Building a Defense - The Tim Ruskell Way

Player personnel geniuses - the men who can mine gold from any round in the draft - often find themselves in the background until their experience allows them to run entire organizations. New Seahawks President Tim Ruskell has precisely that sort of history...but when you see what he's done in 20 years in the NFL, he'll be your name to know.

"If there are 50 great evaluators of talent in the NFL, I believe Tim is in the top five" – Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay  

Behind every successful franchise and the known names who personify them, there are the men who work in the shadows. Around the time of the NFL’s Scouting Combine in February leading into April’s draft, the men who rate college players, from Mr. Big through Mr. Irrelevant, drive their teams into minicamps and training camps. The most talented and highly regarded of these men – the skilled scouts and player personnel genii – are the NFL’s versions of those rare stock speculators who can mine millions from seemingly dormant futures.

The Seattle Seahawks’ last two drafts were spearheaded by Vice President Ted Thompson and Scouting Director Scot McCloughan, and the results represented what was obviously a very together tandem in the midst of so much front-office hoo-hah. In 2003, what has become one of the finest young secondaries in the NFL was cemented by the first-round selection of CB Marcus Trufant from Washington State, and second-rounder S Ken Hamlin from Arkansas. In addition, Thompson and McCloughan found late-round gold in the person of DT Rashad “Booger” Moore, a sixth-round flyer pick from Tennessee who has provided essential stability in the Seahawks’ interior defensive line.

In 2004, the defensive draft focus continued, and the Seahawks once again came up with three players who might pay big future dividends - actually, one already has! With their first-round pick, Texas DT Marcus Tubbs got the nod. Although he missed the first nine days of training camp tending to his ill mother in Texas and the last few weeks of the season with an ankle injury, he has great potential and will look to rebound with a big splash in 2005. Purdue linebacker Niko Koutouvides, Seattle's fourth-round 2004 pick, came into the league with middling scouting reports, but he wound up with some quality regular-season reps at MLB – a position that was completely decimated for the Seahawks in 2004. His coaches are impressed enough with Koutouvides that reports suggest his having the starting MLB position pretty much locked up in the near future.

Of course, the real dead-on pick for the Seahawks in 2004 was second-rounder Michael Boulware from Florida State. Boulware, a linebacker in college, was projected as a safety by NFL scouts because of his size (223 pounds at 6’3”) and speed (draft expert Rob Rang reported Boulware running 4.5-40-yard dashes at the 2004 Scouting Combine). The Seahawks initially inserted him at the nickel linebacker position (to make the linebacker/safety transition easier), and Boulware responded immediately. All in all, four of Boulware’s five 2004 interceptions either saved or won games for the Seahawks. Boulware’s successful transition to starting safety late in the year proved the wisdom of the move. And it is Boulware’s progression that may prove to be most instructive when discussing Seattle's future defensive drafts.

Shortly after the 2004 season, Thompson left the team to take the General Manager position with the Green Bay Packers and McCloughan accepted the position of Vice President of Player Personnel with the San Francisco 49ers. In the wake of these defections, the Seahawks’ draft analysis cupboard appeared to be bare. And over the next month, as owner Paul Allen and his Vulcan Search Committee canvassed the NFL for the man who would replace exiled Team President Bob Whitsitt, Seahawks Nation wondered aloud as to the future of the team’s ability to evaluate talent in the quickly approaching 2005 Combine and the subsequent draft.

And then, in a move that looks better and better the more you view it, the Seahawks announced the hire of Team President/General Manager Tim Ruskell on Wednesday, February 23.

