When it comes to assigning a grade to a team's draft, I'm always reminded of one simple thing. No, it's not that you can't accurately evaluate a draft for several years. And no, it's not that most sports writers are journalism majors who never played a down of football in their lives. What I'm reminded is that you're building a team, not drafting individual players in a vacuum.
A similar process of talent evaluation goes into approaching a draft as that used to make the cuts that set the team's final roster. It's not simply a matter of big names and flashy college stats, but involves a number of factors that are often transparent to the casual fan (or sports writer) but that integrate with the existing pieces of the roster. Granted, I don't work in an NFL front office and didn't play football beyond high school, but taking the lessons that I've learned from my own non-sports career, these are the things that I would keep in mind if I was running a team's draft.
First of all, I'd look at scheme fit. If you're building a team in one direction - say a 4-3 defense - and there's a highly rated 3-4 nose tackle available when you draft, sure you might consider them with your pick. Chances are, if you have a player that is ranked close to that NT on your draft board who fits your scheme, you'll go after the second player instead.
Second, I'd look to the future. One of the many reasons why the Seahawks have floundered since their Super Bowl run is that we didn't invest youth in key positions. Both our quarterbacks and our offensive line languished without that injection of new players. If you expect to keep your front office job, not only do you need to be competitive today, but you need to position your roster to be competitive tomorrow.
Third, you need to take a risk now and again. If you pick safe, sure players, you will build an excellent 8-8 team. Should the chips fall right, there might be a 9-7 or 10-6 season here or there, but you're never going to compete if you actually make the playoffs. Your roster has to include players that stand out from the crowd - and that means you have to take a calculated risk when the opportunity arises.
With that in mind, here's my perspective on Seattle's draft picks through the fourth round.
Round 1, Pick 15: Bruce Irvin, DE, West Virginia
I love this pick. Absolutely love it. We already have a solid defensive line, but we lack a pass rush. I've seen countless reports where Seattle reached for this pick, where they took him too early, where Seattle evaluates talent differently than the rest of the league, but I totally disagree.
The addition of a single pure pass rusher totally changes the complexion of our defense. Seattle ranked 11th in passing defense and 4th in interceptions in 2011, yet tied for 19th in sacks with three other teams. Exactly one third (11 of 33) sacks came from one player, Chris Clemons. The next closest player (Leroy Hill) had four sacks.
Looking at pure statistics, that would insinuate that our defense held up extremely well against the pass without much of a pass rush.
When you increase your ability to rush the passer a couple of things happen, namely that the opposing quarterback doesn't have the same amount of time to throw the ball or is forced to throw the ball under pressure. Completed passes tend to be for shorter yards as the quarterback is forced to go to his hot receiver rather than waiting for another man to get open. With few exceptions (the handful of elite quarterbacks in the league), this means that the shots down field are thrown under pressure and with lower accuracy, giving our defensive backs a better opportunity in coverage.
From what I've seen of Irvin on film, I can see why Pete Carroll is salivating over his potential. Bruce Irvin has an explosive first step, exceptional speed, and gets around the corner with excellent bend. Granted, he's a liability against the run, but if the opposing team is going to run the ball over Irvin on every passing down that he's in the game, I have a feeling our coaches can make the necessary adjustments. (The flip side of that equation is that most of our defensive line, with the exception of Clemons, could be called excellent against the run, but a liability in pass rush situations.) The press acts as if we're playing Madden and offenses can successfully run the same play again and again to exploit a single player's weakness. That's simply not going to happen. I'm happy to trade Irvin's pass rush ability for the liability he would bring a small handful of plays a game. Should Irvin become an every down player, that's a bonus. But he doesn't need to. What he needs to do is rush the passer - and even the critical reviews agree that he can do that. Simply by pinning his ears back and getting into the offensive backfield on a regular basis, he'll improve our pass defense as a whole.
