Man In The Middle?

With Rashad Moore and 2004 first-round draft pick Marcus Tubbs getting most of the awareness regarding the starting DT positions, .NET's Aaron Burtner looks at the "X-Factor" known as Cedric Woodard, his ups and downs to date, and where he might fit into the Seahawks' future plans.

I recently read a great article in Sports Illustrated on former Buffalo Bills’ kicker and national goat Scott Norwood. Through numerous early career discouragements and career ending disappointments Norwood, whose career has become unfairly defined by a last minute 47 yard field goal that sailed “wide right” in the first of Buffalo’s 4 consecutive Super Bowl losses, has lived his life by a simple motto:

“Just show up.”

It’s the kind of simple lunch-pail attitude that also fits well with the strange career of Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Cedric Woodard.

Woodard, drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens back in 2000, was a career starter on a solid Texas defense. Despite starting 35 games in college, Woodard dropped in the draft because of lackluster stats, an overly stout frame, and a reputation for underachieving. After playing through training camp on a very deep Baltimore defense, Woodard was cut before ever playing a regular season down for the Ravens.

The Seahawks and then defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell obviously saw something in the stocky tackle, although not enough to actually play him. After being claimed off waivers by Seattle, Woodard spent 15 weeks of his rookie season on the inactive list, and never played a down.

The following season saw Woodard once again buried on the depth chart behind John Randle and Chad Eaton. He played sparingly, racking up 3 tackles. 2002 once again saw Woodard languishing on the pine, despite the fact that the Seahawks run defense was among the worst in NFL history.

Following that anemic season, the defensive coaching staff was fired, and one would think that after a lackluster career and with a new staff coming in that Woodard’s days in Seattle would’ve been numbered. Indeed, the Seahawks had the opportunity to send the restricted free agent to the New England in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick. Many were astounded when the Seahawks elected to retain Woodard.

What did new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes see in Woodard to warrant a large one-year tender offer?

In an oddly ironic turn of events, it was a series of knee surgeries for incumbent starter Chad Eaton that forced Woodard into the rotation. You see, Eaton and Woodard’s early careers were eerily similar. Eaton was a journeyman backup in 1997, having spent 3 years traveling the league after being drafted and released by the Arizona Cardinals in 1994. In spring of 1997 Sidwell, who was then coordinator for the Patriots defense, told Eaton that he needed him to be a starter. It seemed like an unrealistic expectation at the time, but Eaton was motivated by the challenge and played well enough in 2 years as a starter in New England to earn a big contract from the Seahawks as a free agent.

Woodard now faced the same opportunity. After years that would’ve left a lesser man contemplating another career choice, Woodard would be asked to step into the starting line-up due to injuries to Eaton, Hand and Randle. There was no reason to think he would succeed as a starter, and the Seahawks once promising season was being turned over, at least in part, to a 4 year pro who had never started a game and totaled 4 tackles in the previous 3 years.

Instead of ineptitude, Woodard surprised fans by being a stout force in the middle, occupying multiple blockers and allowing the coaches to aggressively blitz linebackers, knowing that Woodard would stand his ground.

It was the kind of surprising effort and consistent play that coach Rhodes asks for, but seldom gets, from young players. While fellow linemen Rocky Bernard, Antonio Cochran and Anton Palepoi struggled under Rhodes' leadership, Woodard and rookie tackle Rashad Moore flourished late in the season. Their strong interior line play lead fans and coaches to finally believe that the middle of the Seahawks defense might finally have a long term answer, rather than the veteran Band-Aids the team had employed for years.

This year, Woodard was rewarded for his strong play with a long-term multi-million dollar contract. Randle, Eaton and Hand were all cut, showing a commitment to making Woodard a big part of the team’s future. At the same time, however, coaches sent a message to Woodard, Moore and the under-achieving Bernard by drafting the big athletic Texas DT Marcus Tubbs, in this year’s first round. The three young players will push each other for starting spots, and play heavily in rotation to keep their 320 LB-plus bodies rested.

How the rotation works out remain to be seen. All three players are young, and have enough questions to keep fans guessing and coaches pushing. Woodard is an excellent run stuffer: a one-gap tackle who can hold his ground while occupying multiple blockers. He does not have the initial burst or agility that made Moore a standout as a rookie, or that characterized Tubbs’ play in college. Both players are better athletes than Woodard, but if there’s one thing Cedric should have learned in 4 tumultuous NFL seasons, it’s this:

Just show up. Play hard. And let fate take care of the rest.

Aaron Burtner is a regular contributor to Seahawks.NET. Feel free to send him feedback here.


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