From Paralysis to Analysis

"College scouting is more difficult because you're dealing with players you're projecting to the next level and you're judging them at a competition level that is not equal to what they're going to be playing in. So you have to go on your hunches, you have to play your instincts and you have to use a lot of different things to predict what this guy is going to be in three years at a different level of competition. That's very difficult. The pro game, in free agency especially, you can watch them at the level you're asking them to play at. If you can basically grade their production and how they might fit into your scheme, you can pretty much figure out what that guy is going to be like playing for your team. It's a different type of projection because the level of competition is and should be the same." – Tim Ruskell

The first thing you need to know about Tim Ruskell is that his scouting roots run very deep. The second thing you need to know is that his skill as a player evaluator is indisputable. Since 1987, when he was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a regional scout, Ruskell has used his own considerable powers of analysis and organization to learn, codify, and define the parameters he uses to decide which names go where on a draft board. When he was named the Bucs’ Director of College Scouting in 1992, it began a scary-good era of defensive drafts for the team – resulting in one of the better defenses in NFL history – and Ruskell was at the center of it all.

Building a History

From 1982 through 1996, the Bucs suffered through fifteen consecutive losing seasons, including 12 straight years with ten or more losses – an NFL record which may never be broken in the new age of parity. Defense was a primary culprit – throughout that dark era, Tampa Bay averaged 21st in the NFL in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed. Ruskell, working in concert with GM Rich McKay, put on his pirate hat, gave a hearty cry of “Defense, Ho!” and set the Bucs’ ship on a championship course.

The first piece of the puzzle was acquired in 1993, when Ruskell and McKay took a chance on a defensive back from Stanford with one of their two third-round picks. The young safety had only played the position for two years in college – spending his freshman and sophomore seasons as a quarterback – but Ruskell saw something that made John Lynch worth the risk. All Lynch did over the next decade to reward the Buccaneers’ faith was to become the hardest-hitting safety in the NFL, a four-time Pro Bowler, and a team leader without peer. Former Bucs secondary coach (and current Jets head man) Herm Edwards became so fond of Lynch that he asked the player to become his son’s godfather. The Bucs also found DE Chidi Ahanotu from California in the sixth round in'93 – Ahanotu has amassed 46.5 sacks in his career, including 10 in 1997.

The foundation of the defense that would one day shock the world was laid in 1995. After a 6-10 record in 1994, Tampa Bay had the seventh pick in the'95 draft and two specific players in mind, Miami DT Warren Sapp and Florida State MLB Derrick Brooks. Both players had first-round talent (and were projected as such), and the way Ruskell and McKay landed both of them was a draft-day bartering masterpiece. Sapp passed up his senior season to enter the pros, but he racked up enough hardware in three years for anyone’s satisfaction – he won the Lombardi Award, was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, and was named the Defensive Player of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association, Football News and ABC. Problem was, Sapp tested positive for marijuana at the 1995 Combine, and there were unsubstantiated rumors regarding other illicit substances. Being that Ruskell has always been about due diligence, he and McKay scheduled a lunch with Sapp at Miami right before the draft and came away with the belief that he was worth the risk.

Other teams were not so sure, and Sapp started to plummet down the boards. A potential top-five pick, Sapp lost the interest of every team in the top ten…except the Bucs. Ruskell and McKay traded their first-round #7 pick and a third-rounder to Philadelphia for the Eagles' twelfth pick and two second-round selections. They then swapped those second-rounders to Dallas, for the 28th pick in the first round. Sapp was given a look by Minnesota at eleven, but the Vikings passed, drafting Derrick Alexander from Florida State instead. That was Tampa Bay's detonation point. "We had to wait and see if Warren would actually fall to No. 12," McKay said. "We had projected who everyone was taking through the first 10 picks, but we didn't know about the Vikings at No. 11. We were concerned they might be the one team to go after Warren."

Tampa Bay eagerly took Sapp with the next pick. Brooks had no such ancillary issues, but he was perceived as too small to be a difference-maker in the NFL. Ruskell, with the benefit of his own research, didn’t see it that way. "As a staff, our defensive coaches clearly defined what they wanted," he said. "So we were able to pick the proper pieces of the puzzle without making mistakes. They defined what their scheme was and what was needed for it. We looked for a little different guy than most teams. We looked for speed, quicks and instincts and paid less attention to size. Those guys tend to drop. You could get that guy a little later."

