In 2015, the citation of a player's on-base percentage is almost as common to a baseball broadcast as old mainstay statistics such as batting average or total hits. The idea seems natural to observers now, that reaching first base via a walk is a desirable outcome, but there was a period in baseball history when the simple arithmetic of on-base percentage was not widely considered in the market. Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, as famously detailed in Moneyball, were able to exploit this inefficiency in the market and construct an effective roster with famously lacking financial resources. While the use of OBP as an evaluation tool provided the Athletics a competitive advantage in the early 2000s, the market inefficiency was corrected as other organizations observed Oakland's success and began to mirror their approach.
Of course, no story that's been detailed by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill is a secret. At the risk of stating the mind-numbingly obvious, the idea here is that market inefficiencies aren't static. Good organizations discover undervalued assets, the market adjusts, and then the hunt is on for the next way to derive value.
Exploiting the Market
The Seattle Seahawks have been at the forefront of progressive thinking in the Pete Carroll and John Schneider era. While many front offices saw Russell Wilson's stature as a death blow to his ability to play quarterback, the Seahawks viewed it instead as a case of missing data. Sure, there were only a few cases of short quarterbacks succeeding professionally, but there also weren't many short quarterbacks with the pedigree of Russell Wilson. By taking him with the 75th pick in 2012, Seattle enjoyed three years of excellent play from a quarterback making peanuts on a mid-round contract, with his low cap hits likely providing Seattle the single biggest competitive advantage in the NFL over that time.
Thing don't always work out quite that well. The Seattle offensive line SPARQ project began in 2012, with the team prioritizing athleticism in late-round and undrafted OL prospects, a strategy that often also involves a position change. The Seahawks have drafted these players in volume, and not all have had illustrious careers since: Ryan Seymour didn't make it on the 53 in 2013, Jared Smith hung around the practice squad for a few years before getting the axe, and Garrett Scott had to medically retire prior to playing a single snap in training camp.
At the same time, the hit rate for 6th and 7th round picks is very low, and Seattle may very well begin the 2015 season with developmental SPARQ stars J.R. Sweezy and Garry Gilliam on the right side of the offensive line. Per Chase Stuart's draft value chart, the capital used by the Seahawks on their five SPARQ OL projects is equivalent to that used to draft Jimmy Staten. With the cost so low, the yield of Sweezy and (possibly) Gilliam far exceeds expectations.
Perhaps more notable than the OL project is Seattle's focus on length and size in cornerback prospects. Carroll and Schneider haven't drafted a corner with arms measuring shorter than 32 inches, and this isn't a coincidence. Success stories like Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, and Byron Maxwell changed the market in 2014, with lengthy cornerback prospects like Keith McGill and Stanley Jean-Baptiste going much earlier than they likely would have in previous years. Many analysts at the time noted that both players fit the Seahawk corner mold, and teams were ready to take a Seahawk approach after the devastation that was Super Bowl XLVIII.
With long corners going at a higher price than in previous years, 2014 marked the first draft in which Carroll and Schneider didn't select a cornerback. The new emphasis on length continued through to the 2015 NFL Combine, showing that it wasn't a one-year aberration. The market had changed. Cornerbacks with length weren't available with length, but combine testing revealed that several plus-athletes with length were available among the wide receiver class. This takes the idea of the Seahawk corner factory to the natural conclusion: if the players cost little to acquire and meet the physical requirements, does tape even matter?
I'd talk to every athletic, Day 3 WR at the Combine and see which ones have interest. Has to be a market inefficiency to exploit somewhere.— Zach Whitman (@zjwhitman) February 22, 2015
We now have two confirmed cases of Seattle converting undrafted free agent wide receivers into corners, with Douglas McNeil and George Farmer both joining the defensive backfield during training camp. The actual physical measurements of McNeil and Farmer are so assumed as to seem almost irrelevant; both players meet all requirements, but that's the point of the exercise. The Seahawks wouldn't intend to invest years of development into players who didn't fit their vision of a Cover 3 boundary corner.
Though the measurements seem secondary, it's still worth noting the specifics of each athletic profile. It's fitting that George Farmer will wear the #41 in Seattle as my comparison for him is Byron Maxwell. Now, Maxwell is not at all the closest athletic comp to Farmer. It's more that the two players are of the same phylum, characterized by plus-plus length, excellent straight-line speed, and good upper body strength with only average explosion.
Farmer is a SPARQier, looser-hipped version of Byron. He has an incredibly high similarity score when considered a wide receiver and compared to Sammy Watkins; the two players are an almost perfect athletic comparison. Also note that Farmer was a track star in high school, running a 10.45 in the 100-meter dash (and beating future Oregon Duck and Kansas City Chief De'Anthony Thomas). While he's clearly athletic, an August 2013 ACL/MCL tear resulted in a 2014 season in which he did not exhibit the same explosiveness that had previously characterized his play. It's certainly possible that some of his natural athleticism returns as more time passes post-injury.
I'd be remiss to not point out that George Farmer was considered one of the elite recruits in the nation as a high school senior, ranked third among all prospects by Rivals. The Seahawks have acquired a prospect with tremendous natural athleticism, a strong pedigree, and a low-enough profile to safely stay on the team's practice squad for enough time to learn his new position. This is clearly not a case of the team taking just the raw material that happens to be lying around. I spoke about the Seahawks shifting star 2011 blue-chip WR recruit Kasen Williams to cornerback a few months ago; it appears that the team had a similar idea in mind, but with a different star of the 2011 Pac-12 recruiting class. It's fitting that both Kasen and Farmer saw their NFL stock diminish due to severe injuries in 2013. Seattle likes to buy low.
Douglas McNeil is far more obscure than his fellow LOB convert, but the measurements are just as predictable. His numbers are less available, coming from a small school in Bowie State, but rumored results put him as a close match to 2015 prospect Julian Wilson, a player I profiled as a Seahawk fit in April. He doesn't have Farmer's pedigree, but it's the same idea.
The process is simple: find the physical prototype, work in volume, and hope that one hits. With an acquisition cost of zero and only the opportunity cost of the roster spots to consider, even limited on-field success would be a win for the program. There will be a time when long corners aren't quite as expensive in the draft; Jean-Baptiste couldn't get on the field over an undrafted free agent in his rookie season and McGill didn't make much of an impression in Oakland. Developing a Seahawk corner really isn't as simple as just finding someone who looks the part. There exist equal parts nature and nurture.
Still, while the market values length, it's important to find a way to continue acquiring undervalued talent. In addition to the two conversion projects discussed above, the team traded for Mohamed Seisay, a 2014 Seahawk-y corner who was lost in the roster shuffle in Detroit. They drafted Tye Smith in May, taking a chance on a Towson product in a departure from the Pac-12, SEC, and ACC schools listed on resumes of former 4th- and 5th-round Seahawk corner selections.
Douglas McNeil and George Farmer might be a footnote in the training camp notes of 2015, failing to ever make an impact in a real game. But even if nothing comes of it, the conversion project gives us insight into how the organization continues to search for efficiency, not content to settle for the same formula that worked in 2011. It's a hallmark of good organizations and a very encouraging sign for Seattle fans eager to see success extend beyond the 2015 season.