Draft Grades, Draft Process, and the Seahawks Approach

Apr 28, 2012; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, first-round draft pick Bruce Irvin, and general manager John Schneider laugh during a press conference at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE

This was...an interesting draft, wasn't it? There's certainly a lot to debate, not just during the draft but for years to come. Heading into the 2012 draft, my "general feeling" (noting that I'm not a draftnik like many of my fellow writers on Field Gulls) was that this was not a particularly strong draft. But that isn't the same as saying you can't get anything out of the draft, I didn't feel 2011 was particularly strong either but we did fine there at first glance, at least in the later rounds.

Judging drafts is an interesting point of discussion that often gets simplified down to different extremes. You can wait for some years, and look back three or four years down the line, and decide whether or not it was a good draft. This is the most correct way, to my mind, but it is also very result-based. And despite what one might intuitively feel, good results and good process do not have a complete direct correlation. The 49ers picked Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. Were they wrong? Results say they were. But what if they picked Rodgers? Would his career not likely be in ruins by now, since he was a raw thrower with bad mechanics? It's rarely got an easy answer, because it all depends on context.

This close to the draft, we try to look more at the process, figure out what front offices want to do, and figure out how much sense their picks make. This is interesting because good process should lead to good results. It is less interesting because there is no way for any of us to get anything close to a solid grasp on what is good process for an NFL front office. At times, the complexities, PR spin and games played by NFL front offices remind me of the politicking of Tyrion and Littlefinger more than anything else.

A source of constant annoyance here is - of course - draft grading. Our Jaguar brethren over at Big Cat Country wrote a nice editorial about it here, and that's about my basic viewpoint on it. The concept of draft grading makes no sense because it is very rarely based on any indepth knowledge of the team's front office and needs, but rather a cursory knowledge of that and then an indepth knowledge of the NFL draft rankings - rankings based on consensus and a person's own biases. It's a comparison between mock drafts and the real draft. What's the point of that? An odd idea exists among the Kipers of the world that draft rankings are an objective concept, that if you work on it long enough everyone ends up with roughly the same list, and that anyone deviating from that list is "wrong". This is not saying the Kiperian way of thinking about draft analysis is wrong, or that criticism for pundits should just be dismissed out of hand, it's saying that's a naive kind of rigidity.

However, and this is not an unimportant however, the flipside is true too. NFL front offices are limited in resources and knowledge. Both are wider and deeper than that of draft pundits and draftniks, but no one has a limitless supply. The assumption that NFL FOs know what they're doing better than we do is fair, but it's not definitive. There is politicking going on that creates a jungle that is completely opaque to us but not completely translucent to them, either.

For example, this story from Peter King indicates that the panic-driven jump the Browns made to prevent Richardson from being nabbed was purposefully instigated by the Bucs. Funny, right? Sure, but think about the implications for a while. The Seahawks are convinced other teams wanted Irvin and Wilson (our most controversial picks). Of course they are. That doesn't mean it's true. Their sources of information aren't perfect either. The stories of the Jets being ready to pounce on Irvin, of a Jets guy calling our draft room for some friendly banter right after the pick... it's cool, but it's not something one should just accept without question. If the Jets wanted Coples, they have every motivation to make the Seahawks feel pressured to take Irvin, and to then publicly pat the Hawks on the back for it. I'm not saying that's the case, but I am saying we should all just accept positive spin so readily. It's too complex a story for simple spin to be true more often than it's not, and it's too complex for any of us to feel sure about it, either way.

Now, to just go full Peter King in admitting I have no idea what I'm talking about but should be making a lot of money to not know things for sure... Things I think I think:

  • I really liked Fletcher Cox. So I am sorta bummed we didn't take him. But accepting we wouldn't take him, the Seahawks made exactly the right kind of savvy move. Trading down with the Eagles ensured not only that we would still get "our guy" and some added picks, it also kept Cox out of the NFC West. Not saying I know for sure that either the Cardinals or Rams had him higher on their draft boards than their eventual picks, but I'm glad they didn't have the choice.
  • Carroll and Schneider are definitely drafting for upside, with a focus on athletic upside. That's not to say we're the Raiders in our scouring for height-weight-speed freaks, but it is a noteworthy trend. Where the focus of many other FOs and pundits lies in looking at one-the-field qualities that translate well to the NFL, and to more polished, varied skillsets, the Seahawks jumped on someone like Bruce Irvin. Throughout this draft and previous ones we've seen a tendency (though not an absolute requirement) to draft for size and/or outstanding athleticism. Is that wrong? Hah, no. But I feel it is a method that leads to a higher spread of hit-and-miss, upside-and-downside than alternatives. That's fine, as long as you have a lot of picks. And Schneider ensured that we did.
  • Equally, the front office spent a lot of time drafting "for need". Personally, I feel the whole "best player available versus need" dichotomy is completely false, and don't think any NFL front office has ever drafted purely with either in mind. That said, you can see which way the pendulum swings. The Seahawks targeted their defense not because it is the weaker side of our team but because it is the easiest one to get a good return-of-investment on. Until the offense has a quarterback, and until certain raw and high picks have either worked out or busted, the offense can be shelved for a while. This method makes perfect sense to me, whether it's the Packers, Seahawks or Patriots doing it. And with a higher number of picks focused on a group, Carroll can apply his trademark churn.
  • And, finally, this entire off-season was very scheme specific. I was interested in seeing if Carroll would jump on the opportunity to shed the Leo scheme concept, but he did not. Between the high pick in Bruce Irvin and the re-signing of Red Bryant as our highest-paid defensive player (I think?), we're now well and truly locked into his scheme. Problematic? Not necessarily, not since he's shown it can work. Problems might ensue if this front office hits a hitch and gets fired. But that doesn't look all that likely right now. It is a pretty specific, and very uncommon scheme, but it's not totally impossible to invest and turn it into a traditional 4-3. Harder to turn it into a 3-4, but not impossible. Speaking of, I'll be curious to see if Pete and the defensive coordinators will be looking to implement some actual 3-4 concepts to try and replicate the functionality of Justin and Aldon Smith with the 49ers, since I feel pretty strongly Bruce Irvin is a "response pick" to Aldon's success.
  • One thing I know I like is that Carroll and Schneider do not seem overly rigid, despite my notes above on athleticism and scheme. They have types, yes, but they do not ignore opportunities because of them. Neither Flynn nor Wilson are the ideal quarterback Carroll would picture. So what? They are good opportunities at their relative costs, so jump on 'em. The same applied for Earl Thomas and Golden Tate, two picks I still like very much. From 2010 to 2011 Pete Carroll showed a lot of flexibility in drafting and both his defensive and offensive schemes, and that's a flexibility that I think will benefit the Seahawks greatly on the long run.
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