Taking advantage of circumstance and putting their own comprehensive research skills to great use, the Tampa Bay brain trust had set a new defense in motion. Over the next few years, Ruskell and McKay continued a masterful defensive construction via the draft. Joining Lynch, Sapp and Brooks? CB Donnie Abraham (1996), CB Ronde Barber and CB Al Harris – yes, the same Al Harris who put an end to Seattle's playoff hopes in 2003 (1997), DT Anthony McFarland (1998), FS Dexter Jackson (1999) and CB Dwight Smith (2001).

The final pieces of the puzzle came in different ways. Linebacker Shelton Quarles was acquired in 1997 after two seasons with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. DE Simeon Rice was acquired as a free agent in 2001, marking a gradual shift in the team’s primary mode of player acquisition which was augmented when Ruskell was named Tampa Bay's Director of Player Personnel that same year. The Buccaneers had seen enough to know that Ruskell could help lead them in any direction. And now, the defense he had sweated to build was ready to become the class of the NFL.

The Payoff

Remember those dismal defensive rankings from Tampa Bay's days of inconsequence? Ruskell’s draft boards provided obvious and drastic change. From 1996 through 2004, the Bucs have averaged a ranking of 5th in the NFL in both yards and points allowed. The final validation of the McKay/Ruskell plan was Super Bowl XXXVII. On January 26, 2003, the Buccaneers took their top-ranked defense up against the top-ranked offense of the Oakland Raiders.

It was no contest. Tampa Bay's defense absolutely vivisected NFL MVP Rich Gannon, intercepting the Raider QB five times and matching Oakland's entire scoring output with three defensive touchdowns in a 48-21 shellacking. Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson grabbed two picks, Derrick Brooks scored on an INT and Dwight Smith (who probably should have been the game’s MVP) bagged two, running one back 50 yards for a touchdown.

After the 2003 season, both McKay and Ruskell moved on to Atlanta, solidifying a completely revamped Falcon front office that included new Head Coach Jim Mora, Offensive Coordinator Gregg Knapp (both from San Francisco) and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell (from Green Bay). Catastrophic change? Hardly. Coming off a 5-11 record in 2003, the Falcons rebounded in 2004 with a mirror-image 11-5 mark and a trip to the NFC Championship. Once again, defense marked the day in the draft for McKay and Ruskell when they selected Virginia Tech CB DeAngelo Hall in the first round, LB Demorrio Williams from Nebraska in the fourth round, Louisiana State DT Chad Lavalais in round five, and S Etric Pruitt from Southern Mississippi in the sixth.

By this time, Ruskell’s name was given considerable weight and respect in the NFL, and when Paul Allen and his committee contacted Rich McKay during their “executive draft”, McKay could only advise them that if they did the sort of due diligence that Ruskell was famous for, he would prove to be the only logical choice.

What Does It All Mean?

“He had a good feel for not only ranking players and who would fit for us, but how everybody else in the league saw them and where they were going to go and what we had to do to get them. He’s a sharp, sharp personnel guy. He’ll do a great job in Seattle.” – Tony Dungy (former Tampa Bay and current Indianapolis head coach) on Tim Ruskell

For the third straight year, Seattle's draft focus must be defensive. After two years of Thompson’s and McCloughan’s excellent drafts, the Seahawks have a good start towards the kind of defense that can bring the Lombardi Trophy to the Emerald City. But as Ruskell would be the first to tell us, the journey has only begun. Starting secondary? Check. A quality rotation at defensive tackle? Bulls-eye. Right now, everything else is up in the air.

Tim Ruskell had his bags packed for the Combine before he knew which city he’d be flying to Indy from – and now, it will be the Seahawks who will benefit from the services of one of the NFL's most gifted talent evaluators. For Seattle to show any growth in 2005, the defense will have to improve significantly from a unit that was 26th in the NFL in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed. Simply put, this defense will have to write a new tale.

What moves the odds of that actually happening from “possible” to “likely” is the fact that the pen is now in Tim Ruskell’s hand.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at Top Stories