Seahawks have knack for finding draft-day bargains

RENTON — One thought heading into the 2013 draft is that the Seattle Seahawks might use their second-round pick — their first in the draft, having traded away their first-rounder — to find a tight end who could partner well with Zach Miller and provide another weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson.

Perhaps, some draft pundits speculated, Rice’s Vance McDonald was the right fit. As it turned out the Seahawks did take a tight end from Rice, just not McDonald, and not in the second round.

The 49ers traded up in the second round and took McDonald one pick ahead of Seattle’s original pick in that round. So we’ll never know for sure if he would have been the pick. But it seems unlikely since the Seahawks came into the draft targeting McDonald’s college teammate, tight end Luke Willson, as a good value pick.

Indeed Willson has proven to be a valuable part of the Seahawks despite catching only nine passes his senior year at Rice. As Seattle’s No. 2 tight end, Willson has caught 18 passes for 265 yards, including three for 70 yards and his first NFL touchdown two weeks ago in San Francisco. Despite being the sixth player the Seahawks drafted last spring, Willson has been their most productive rookie.

And while Willson has been an important part of Seattle’s offense this season, his ability to make an impact as a fifth-round pick tells a much bigger story than just that of a No. 2 tight end showing flashes of talent. Willson’s success is just another example of how the Seahawks have built one of the league’s best rosters in large part because of their ability to recognize value in the middle-to-late-rounds of the draft.

The Seahawks can clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win today against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. And if they do so, it will be with a quarterback who was a third-round pick. A receiving corps that includes four receivers who were not drafted. A dominant secondary made up mostly of late-round picks. And a defensive line full of misfits, including Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons, who were both undrafted. And a way-too-big defensive end in Red Bryant whose career was going nowhere as a defensive tackle before head coach Pete Carroll and then-defensive line coach Dan Quinn suggested a position change.

In a radio interview last spring on 710 ESPN Seattle, Seahawks general manager John Schneider compared getting Willson in the draft to getting Russell Wilson and Bruce Irvin the previous year. Schneider didn’t say that because he thought Willson would have an equal impact to those players, but because like Wilson and Irvin, Willson was somebody they saw as a special player who they really wanted to draft.

“We really, really would have been disappointed if we wouldn’t have been able to acquire him,” Schneider said on the Brock and Danny show in May.

Added Carroll: “We saw the talent, we saw the range of ability, but it was really John’s knack of understanding where he would get drafted that made him so valuable to us. At that spot, that’s as good a pick that you could make. I think it was just a set of circumstances that made him available to us. I’m not comparing him to the other fella (McDonald) at all. It’s just when we had that pick at that time it turned out to be a great opportunity, and Luke has made that come to life.”

It’s one thing to identify the best players at the top of a draft — any scout or executive in the NFL should be able to do that. But what has helped the Seahawks become one of the best teams in the NFL so quickly under Carroll and Schneider is the ability to identify when talented players fall to them in the draft; upsets, as Schneider calls them.

Richard Sherman, a receiver turned cornerback at Stanford, has said teams talked to him about drafting him as a receiver if he lasted until the sixth or seventh round. Instead the Seahawks grabbed him in the fifth and found an All-Pro.

Schneider has said he heard from several teams after drafting Wilson, saying they loved the undersized quarterback. Yet it was the Seahawks who had the discipline not to take him in the second round even though they liked him that much. And also the understanding that by the third round, Wilson wasn’t going to last long.

“I think we have told that story every year in the draft,” Carroll said. “I think that goes to John and his guys and their ability. Everybody can identify the talent, but where it fits and where the availability shows, that’s a real knack, and there is no question that we have great strength there. John has a tremendous feel for that. Anyone you want to pick of our draft picks, it seems like that because our picks have been challenged a lot by people on the outside or other opinions. I think the truth has come through a lot and a bunch in support of how we do it and all. I think there’s a lot to that.”

Just as important as Seattle’s ability to find value has been the way Carroll and his coaching staff figure out how to maximize a player’s talents. Not every one of Seattle’s cornerbacks has the traditional speed for the position. But by finding long-limbed, physical players who can win battles at the line of scrimmage and compete with receivers for balls, the Seahawks can get an impact cornerback in the fifth or sixth round where other teams might just see a guy who doesn’t quite move well enough. Clemons might be small for a defensive end, and Bryant may be huge for one, but each possess skill sets that make them very good at what Seattle’s defense asks of them.

“If you look around our locker room, we have a whole bunch of unique guys who do different things,” said Clemons, who has 38 sacks since coming to Seattle in a 2010 trade from Philadelphia. “Everybody doesn’t do the exact same thing. There are some things that some of us are better than others at doing. It’s been fun watching the process, watching it come together from 2010 to now. Pete said back then, ‘We are going to win in this league.’ That’s what we’re seeing now.”

“I mean, who would have ever thought that on one side (of the defensive line) you’d have a 6-5, 330-pound guy, and on the other side you’d have a 6-3, 255-pound guy. There’s a big difference between the both of us, but we all have unique talents and we’re all different in our own ways. That’s what makes this whole group unique.”

So far at least, this year’s draft class hasn’t done much as a whole, and that could have future implications for Seattle — though the depth the Seahawks have built has certainly made it harder for rookies to make an immediate impact. But Willson’s play has served as another reminder of how the NFL’s most complete roster was built with a knack not just for finding talent, but for understanding when a talented player also becomes a draft-day bargain.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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