a distance and create space between him and his blocker. This makes it tough for him to disengage (or shed) his blocker. He gets a bit too upright off the snap, and he's not powerful enough in his lower half to anchor and hold position when the pad levels are too high, so he'll need to work on staying low if he wants to have a long-term NFL career, even in a rotational capacity.
He's above-average in the athleticism department, so the tools could be there. It's the technique that needs significant work. He was drafted to back up the 5 technique spot (strong side defensive end - Red Bryant's position), but his inability to generate push and consistently set the edge has brought him back to the inside where his quickness could be a good fit for the duties of that position, which are essentially to get upfield and pressure the quarterback.
Other Notable Rookies:
James Carpenter - OT - Alabama - 1st round (25th overall). On IR - Ranking before injury: 1
Carpenter improved immensely from week to week, particularly as a run blocker. He really just had to adjust to the speed of the NFL game and work to get into better physical shape. As he did, he got off the line quicker, used his lower body better and began driving opponents off the block with regularity. He still struggled in pass protection, but quickness improved and when he did get off the snap effectively, he showed plenty of range to seal off the edge on the right side.
He got good arm extension and would keep his feet moving rather than stopping as he did far too often in the preseason and early in the regular season. He's extremely powerful, and began getting to the second level quicker before his injury, which is necessary in this zone blocking scheme. Most of his pass-protection blunders came when he'd bend at the waist off the line and get over-extended, rather than stepping back first, getting into position and then allowing the rusher to come to him (which is what you'd like to see - more patience). When he would establish good position, he displayed shut-down ability.
Assuming he fully rebounds from the knee injury, look for him to get off to a similarly slow start next year, but settle back in and become a mainstay on the right side.
John Moffitt - OG - Wisconsin - 3rd round (75th overall). On IR - Ranking before injury: 3
Moffitt brought some nasty to the O-line and working in tandem with Carpenter, really began to establish the right half of the line as one that Seattle could spend a fair amount of time running behind. Like Carpenter, Moffitt struggled most in pass protection before his injury, as he just doesn't possess top lateral agility to mirror quicker DTs and seal them off with his feet.
What he can do, however, is get his arms extended, establish low position and deliver a significant punch to his opponents chest to slow him and knock him off balance. This is a serviceable pass-protection method from the interior, and is a technique that Moffitt should be able to get by on as long as he can generate consistency in establishing low position.
Moffitt is a pure power guy with decent straight-line speed and fair foot quickness to get downfield and square up at the second level.
Run blocking is really his thing. He can pull and seal at the outside, and he was targeting much more decisively as the season progressed. Like Carpenter, Moffitt simply needs more time to learn and adjust to the speed of the game and considering that there was no ACL tear, he should bounce back from the injury and be ready to go next year.
Kris Durham - WR - Georgia - 4th round (107th overall): On IR - Ranking before injury: 7
Durham is a guy that the team is excited about, but with Baldwin's unexpected success, there just hasn't been room for him on the active list much this season. When given the chance (against Pittsburgh), Durham made 3 nice grabs, showing clean routes and good hands-first technique to secure the ball.
He has above-average straight-line speed for his size and although he takes some time to get up to speed, accelerates better than both Mike Williams and Sidney Rice. Look for him to really push Mike Williams for time next season, and expect 2012 training camp to be a make-or-break opportunity for Golden Tate. Durham should be pushing both of them (and Ben Obomanu) for significant playing time by then.
King has yet to play in a game but considering the injuries to Carpenter and Moffitt, he suddenly becomes a key depth piece along the offensive line. King was a left tackle at South Carolina and possesses impressive athleticism for a guy his size (6'5, 321lbs).
He has an ideal frame to play tackle, but he was simply too inconsistent technically to demand a selection in '11 at that position, and his history of off-field troubles is significant and disturbing enough that he was left off some draft boards altogether. The 'hawks feel that he could play guard, and his talent is undeniable. I'm excited to see what he could become with some solid coaching and better off-field judgment.