NFL combine not perfect, but Hawks need it as much as any team

Not long after he accepted the Super Bowl MVP award and the new pickup truck that came with it, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith was asked by a reporter what he ran in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine three years earlier.

“I didn’t get invited to the combine,” Smith said.

Let that serve as a reminder to you this week as the NFL’s top prospects are poked and prodded, weighed and measured, interviewed and scrutinized by representatives of all 32 NFL teams in Indianapolis.

The combine, which runs through Thursday, is a big deal. It’s the NFL’s ultimate job fair, but don’t confuse it for the be-all, end-all when it comes to talent evaluation. Players who are considered can’t-miss prospects in Indianapolis will miss. Players who are there and underperform in various tests and drills will still manage to have long and productive careers even if they’re drafted a round or two later than they were hoping.

And just maybe, somebody who wasn’t even invited will someday become a Super Bowl MVP, or one of the best receivers on a Super Bowl champion like Smith’s fellow combine-snub Doug Baldwin.

But even if the Seahawks have become masters at finding diamonds in the rough, the fact remains that the bulk of their 2014 draft class will consist of players who are indeed in Indy this week. So while it’s far from a perfect process, it’s still a very important one to the future of every NFL teams, the Seahawks included.

It seems like the ultimate case of nitpicking to suggest that the Seahawks have a very important draft in front of them considering they just won the Super Bowl, but, well, this is a very important draft in front of them. Could the Seahawks become a dynasty if they could keep basically the same team together for the next five or so years? Sure. But can they keep basically the same team together for the next five or so years? Not unless the NFL suddenly abandons the salary cap and free agency.

Lest you need a reminder of that, look no further than the release of receiver Sidney Rice, who at 27 could have plenty of good football left in him if he can stay healthy, but who was simply deemed too expensive.

If the Seahawks are going to live up to Pete Carroll’s “Win Forever” mantra, they’ll need at least a couple prospects at this combine to become future impact players in Seattle. And yes, they’ll also need some members of the 2013 class, who aside from tight end Luke Willson and lineman Michael Bowie, made very little impact as rookies.

There’s a good chance the Seahawks will extend Earl Thomas’ contract this offseason, and perhaps Richard Sherman’s too. A year from now, Russell Wilson is all but a lock to receive a huge deal. Those big-money contracts means letting go of some other pricy veterans, so if the Seahawks are going to remain on top, they’ll need to find the next generation of Wilsons, Shermans, Thomases and Kam Chancellors (before last year’s extension) — players who produce Pro Bowl-level talent at a bargain price.

“It’s a huge goal for us to keep this team together as long as we possibly can,” general manager John Schneider told reporters in Indianapolis on Thursday before conceding, “there’s tough decisions that have to be made along the way.

“You don’t look forward to those decisions, but it’s more about long-term. We’ve talked about trying to be a consistent championship-caliber football team and not the one that just cruises in for a year and then cruises out, so we have to work through those issues.”

Working through those issues means replacing some high-price talent with inexpensive youth, youth that just might be on display this week. As for figuring out what Schneider and company are looking for, good luck.

With their first pick of the Schneider-Carroll era, the Seahawks took Russell Okung, an obvious pick for a team that just saw its Hall of Fame left tackle retire. Since then, however, guessing Seahawks draft picks has been an exercise in futility on par with convincing Baldwin to ignore a slight from ESPN analyst Cris Carter.

Sure we have an idea the type of player Carroll and Schneider like — cornerbacks with height and long arms, linebackers with speed, receivers with size (though they’re 0-for-2 drafting big receivers, having released former fourth-round picks Kris Durham and Chris Harper). But actually guessing what players, let alone the position the Seahawks have in mind, is nearly impossible.

From first-round picks James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin to second-round pick Christine Michael to Russell Wilson, who many saw as a reach in the third round, the Seahawks have been full of draft surprises. Picking dead last in the first round only makes it that much more impossible to guess what the Seahawks will do.

When a reporter noted that the Seahawks are good at keeping their draft intentions secret, Schneider replied, “I appreciate you saying that, by the way, I take that as a compliment, I really do … Loose lips sink ships, and I think our people do a very good job keeping things in house.”

But while we can’t predict what the Seahawks are looking for this week — receiver, tight end and offense line all seem like logical fits in the first round, which means the Seahawks probably won’t draft a receiver, tight end or offensive lineman — it is a safe bet that somebody they’re watching will be described as a draft steal a year or two from now.

While the Seahawks have gotten mixed results from their top picks since 2010, you can’t deny their ability to identify and develop talent in the later rounds. And the developing part is just as important as finding the talent. On some teams, late-round picks are seen as special teams help and little else, especially as rookies. In Seattle, a late-round pick will get a chance to shine if he earns it. Even if he wasn’t invited to the combine.

“That stems from Coach Carroll,” Schneider said. “… He talks about competition all the time. We had a three-person quarterback competition two years ago, so it’s the real deal.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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