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Seahawks continue path of harnessing risk with 2018 draft class

John Schneider has always embraced a high variance strategy; is it the right way to keep a successful team in a position to improve?

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Minicamp Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रतप्राप्य वरान्निबोधत ।क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्ययादुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति ॥ १४ ॥

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to enlightenment is hard

—Yama, god of death; Katha Upanishad

I’m one of those people who didn’t have strong feelings about what the Seattle Seahawks should do in the 2018 NFL Draft; I enjoy college football but watch way too little of it to be familiar with all the prospects—and I’ve never been enough of a draft junkie to spend time digging through them in the offseason. I wished the Seahawks had more selections to use in a year when they lost or aged much of their former premier talent, but I trusted John Schneider would wheel and deal his way to a plentiful pile of picks.

More or less my take was: Wait and see what happens, then start figuring it out.

Problem is, the draft is now nearly two months past and I still don’t know what to think.

For example, although I’m well known around here for admiring Seattle’s commitment to rushing more than some other analysts that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize the relative value of different positions compared to league demand or understand the likely availability of serviceable running backs later in the draft. Especially given the Seahawks’ short supply of high draft picks, I would have preferred to split the 27th pick into a pair of selections, much as they did their native slot to get both that choice and the 79th pick that became Rasheem Green, before taking Rashaad Penny so high. However, post-draft reporting revealed that at least one team tried to dislodge Penny from Schneider’s clutches after they announced him, and then the venerable New England Patriots took Sony Michel just a few picks later—suggesting the market for backs at that range was higher than we suspected.

In that full context I think there are fair reasons to be both skeptical of this use of the first rounder and also believe Schneider made a canny maneuver for the player Seattle most wanted at the latest possible cost.

Indeed we might read the whole draft that way: Will Dissly and Michael Dickson looked like preposterous reaches at the time, but each could end up being really valuable for specifically the Seahawks. Green and Jamarco Jones probably aren’t ready to be starters right away, but both have the potential to blossom into a new generation of franchise players as Seattle rebuilds its lines. Everyone is on board with teaming Shaquem Griffin with his brother, but an impartial executive should be able to dismiss both sentiment and inflated combine measurements to make a rational choice. I’m not saying Griffin doesn’t also contribute more intangible value for the Seahawks than for another organization, but that dynamic overrates him on an NFL-wide scale for the same reasons. The draft is a competition and small edges matter.

As a result, reaction to Seattle’s rookie class properly rests at the poles separating weary criticism and resigned acceptance.

Further stretching this divide is a gap of trust widened between Schneider’s performance in early years and more recently.

When the front office produced similarly polarizing offseasons in the past, we were inclined to believe the Seahawks were doing the right thing because of their record of success. Schneider flopped gin in his 2011 and 2012 drafts so we overlooked it at first when he drew thin in 2013 and 2014. Now as memories of those early years fades it starts to swing the other way, even though Seattle in fact hasn’t come away emptyhanded from 2015, 2016 or 2017.

Now, you might say the first of those tweets casts a poor shadow on the prospects of the second looking good in later hindsight. Thomas Rawls after all was the UDFA diamond that turned back into a chunk of coal. And perhaps we went a little too hard lauding the undrafted class of 2016 as well, when 10 such rookies made the initial squad but which is now down to a fringe roster player at best, Tanner McEvoy. Jimmy Graham is also gone, a void filled by another three draft picks (including a future compensatory) for the likes of Dissly, Nick Vannett and Dickson’s brother Ed.

Yet there’s a difference between disappointing return and bad process. As the poker player Annie Duke says, “When we make a decision ... we are making a bet against all future versions of ourselves that we are not choosing.” Likewise, football front offices make bets with every decision they make. Danny Kelly wrote last month that the Seahawks opting to roll with their current cornerback group instead of drafting a replacement after discarding Richard Sherman is among the NFL’s “biggest offseason bets”.

Seattle is also curiously betting on its returning offensive line configuration.

Those moves may be critiqued. Certainly they’re polarizing. But you don’t get to ride the “[plus] side of variance”, as Evan Silva put it, very high without taking high variance bets. No gambler gets every decision right, or if they do, their yield is probably small. The best of them scoop enough of the big swings to fade the bad losses. That’s another way of generating edge.

So when I think about the divergent paths this 2018 class might break, my questions aren’t so much about the process as they are about the timing. High variance is a notably good strategy when you don’t have as much to lose, when you’re starting from the bottom, because it’s the best way to generate big results quickly. And you can always try again. For a team like the Seahawks were at their peak, a safe route that best preserves the advantage might be best. Where the club is right now depends on your optimism, and it’s possible the consequences of choosing such a polarized play are too great—but it also may be the best plan for rejuvenating the roster in a hurry. If it doesn’t work, but Seattle was destined for a slow decline anyway, what really is it costing you against the alternative?

It’s a bit like running a flea flicker or a halfback pass on second and 10 from the 40 yard line while down one point late in the fourth quarter: wonderful if you can convert it but it leaves you in a real tough spot if you fail.

Perhaps embracing such high variance strategies are Schneider’s fatal flaw, like how the Brain was repeatedly brought down by partnering with a dunce like Pinky instead of balancing his schemes with a more competent operative.

Or maybe Schneider has confidence in his selection of bets, and is placing his chips on another big run. Do you?