By John Boyle Herald Columnist
RENTON — On the third day of the 2011 draft, the Seattle Seahawks picked a cornerback named Richard Sherman with the 23rd pick of the fifth round. Just two selections later, they took safety Mark LeGree, and because both picks came late in the draft, nobody gave a lot of thought to either one at the time.
Two years later, Sherman is a first-team All-Pro. He’s arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and is probably the most recognizable names on one of the NFL’s best defenses.
LeGree, meanwhile, was cut before the start of the season, and has bounced around from practice squad to practice squad trying to find a home in the NFL.
Two slots in the fifth round is almost nothing, yet the same front office that found Sherman, a future star, also decided to take LeGree, a cut-day casualty. So how does that happen? How can the Seahawks find K.J. Wright, a starting linebacker, at pick 99 that same year, then take Kris Durham, who never made an impact before being released, eight picks later? How do they find Kam Chancellor, a Pro Bowl safety, six picks after taking E.J. Wilson, a defensive lineman who was released midway through his rookie year?
Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that the middle rounds of the draft are something of a crapshoot. Players who are still around at that point aren’t sure things — if they were, they’d be gone before the draft got to Saturday. Still, the disparity in some of Seattle’s third-day picks is pretty shocking, and it’s not entirely coincidental that things have turned out that way.
Maybe it’s Pete Carroll’s optimistic nature. Maybe it’s John Schneider’s youth. But the Seahawks’ front office, more than most in the NFL, is willing to focus on the potential of a player rather than worry about what might go wrong.
That’s not to say the Seahawks don’t consider the risk involved in taking a player. They do. They also try to peer beyond the obvious negatives in their talent evaulations.
So, rather than deciding that Chancellor was too big to be able to cover receivers and tight ends, the Seahawks instead saw a thumper of a safety who would pair perfectly with speedster Earl Thomas.
In Russell Wilson, they didn’t see someone who was too short to play quarterback. They saw a strong-armed, accurate, mature-beyond-his years leader who was everything a team could want in a QB, minus a few inches.
Instead of dismissing Sherman as too raw, having only moved to corner for his final two years of college, the Seahawks saw a physical, intelligent corner with a chip on his shoulder. They calculated that Sherman just might be perfect for matching up with big, physical receivers.
There are front offices that worry more about a player’s floor than his ceiling — right or wrong, former Seahawk GM Tim Ruskell had that reputation. Carroll and Schneider, however, look beyond a player’s perceived deficiencies and focus on what he does well. They look at unique attributes and mull how those might benefit the Seahawks. They are not afraid to take chances. Fear of failure doesn’t govern their choices.
Now, that willingness to fail can also lead to picking a Division I-AA player like LeGree in the fifth round, hoping his production at that level can carry over, or to making Durham the first non-combine-invited player drafted in 2010, hoping his height and speed will outweigh other shortcomings. However, when you consider how many third-day picks don’t work out anyway, why not swing for the fences like the Seahawks have?
Schneider would like to do even better in those middle to late rounds, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far, which is why the Seahawks stand to get better in this draft even without a first-round pick.
“Yeah, a little risk-reward, and there are lessons all the way through,” Schneider said. “There are certain things that you tell yourself if you’re not running a draft, ‘Man, when I’m running a draft, I’m going to do this.’ Then the mistakes that we’ve made — or perceived mistakes — have been things where I’m trying something that I probably shouldn’t have. And then I learn my lesson and won’t do it again.”
Yet mistakes or not, if past form holds, the Seahawks probably will come out of the final day of this year’s draft with a starting-caliber player or two, and another couple of players who will provide depth and contribute on special teams. And yes, there probably will be a mid-round pick whose name we will have forgotten by this time next year.
It’s very possible that even Seattle’s successful third-day picks won’t have a big immediate impact in 2013 thanks to the depth and talent Schneider and Carroll have accumulated over the past three years. That doesn’t make those picks any less important.
Just as Chancellor had a smaller role playing behind Lawyer Milloy in 2010, and just as we can’t yet judge many of Seattle’s mid-to-late round picks from 2012, there are players who will spend 2013 on the roster without standing out. For a team that’s goal is to not just be good this season, but for years to come — in case you hadn’t heard, Carroll’s a win-forever kind of guy — finding future key players next weekend is just as important as finding stars for 2013.
“I think there’s so much excitement (about the first round) and the investment is obviously higher and everybody has always been excited about who the first-round pick is going to be,” Schneider said. “But if you go and look at rosters, you look at all the guys where all the quality depth is and the majority of teams are not built — you have to do well in the first round, don’t get me wrong — but if you can hit on guys along the way and fill specific positions, you’re going to be able to sustain success.”
The Seahawks would love if they could re-sign every young star, still sign top free agents and keep every important veteran, but the reality of the NFL in a flat-salary-cap era is that there are going to be some tough decisions to make. The teams draft well, the teams who have inexpensive young replacements for those veterans they have to let go, those are the teams that can sustain success.
Early in his career in Green Bay, Schneider was part of a front office that after the 1994 season lost All-Pro receiver Sterling Sharpe unexpectedly when a neck injury forced him to retire and decided it couldn’t afford to re-sign Pro-Bowl defensive end Bryce Paup. Paup went on to be named the Defensive Player of the Year in 1995, but Green Bay still went to the NFC championship game after the 1995 season, and won the Super Bowl the next year.
“We need to have this guy compete with this guy, we need to fill this hole, we need to improve depth at this position — I never stop doing that, and we won’t stop doing that as long as we’re here,” Schneider said. “We’re going to keep pushing at every position, whether it’s in the draft or free agency, then evaluate our roster. And if we do this the right way, then we’ll have extremely tough decisions to make in the future, and that’s a good thing. … You have to make tough decisions along the way, and you have to have that core depth to know you’re going to be able to sustain a certain level of success.”
So no, you might not know much about that player whose name is called on Saturday, but if history tells us anything, Schneider and Carroll just might find another steal on the final day of the draft.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.