To bring you these weekly Rookie Reports, I've been paying particular attention to the Seahawks' rookie class this season and have been ranking them according to how well they play on a week-to-week basis.
Let's take a look at the Week14/Week 15 rookie rankings, as they performed against the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears...
1. K.J. Wright - OLB
We're starting to see an increase in explosive plays by Wright with each week. Last week (against the Rams), Wright converted on his second sack of the season and in as many weeks. He's blitzing more, and the 'Hawks are utilizing his explosive first step to take more chances behind the line.
In week 15, he compiled a season high (tying Week 14) 8 total tackles, all solo, including a 4-yard run stuff. It's one thing to make a ton of tackles. It's another to make impact tackles, and the latter are what Wright is converting more of.
All this said, he's still getting a bit lost in coverage when asked to drop into a zone, and he needs to get his hands up and arms extended more at the line when covering the tight end, but he possesses the natural fluidity to be effective in coverage, so the upside is there. In terms of being in the right place at the right time, and when considering the discipline required to control the proper gaps from his position, Wright is the most consistent of the defensive rookies, and is showing zero regression from week to week.
It's the ability to correct mistakes and avoid repeating them that makes Wright so unique and a long-term starter on this defense. Look for him to blitz more, and in passing situations, don't be surprised if by the end of the season you see him put a hand in the ground and rush off the edge, as he possesses the flexibility and "plus" burst to beat opposing tackles to the edge.
2. Richard Sherman - CB
Sherman had his 3rd interception of the year in Week 15, to go with another two passes defensed. If you haven't noticed by now, Sherman has a knack for getting his hands on the football. His length plays a big role, obviously, in his ability to bat the ball. But it's his unique agility and stop-start ability that put him in proper position. I know I've continually hammered this over previous weeks, but the agility and first step are really rare. Extremely rare. Everyone talks about the height, but it's the athleticism and explosiveness to go with the height that make him deadly.
Let's jump back to Week 14 for a moment to highlight another 2 PDs (has 14 on the season) to go with 4 tackles. Perhaps the most memorable moment for Sherman in Week 14, though, was the moronic taunting penalty that he drew in the end zone on a 3rd and goal play. Sherman clearly doesn't lack for confidence. That's good, you want your rookies to have some swagger. You just don't want them to be stupid. And that play was stupid. He's been close in previous weeks to drawing similar penalties, as he tends to get a kick out of jawing at his opponent when he makes a play or a tackle favorable to Seattle. He's got to tone it down a bit and continue to let his play do the talking. Because it's doing a pretty good job.
I've got the words "future Pro Bowler" written all over this guy. I hate exaggerators, and I'm naturally more of a pessimist toward prospects, but Sherman really gives me no reason to be pessimistic. From the backpedal, to the jam, to the hip quickness and fluidity, to the click-and-close, the ball skills, run defense and tackling ability, Sherman has it all. And like Wright, he's improving weekly. The inconsistencies are still there, particularly in reading and mirroring routes down field and across the middle, so he's still ranking just a bit lower than Wright, in my opinion.
3. Doug Baldwin - WR
Baldwin continues to be the most consistent and fundamentally sound of all the rookies, and I struggle to rank him 3rd here, but the impact of Wright and Sherman has been greater on a play by play basis, than that of Baldwin. Not to mention (but to mention) they both have a higher ceiling than Baldwin when you consider caliber of stardom and overall explosiveness.
Ultimately, who cares, right? Baldwin makes plays, and the fact remains that he knows how to get open better than anyone at WR for Seattle (maybe in the last 5 years). This ability won't be going away anytime soon, and Seattle has clearly found themselves a gem who could be the go-to clutch guy on 3rd down for a while. He's still chest-trapping the ball a bit more than you'd like to see, but hey - he's not dropping it.
The routes and toughness are what continue to impress me the most. In Week 14, on the 29 yard TD pass from Tarvaris Jackson, Baldwin got his head around and cut his route off perfectly to create separation from the safety, leaving himself the room to make the catch and finish the play. His sideline awareness is "plus" as well, and the concentration to look the ball in without knowing whether he'll get clobbered is extremely un-rookie-like.
