With less than one week until the 2005 NFL Draft, the Seattle Seahawks and new team President Tim Ruskell are almost ready to begin what will be a very interesting journey.
The preliminary draft board is up, scouts and coaches have been consulted, college players have visited Kirkland …in many ways, it looks like any other draft.
However, the differences between this draft and recent ones by the Seahawks will most likely be extraordinary.
For one, the two men who headed up Seattle's drafts in 2002 and 2003 – Ted Thompson and Scot McCloughan – have departed for the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, in the wake of Bob Whitsitt’s January departure. Thompson and McCloughan had very definite ideas of who they would and would not draft. In a recent chat with Seahawks.NET, Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com outlined the previous philosophy.
“The biggest difference you'll likely see between Ruskell and the Ted Thompson/Scot McCloughan philosophy is that Thompson goes by the Ron Wolf maxim that you project players based on size and speed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't,” Rang said. “That is why you saw the team take raw guys with obvious potential - Chris Davis, Alex Bannister, DJ Hackett, Terreal Bierria.”
The Tim Ruskell draft philosophy has been refined over the last two decades – as a regional scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1987 to 1991, Tampa Bay's Director of College Scouting from 1992 to 2000, their Director of Player Personnel from 2001 to 2003, and Atlanta's Assistant General Manager last year. The system Ruskell has put together for grading and picking players frequently leads to “diamonds in the rough” that other personnel men may pass by because they don’t fit an arbitrary prototype.
When asked about Ruskell’s particular outlook, Rang pointed to the specific way in which Tampa Bay’s defense was turned around by a series of drafts in the 1990’s. “In his 12 years in the front office – eleven with Tampa Bay and one with Atlanta - his team took a defensive lineman with their first pick 5 times,” Rang said. “That may not sound like much, but think back to those Tampa Bay teams. Defense, especially defensive line, was a strength as the years went on, not a weakness. Yet they still focused there. The other years the team twice took an offensive lineman, twice a wide receiver, once a cornerback, once a linebacker. So, no other position more than twice. Defensive line five times. That's not a trend. That is a philosophy.”
“Ruskell is more about football players,” Rang added. “Size is important. Speed and pure athleticism are more important. Not saying which is better. We've all seen both styles work and win Super Bowls. But Ruskell's ideas work better when you are looking for defensive ends and cornerbacks potentially in the mid rounds who might slip because they lack size. Seattle will almost surely take a cornerback in the middle rounds that they wouldn't have in the past. A guy who is 5’8” or so, but makes plays.”
Ruskell stated as much in a recent press conference at Kirkland HQ. "By the time you get to the tenth or twelfth pick, the players from that point down to 40 are basically at the same level in terms of their grade," he said. "So it just becomes what is the better fit for your team. You might be a little surprised by who is there. We've identified those players and we're hoping that they're going to be there at our pick."
And this class may benefit that philosophy more than most. Rang mentioned the unpredictability of this year’s draft, due to a lack of a true marquee first pick and a great amount of positional depth in the middle rounds. “This draft is goofy”, Rang said. “Of the three teams I've talked extensively with in the last couple of days, their boards are ranking guys so differently. I've never seen a draft where teams are ranking guys so opposite of one another. Some teams are ranking a guy as a possible first rounder, others don't think he belongs on the first day. It's crazy. So ranking sleepers is a little different than in years past. There will be some shocking picks of players that everyone calls ‘reaches’ or ‘surprise falls’. Just all over the place.”
Most analysts have the Seahawks taking a defensive end in the first round (Rang’s own mock draft has them taking Wisconsin DE Erasmus James), but one aspect to watch will be the physical attributes of the defensive backs taken. Although the Seahawks acquired former Denver CB Kelly Herndon to fill the void brought about by Ken Lucas’ departure, you can certainly look for Ruskell to take at least one defensive back in the middle rounds – and they will be DBs that are most likely smaller than what you’re used to as a Seahawks fan.
The Buccaneers drafted several “sleeper” DBs during Ruskell’s tenure – starting in 1993, when they took safety John Lynch as a 3b pick out of Stanford. Lynch had switched from quarterback to safety after his sophomore year, and passed by many scouts. The Bucs invested a mid-round pick in a player who would eventually go to four Pro Bowls – in the same year they took DE Eric Curry in the first round.
Eric Who? That’s the point. In that same draft, Tampa Bay took DE Chidi Ahanotu out of Cal in the sixth round. Ahanotu has recorded 46.5 sacks in his career, including 10 in 1997.
The trend of the mid-round DB would continue with some very interesting names as the prizes – CB Ronde Barber was a 3b pick in 1997, Al Harris was a 6a pick that same year, Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson was a 4th round pick in 1999, and Dwight Smith (who matched Jackson’s two Super Bowl interceptions) was a 3rd round pick in 2001.
The common denominator among many of these “sleeper” DBs? Size, or the lack of it. Both Barber and Smith are 5’10”, as is Herndon, Ruskell’s newest acquisition. In a era when more and more personnel directors and scouts were looking for the larger, more physical DB, Ruskell stuck to his axiom that the smaller playmaker has equivalent value. More value, in fact – because with the prices of elite cornerbacks shooting through the sky of late, the ability to find a mid-round DB is pure gold these days. With the NFL’s new more restrictive rules against physical contact on wide receivers, some analysts see a higher general ranking for these players.
“I like a lot of smaller DBs too,” Rang said, when asked about Ruskell’s proclivity for them. “For all of the talk about short DBs (having a disadvantage when) covering tall WRs, it takes an amazingly accurate quarterback to throw the ball high enough over a short DB with a 40-inch vertical. Now, if your defensive line is dominant enough, it is really tough to have the time to throw accurately. Plus these small DBs are usually playmakers and can return interceptions for scores.”
Whatever we see from the Ruskell regime next weekend when the draft rolls around, expect a lot of surprises – and the first definitive steps toward a Seahawks team that Tim Ruskell will call his own.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.