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Draft Interdiction

<i>"In many ways, the process shifted last season. The Seahawks are no longer in the rebuilding mode. As a playoff team, they are in maintenance mode. That is not to say that they don't need improvement. They do. But first and foremost, they must maintain the team at the level it showed in 2003 and improve from there. They started that process by retaining key free agents earlier this off season. </i>

The question is: How does one write intelligently about something that hasn’t happened yet? Due to deadlines and other meaningless excuses, I am forced to write something for publication on the morning of the second day of the draft and submit it prior to the first day of the draft. I guess I didn’t take draft weekend into account when accepting the Sunday column.

As you read this, the draft is now almost half over. Many would argue that the most important part of it is behind us, although the contributions of late round draft picks and UDFA’s often surprise many experts. However, since I’m writing this a couple of days early, I have no idea who we picked Saturday, let alone why.

So, as I sip my coffee and think about the emotional state of all the would be GM’s out there and how they will opine on who the Seahawks picked yesterday and why, I have to approach it in more general terms. Which is perhaps a good thing. It fits my personality better, anyway. As Robert Heinlein used to say, “Specialization is for insects.” I invite you to have a cuppa joe and relax a bit.

It is easy, in all the wrangling and arguing that goes on before the draft, to lose perspective. Pundits have little to gain but bragging rights if they should happen to correctly predict draft picks. After all, the variables are such that it is virtually impossible to call the sequence that players finally get picked in.

Amateurs should take note. If “experts” are not fired for incorrect calls on draft day, there is no shame for the common hacker to share that status. There is often more emotion than rationality in many of the discussions that fly around the net concerning draft pick predictions, anyway.

As fans, we all want our team to improve. I think we can agree on that. Plus, of course, we want our team to improve more than the rest of the league. Still no argument there, right?

Mike Holmgren, and his fellow front office staffers, seem to follow a “best athlete” strategy, for the most part. In truth, recent attempts to draft for need have not been overly successful, while taking whoever was the “best player/athlete” has drawn gems like Steve Hutchinson, Marcus Trufant, and Shaun Alexander. Many fans, however, continue to stump for the “fill the holes” strategy.

So, even with no knowledge of our Saturday picks I think I can safely say that there is no need for panic. After all, with some notable exceptions (Ryan Leaf comes to mind) there is historically very little chance that a draft pick will actually hurt a team. The worst that can happen, usually, is that a pick will not pan out and be “wasted.” Avoiding that outcome, of course, is the job of the scouting department and all the coaches and staff involved in the process.

As fans, we can argue and complain all day and night, but the truth is we don’t really have any input. The team, quite understandably, leaves that responsibility to their own in-house experts. After all, they are the ones in danger of being fired if they pick poorly.

In truth, Seattle was in excellent shape this year before the draft began.

The offense has the one thing that all coaches dream of, continuity. As of Wednesday of this week, we are returning all 11 offensive starters and most of the 2nd and 3rd string players from last season. That kind of player retention can only help the team, as it continues to grow together. Nothing is more important than repetitions when it comes to an offense. The more games they play together in the system, the better they will get.

The only real negative on offense this season is the continuing Walter Jones contract negotiation that will not die. His absence will hurt the offensive line’s development in training camp, if he repeats the last two seasons’ habit of not signing until opening day. While that is a bad thing, it is hardly devastating. Last season, we went 3-0 to start the season under that condition. Jones and his agent should probably look at that (among other things) when they calculate Walter’s value to the team. I know the team will.

The defense was more problematic last year. However, prior to this draft Seattle’s defense has already gotten noticeably younger. With the loss of Hand, Eaton, Randle, and Tongue, the team has dropped around forty years of NFL experience, along with over 100 years of age. While the loss of experience might be a concern, the loss of all those old legs just might be a net positive.

Adding Taylor adds some age, but he can still play. Wistrom is in his prime, and has shown no tendency to slow down yet. In truth, one could say that as of Wednesday, 10 of the 11 starting positions on defense are at least filled, with MLB the only real question.

There are areas that show dangerous lack of depth, notably on the line and in the secondary. Some of that depth might be covered by young players returning from injury, like in the case of defensive backs Bierria and Richard.

If all you are looking for is depth, first day picks are not where you go, anyway. Usually, a team will look to day two to provide depth. A good strategy is to draft for talent (Best Player Available) on day one, and need (roster depth) on day two.

Obviously, no one should complain if the team adds talent. However, the question we as fans always seem to ask ourselves is did the team add talent at the right positions?

On the one hand, it seems simple to say, “The team has a need here,” and then pick a player to fill that need. The major problem with that approach is that it tends to ignore the concept of the value of players in the overall scheme of things. That is where a team will reach for a player, feeling pressure to get the guy before someone else takes him.

One notoriously unpredictable facet of drafting for need is the idea of covering for the future. While contracts have predictable endpoints, things like injury cannot be predicted accurately.

It is impossible, given the constraints of the 53 man roster, to provide adequate depth at all positions every season. Sometimes the injuries mount up and simply overwhelm all the best pre-season planning, much like what happened to the Seahawks in 2002. Nobody likes to use the injury excuse, but consider this. That was year 2 of our rebuilding process (if you follow the blueprint of 1999 as evaluation, 2000 as tear down, and 2001 the actual start of rebuilding). The team is better prepared than it was 2 years ago and more likely to have success under those conditions.

One important thing to keep in mind is that the Seahawks are now a playoff team. Not a “playoff caliber” team like they arguably finished the 2002 season as. They made the playoffs in 2003, and did so by winning their last regular season game on the road against a division rival. There is some character involved in that, not to mention a basic level of talent.

Frankly, the Seahawks played rather well in all of their final 3 road games at St Louis, San Francisco, and at Green Bay in the Wild Card game. It is not unreasonable for Seattle fans to expect another playoff appearance in 2004, regardless of schedule or off season roster moves.

Since I am writing this earlier in the week, I have no idea who Seattle drafted yesterday. That doesn’t really matter. The truth is that anybody Seattle drafts this weekend will have a difficult time winning a starting job anyway. Rookies don’t often walk onto playoff teams and win starting jobs.

It takes the sting out of drafting late to know that the players selected don’t need to step in and provide immediate help anyway. The best possible scenario is to pick at #32.

There is a high probability that most of our 2nd day picks will not even make the final cut. That is actually a good thing.

In many ways, the process shifted last season. The Seahawks are no longer in the rebuilding mode. As a playoff team, they are in maintenance mode. That is not to say that they don’t need improvement. They do. But first and foremost, they must maintain the team at the level it showed in 2003 and improve from there. They started that process by retaining key free agents earlier this off season.

The best way to maintain and improve the team is to draft the best available athlete, which always improves the overall talent level of the team.

So, it is Sunday, the morning of the second day of the draft. Relax. Sit back and enjoy your coffee.

Whatever happened yesterday, rest assured that Holmgren and company really do know what they are doing. Whomever we picked in the first three rounds will most probably not hurt the team, and might just help. The truth is, we don’t need that much help anyway.

The only real question marks for day 2 are: Will we pick a punter to challenge Rouen and will Holmgren pick his next quarterback project?

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