Greetings Seahawks fans. First, allow me to apologize for this final report taking so long to get out. As it turns out, I'm ear deep in 2012 draft stuff and bouncing all over the country in the process. What the extra time did allow for, was more 2011 Seahawks game replays, and a closer look at the play of all of the rookies. So...let's get to it.
Here are my final Seahawks rookie rankings for the 2011 season.
1. Richard Sherman - I know I've had K.J. Wright here for the last couple of reports, but after spending time watching several of the games over again, and in evaluating Sherman across a larger body of work than I had in previous reports, he was clearly the best performer of the rookies this season. Sherman no longer gets the "future Pro Bowler" tab. He played like a first team All-Pro for the majority of his time as the team's starter at left corner. The combination of size, strength and speed to go with the level of physicality and aggression that he applies those tangible physical, give him an out-of-sight ceiling at this point.
The most surprising element of his game to me, has been in the instincts and awareness department. The guy knows when the ball is coming out, where it's going to be and how to attack it. He also knows how to smother a receiver without interfering (something that Brandon Browner struggled mightily with this season -if you're looking for a contrast) and he's a fundamental tackler who provides above average run support for the position. There are two main reasons why the instincts have been surprising to me.
First off, he's a rookie. A lot of rookies have come off a recent college season where they displayed good instincts, but then they struggle to adjust at the NFL level because the instincts have to be sped up, and demand for quicker response forces a longer learning curve. Sherman adapted quickly from the time Trufant went on IR and really only improved as time went on. Think about it. How many flat out blown coverages did you see out of Sherman this season. I found one (see Brandon Lloyd TD @ St. Louis) that truly impacted the game, and then another two or three where the opposing QB missed so the impact wasn't felt (see Baltimore game - Torrey Smith got behind him a couple of times but was over-thrown).
The second reason that the instincts have surprised me, is because of the late position switch from receiver during his first couple of school years at Stanford, to cornerback. He has learned quickly, and it shows. This isn't a raw athlete making plays on speed and size who should eventually be picked apart with some decent film study. He's a blanket cover man with above-average ball skills, diagnostics, fluidity in reverse, a smooth transition to run with receivers, and the ability to explode to the ball. He needs to control his emotions on the field as we saw against St. Louis, but you have to love the fire he plays with. Devin McCourty had a sophomore slump this season. Sherman can't relax and take his rookie season as a guarantee that he has it all figured out, but he's also a more impressive total package than McCourty.
2. K.J. Wright - To avoid sounding like a broken record, I'll try to say all the same things, but differently. Whatever. With Wright, like Sherman, he simply learns and adapts extremely quickly and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Most importantly, he doesn't repeat mistakes. What I don't want to do, which I think I've done a bit in past reports, is focus so much on the instincts, that the impressive tangibles get overlooked. The facts are, the guy is a shade under 6'4 and 246lbs. That's a good-sized linebacker in a league where the 6'0, 225lbs outside 'backer is becoming the more popular choice to play the outside positions.
This shift to the smaller linebacker is due to the need for better speed and short area quickness, so that defenses can more effectively combat the pass-heavy offensive attacks that are taking over the league. Wright can hang with the little guys though. His explosive first step and fluidity in space in combination with the length and size allow him to cover some impressive real estate quickly. He's a solid starter who may never make a Pro Bowl, but should give the team no reason to need a replacement at the position for several years. A true long-term starter.
3. Doug Baldwin - A clear theme among the top three here has materialized - These are all consistent contributors who learn quickly, avoid mistakes and display a level of football intelligence beyond their years. The team's leading receiver this year not only became the go-to possession guy for Tarvaris Jackson, but was routinely the guy who Jackson clearly trusted the most to make plays in critical situations, particularly on third down. He finds space more than he beats press so he'll probably never be a consistent outside guy, but that simply doesn't matter.
Forgive the harsh tone, but scouts (particularly in media) who undervalue receivers for their inability to beat press on the edges, particularly receivers who have proven to be consistent contributors from the slot in clutch situations at the college level, are irresponsible evaluators and their reasoning is often nothing short of moronic. Baldwin being a steal had more to do with the failure of all 32 teams to properly evaluate him and less to do with Seattle's great scouting department, although they clearly ended up being the ones to get it right. They still got it right way too late.
I think Kris Durham is going to be a good NFL receiver so long as he can stay healthy. But who was needed and ultimately, utilized more between he and Baldwin? Scouts had better stop letting the stupid size issue factor in so heavily to their evaluations. Not just at receiver, either. At any position. Consistent, fundamentally sound contributors at the college level who display football intelligence early, rarely bust. Explosive athletes with incredible measurables bust all the time. As "Peter Brand" said in Moneyball, it's not about buying players, it's about buying wins (paraphrasing), and Doug Baldwin will get you wins. In fact, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright and Doug Baldwin will all get you wins, despite Baldwin going undrafted and both Sherman and Wright being overlooked for the first 3 rounds.
4. James Carpenter - The sample size was smaller than we'd all hoped for, but Carpenter did flash an array of promising skills at right tackle, and briefly and left guard. He's extremely nimble considering his massive frame, possesses upper and lower half power, and can really deliver a pop of the line. Struggles came primarily in pass protection but had little to do with physical limitations and a lot to do with misdiagnosing and failing to properly anticipate his opponents' move.