If Irvin doesn't get double digit sacks this year, reporters are going to call this pick a reach. (Okay, they're already calling it a reach.) If Irvin doesn't get double digit sacks this year, but our pass defense, interceptions, and/or third down defensive numbers go up, I'd call this a successful pick. (If Chris Clemons sees his sack numbers go up because offenses have to concentrate on Irvin, he'll call it a successful pick too.) Irvins exactly what our defense needed - a pure pass rusher. What's more is that Irvin adds an almost certain improvement to our defense as a whole and the potential to positively impact games as an individual. That's everything you hope for from a pick in the middle of the first round.
Round 2, Pick 47: Bobby Wagner, ILB, Utah State
I like Bobby Wagner, don't get me wrong. I think he's an excellent value and a solid addition to our team. (His potential has been well covered already.) What's more is I think he's an upgrade over everyone we currently have at the position. I'm not as excited about this pick as I am about Irvin. While it holds the potential to make Seattle better, I would be surprised if it makes the defense significantly better. Think of it as a tune up and new tires for our car, not a tank of nitrous or a bigger engine. I could be wrong and would love for Wagner to be an impact player, but I see him as someone who Seattle fans will know and love, but who, in a few years, will be relatively unknown outside of our market. Two thumbs up, but more a smile than a whoop and a, "Hell yeah!"
Round 3, Pick 75: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
This is the second pick that I was really excited about. Wilson's college numbers were off the charts. He mastered two different offenses, one of them (according to his interview in Jon Gruden's Quarterback Camp series), in twenty days. He's an athlete, having been drafted by two major league baseball teams. From all of the film that I've watched, he throws a pretty ball in just the right spot where his receivers can catch it and the defense can't. His stat line from last year - 225/309 (that's a 72.8% completion rate), 33 TD versus 4 INT, and an average of 10.3 yards a throw - is unbelievable. What's more is that was against major college programs (Oregon, Penn State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan State, etc.)
Wilson's intangibles are off the charts. Seattle's front office talked about wanting a quarterback who can tilt a room. Schneider himself said of Wilson, "He’s extremely talented and he gains the trust of everyone around him. He can tilt a room." So there you go. Exactly what the doctor - or at least the front office - ordered.
If Russell Wilson was three inches taller, he would have been picked in the top end of the first round. The entire argument against him being successful in the NFL is that Wilson is too short. Wilson counters that you don't throw over players, you throw via passing lanes. The five starters on Wisconsin's offensive line averaged 6'5" and 322 pounds; Seattle's line is about a half-inch shorter on average than what the Badgers put on the field. Given his numbers last season, I'd say Wilson found a way to get the ball where it was supposed to go and will most likely be able to do the same in Seattle.
The thing is, and this might surprise numerous reporters out there, our front office is actually aware of Russell Wilson's height. Apparently it's not something you can easily hide. With that in mind, they must feel that they can run an offense that will give Wilson the same opportunities that he had at Wisconsin or they would not have drafted him. Tossing out some absolutely meaningless numbers, if Wilson's TD/INT numbers drop/increase by half, that would still give him 17 TD versus 8 INT. Tarvaris Jackson threw 14 TD and 13 INT last year. I'd say even the lower numbers for Wilson would be an upgrade.
What's more is that I'm not sold on Flynn. Having watched his epic game against Detroit twice, there were some good throws, a lot of dump offs, and some serious YAC by Green Bay's receivers. I think the front office made the right choice as he has the potential to be a better game manager than Jackson. Likewise, I think they made the right choice in drafting Wilson in the third round. Not only does he have the physical tools to be a better game manager than Flynn (and considering he's a rookie, it's admittedly pure potential at this point), but he has the ability to make the throws that can win a game when you're behind in the fourth. This one was almost a no-brainer on potential alone. Saying, "No quarterback under six feet has been successful in the NFL" to justify a low grade is like saying, "Man has never flown," to the Wright Brothers. At some point, some quarterback will do it. Russell Wilson has the potential to be the first to do so. When you see that kind of potential in the third round, you have to roll the dice and take your shot.