I wonder if Jim Harbaugh wishes he would've noticed this guy a bit more at Stanford.
Byron Maxwell - CB - Got some reps at CB late in the Chicago game (Week 15), and continues to get down the field on Special Teams. Did receive another penalty in Week 15, although it was called on "number 21", incorrectly of course. Needs to cut out the penalties. Excited to see what he can do in the nickel once Roy Lewis is gone (which I think will be sooner than later, if Maxwell can prove the ability to replace Lewis on ST).
Malcolm Smith - OLB - Suffered a head injury in week 15. 5 total tackles on the year.
Jarriel King - OG - Suffered a hamstring injury, but did get playing time against the Rams in Week 14. Is, I think, a potentially big part of the future for this O-line and I expect him to compete for time at left guard next year. Gallery has been inconsistent, particularly in the "staying healthy" department. King was inactive for Week 15.
Michael Morgan - LB - Active for a few consecutive weeks now, and got some reps on special teams. Needs to bulk up to contend for consistent time at any of the linebacker spots, but could be a 3rd down rotational guy on the outside, or as a potential "Leo" rush end down the road. Rangy, and athletic.
Jeron Johnson - SS - Inactive Week 15.
Lazarius Levingston - DE/DT - Inactive Week 15.
Josh Portis - QB - No snaps this season, but could factor in as a backup option in 2012.
Adrian Moten - LB - Inactive week 15.
Injuries aside, here's how I would rank the 2011 rookie class to this point, based on watching them play and develop over the course of the season. The three key criteria that I grade progress on are:
1. Consistency - Can you depend on them to perform at a high level week in and week out?
2. Improvement - Are they getting better each week, leveling off, or regressing?
3. Instincts and Awareness - Do they make early reads and know where to be on a consistent basis?
4. Fundamentals - Are they technically sound in performing the duties of their position?
Sorry Mr. Ruskell. "Character" didn't make my list.
Here's how I see it as we near the conclusion of the season:
1. K.J. Wright - Instincts through the roof. Fundamentally sound. Consistency and Improvement have been there each week with little, if any, regression. Long-term Starter type.
2. Richard Sherman - Instincts have lacked from time to time. Improvements have been made each week. Fundamentals are surprisingly good and continue to improve considering his limited time at the position. Gaining more consistency with each week. Long-term Starter type.
3. James Carpenter - Was improving drastically from week to week. Instincts coming along slower than the first two guys. Fundamentals were also improving rapidly and consistency took a big jump from incredibly erratic in the first couple of weeks, to solid prior to the injury. Was definitely on his way up. Long-term Starter type.
4. Doug Baldwin - See above. Reliable inside receiver with potential starter ceiling if he can prove to beat press consistently.
5. John Moffitt - Instincts, Improvement and Consistency were all there with Moffitt prior to the injury. Fundamentally, he lacks quite a bit - particularly in pass protection, though he did show some improvement in the latter weeks of his activity. Mainly, it's a foot quickness issue with him. If he could learn to widen his base and keep his pads lower on a more consistent basis, he possesses the power flexibility to improve in this area. Long-term Starter type.
Others worth mentioning:
6. Byron Maxwell - Nickel corner upside with ability to move to the outside and run with the speedier receivers in the league. May have some starts in him down the road. Special Teams standout.
7. Malcolm Smith - Probably never starts consistently but brings value as a speed blitzer on passing downs, and as a gunner on Special Teams, long term.
8. Kris Durham - We just haven't seen enough of Durham, but the upside is there to flank or split him out as a starter down the road. He can beat press, runs clean routes and can stretch the field. Offers little on Special Teams though, and faces major durability and health questions.
Four immediate and long-term starters from a draft class that was tabbed as one of the weakest in the league by several of the "experts" is not too shabby. I'd be interested to see how it stacks up to the rest of the league. Time will tell.