The improvement in this area was gradual over his body of work, but it was certainly evident, which suggested that he was beginning to understand and anticipate better. He wasn't a very consistent "instincts" guy at Alabama, so there were always questions there for me. However, the power and rare size/quickness and flexibility combo made him intriguing and he did show enough intelligence and recovery ability to warrant a lower first round grade in my opinion. And I think he played like a low first round offensive tackle on a young team in a new scheme. He's a long-term starter at right tackle or guard given that he stays healthy, but if he wants to be a legitimate top tier lineman, he'll need to do a better job of coming into camp in shape, continuing to take and make corrections, and be more consistent at getting into position off the snap.
He can trap, seal, pancake and explode at the point of attack. He gets down field and can square up at the second level. He can do it all. It's the intelligence piece that is still in question for me, but he can be an average tackle on a good team as is. His chances of becoming a pro bowler would probably be enhanced with a move to the inside (i.e. left guard) which wouldn't be outside the realms of possibility if there's a better tackle prospect available for Seattle to draft in the next year or two, and other need areas are filled.
5. John Moffitt - Moffitt grades similar to Carpenter in the sense that he struggled primarily in pass protection but also showed gradual improvement as the season went on. Where Moffitt is superior, in my opinion, is in the instincts and awareness department. He picked the game and the scheme up quicker than Carpenter, and targeted better off the line on run plays.
He was more decisive when engaging with defenders, and played with more confidence early on than Carpenter did. Where he's inferior to Carpenter is in the area of athleticism and physical gifts. He doesn't have the surprisingly nimble feet that Carpenter possesses, and while Moffitt displays toughness, he lacks the natural power to blow guys off the block. His intelligence though, makes up for those deficiencies and he showed an improved ability to use leverage as a pro during his rookie campaign.
He understands that a sole reliance on raw power and strength won't work at this level as it did at Wisconsin. The footwork could improve, but I don't expect him to get a whole lot better in pass protection. He's above average at getting through the initial block and into the second level as a zone blocker for the run, and he's flexible enough in his lower half to bend and snap a guy back at the initial point of attack. I think he's a mainstay at right guard for the next few years, but he needs to continue to improve in the highly competitive environment that Pete Carroll fosters.
Brandon Browner gets a mention here as I don't consider him a true rookie. Sorry. And even if he were, I would rank him somewhere between Doug Baldwin and John Moffitt, although long term, I think Browner's upside is limited. The six picks this year, though exciting, were owed in the sense that he was perhaps the team's biggest on-field cost (in the penalty sense) over the course of the season. A couple of the picks were impressive, but there were also a couple that bounced the right way after being tipped. I think he has a decent nose for the ball and you have to love the size, but I'll gladly admit that I'll be the guy screaming the loudest for Seattle to pick Morris Claiborne with the 11th or 12th pick should he be available there come April. The right side of the field is by no means locked down by Browner.
I like what I saw from Byron Maxwell, particularly on special teams. I think he has a chance to be a nickel contributor next season who possesses the speed and press competence to flip to the outside from time-to-time and his upside as a pure corner, I think, is higher than a Roy Lewis or Kennard Cox.
Malcolm Smith thus far is a really fast linebacker who loves to run and hit. That said, he needs to improve as a fundamental tackler and block-shedder if he's ever going to get consistent time as a linebacker. He could certainly be a contributor on blitz packages considering his elite speed for the position, but instinctively we just haven't seen enough to know what he's fully capable of.
I liked what I saw in Ricardo Lockette over the last couple of games. He can do what we all knew he could do - Fly. That said, I was most impressed with his ability to track the ball over his shoulder, as well as maintain concentration and focus to reel the ball in off the tip. He's much better with the ball in the air than I had anticipated and he's a more natural receiver than scouts had described him to be.
Please, stop with the Michael Bates comparisons. He's a better natural pass catcher than Bates already and it takes more than speed (as Bates's lack of WR production proved) to be a consistent NFL deep threat. You have to locate and track the ball, and you have to adjust speeds to create separation, all of which Lockette appears to have an idea of how to do.
There are a few others to consider for next season. Pep Levingston is a good athlete who will be a better contributor from the inside than the outside if he's going to have an NFL career, but the inactive hands and shoulder-leading approach off the ball won't get him far. He needs some fundamental work. He was a decent 7th round pick, as this is where you usually take the unathletic over-achiever, or the athletic underperformer with potential for further development. he's the latter.
Kris Durham could be a really good receiver at the NFL level. He just has to stay healthy. I said it last year and I'll say it again going into 2012 - He needs to eat some meat. Plain and simple, his body may not take the NFL beating for very long. That said, he runs really clean routes and I think, will challenge Mike WIlliams for that starting WR spot opposite Sidney Rice in 2012. Fundamentally, he's that ready. The health is the main concern. He's got some burst too, so he gives you more field-stretch than Williams.
Bottom line, this draft class had the greatest immediate impact of any that I can recall over the past decade. And the greatest value was found in the middle rounds and undrafted free agency. Congratulations to John Schneider and Pete Carroll for a haul of talent that was scrutinized and criticized by many of the "experts" immediately following the draft, as perhaps the worst of any team in 2011.
Now...back to the draft stuff.