Round 4, Pick 106: Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
Robert Turbin intrigues me, not because of what he can do as an individual, but what he can add to the team.
Seattle's offense developed an identity with "Beast Mode." It says, "Our running game will run over you or run through you - and you don't get to pick which one." Personally, as an individual rusher, I think Turbin is okay. There's a reason he was still available in the fourth round and that reason is that he's not a game changer.
But imagine that you're playing defense against Seattle and they've been running Lynch down your throat for the last five minutes. You almost sigh in relief as Marshawn heads to the sideline for a breather. Beast Mode goes out, Hulk comes in. Get ready for a steady diet of pain.
Turbin doesn't need to be great for this pick to be a success. He doesn't even need to be "really good." All he needs to be is solid and consistent. The press talks about how Seattle now has a backup in case Lynch goes down; I think Seattle has a plan to beat the opposing defense to a bloody pulp. When the fourth quarter rolls around and you have two backs like Lynch and Turbin with relatively fresh legs, it has the potential to get really ugly for the opposing defense. Patrick Willis - one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL - named Marshawn Lynch as one of the hardest running backs to tackle. According to the National Football Post, Turbin, "Demonstrates the ability to side step defenders even at full speed and simply run through arm tackles in the open field... keeps his pad level down and can routinely push the pile/run over defenders... Gets stronger as the game goes on and really seems to wear on opponents." After dealing with our duo of superheroes for three and a half quarters, regardless of their conditioning, a defense will wear down with the game clock.
Seattle's running game - provided that the offensive line continues to gel - has the ability to quite simply cause the opposing defense pain while wearing them down and moving the football. Not just pain in the sense that they're tired and can't stop the run, but pain because the Seahawks keep running them over. I don't have any illusions that this is going to give our running game a real world cheat mode, but I think the addition of another bruising running back takes another edge from the opposing defense and tunes up our offense a little bit more. Which opens up the passing game and makes their entire tired defense a step slower. Pete Carroll's moto of "Always compete," begins to see some serious payoff in this scenario when the fourth quarter rolls around. When you can add that kind of value to your team in the fourth round, you've nailed the pick. There are some injury concerns here, but the common belief is that it takes two years to fully recover from an ACL injury. Turbin missed all of 2010 with just such a medical condition. Chances are, fully recovered in 2012, he may actually be better than his 2011 college performance would suggest.
Round 4, Pick 114: Jaye Howard, DT, Florida
My only concern with Howard is that he needs to get stronger. He has a solid skill set (which has been detailed before) but he needs to add strength. The scouting report on Howard critically points out, "Needs to get stronger and improve overall ball awareness." Those are two things that can easily develop over time with reps - both on the field and in the weight room. I see Howard initially adding depth and, depending on how he continues to physically develop, possibly pushing for starting time down the line.
I think the press got their evaluation of Seattle's draft wrong. Which doesn't surprise me at all. The folks who cover the draft tend to take an "Ooh! Look how shiny this player is!" approach to the picks. And when you don't pick their darlings, they tend to think poorly of the pick, rather than asking themselves, "Why would Team A pick Player B when I believe they should take Player C instead?" The answer isn't always, "Because our player is better than yours," but sometimes, "Because our player makes our team better than it was before."
Turbin makes the offense better; Irvin does the same for the defense. Looking into the future, both could be better players than they are today. Wagner is solid and promises to be a measurable upgrade at the position. If there has ever been a sub-six foot tall franchise quarterback candidate, Russell Wilson has dibs on the label. Howard is depth today and possibly a starter tomorrow - only time in the weight room and on the field will tell. To be honest, I don't know enough about the players in the latter part of the draft to offer my insight into those picks, but our front office clearly has a plan. What you see above is a very solid draft - or at least the first four rounds of such a creature. I'm excited to see what returns this investment brings when the Seahawks take the field.