Offseason Update and Talking points

Today, the Seahawks are holding their rookie minicamp, and that means a lot of things.  For one, it means we have an actual offseason to look forward to this year.  Most years that wouldn’t be much of a reason for celebration, but after last season’s protracted lockout during the collective bargaining agreement negotiations I doubt any of us are going to be taking these camps for granted, mini or otherwise.

This weekend is also our first real chance to see the team’s shiny new set of draft picks step onto the field and strut their stuff in a Seahawks jersey.  Is Bruce Irvin as fast as advertised?  Does J.R. Sweezy look like he might be able to make the transition from defensive tackle to offensive guard?  Just how short is Russell Wilson, anyway?  We won’t be able to learn much from these practice sessions, since theses guys don’t know the playbooks yet and contact isn’t allowed until the regular training camp begins this summer, but until then it’ll have to do.

Speaking of training camp, thanks to the rookie wage scale included in the new CBA we no longer have to worry about top picks holding out during contract negotiations.  At this point, John Schneider has already finalized contracts with every draft pick except one, fourth round RB Robert Turbin, and I doubt he’ll remain unsigned for much longer.  I know it doesn’t seem like there’s anything at all for rookies to negotiate, since the size of their deal is set according to where they were picked in the draft, but as it turns out there are still a few points left to haggle over, the main one being how much of that contract money is going to be guaranteed.

Mainly though, the opening of the first minicamp of the offseason means that the deluge of post-draft grades, analyses, and other re-hashings will finally slow to an easy-to-ignore trickle.  There’s a lot to dislike about the vast majority of sports journalism; it has a bad habit of mistaking opinions for facts, it’s rife with vapid list articles of the top-ten variety, it tends to put the cart before the horse by shoehorning events into predetermined conclusions and storylines, and don’t even get me started on the average sportswriter’s grasp of basic grammar.  But amidst all that lousiness, there is no form of sports article more putrid, more completely and utterly bereft of even the minutest shred of value than the post-draft opinion piece.

For starters, the week following the draft is far too soon to be grading players.  The earliest a team’s draft class can be evaluated in any meaningful way is after the players have been in the league for three full seasons1.  By that time it’s pretty clear who is and isn’t an effective NFL player.  Aside from the occasional late bloomer like Rich Gannon, the players who are going to succeed have already done so, and the ones who aren’t have either been relegated to permanent backup status or washed out of the pros entirely.  Any attempt to judge the trajectory of a player’s career before then is idle speculation.

Think about it.  After Kam Chancellor’s first year in the league, the book on him was that he was a prototypical old-school strong safety, meaning he was a great hitter who could thump running backs well enough but lacked the mobility and ball skills to provide much in the way of pass defense.  In the modern game, that skill set makes you a career special teamer at best.  If that appraisal had held true, as a starter last year Chancellor should have been burned over and over again in coverage, Kelly Jennings style.  Instead, he played his way into the Pro Bowl to the tune of four interceptions and twelve passes defended.  I guess the kid knows how to cover after all.

For another example, take Red Bryant.  After his first two seasons, Bryant had played in just ten games, and in those limited snaps had shown nothing on the field that would indicate he was ever going to be more than a below-average rotational backup.  Then year three arrived, and with it came Pete Carroll and a new defensive scheme.  In training camp that season, Bryant was given a shot at defensive end because, well, it wasn’t like he was going to make the roster at his current position, so why not experiment a little before cutting him?  Little did anyone know that little tryout would trigger Red Bryant the middling defensive tackle’s metamorphosis into Big Red, devourer of running backs.  If anybody ever tells you that they predicted Bryant would become a defensive linchpin at the end of the ’09 season, they’re lying to your face and you have my permission to punch them in the kidney.

However, that’s all a bit moot.  You see, despite what they might say to the contrary, the average draft guru could care less how well a player does after he is drafted.  NFL franchises view the draft as merely a means to an end, a tool they can employ to improve their team’s ability to win games, but to the Kiper contingent the finish line isn’t the on-field performance, it’s the draft itself.  To understand that mindset, it helps to think of the draft as a sort of game where points are earned based on where a player is chosen in relation to how highly he was ranked on a given pundit’s draft board.  Use the 15th overall pick on a player rated as a mid-first rounder or higher, and you earn yourself a gold star, but using it to take a guy with a second-round grade like Bruce Irvin gets you a big fat F on your report card.  Afterwards, all you have to do is tally up the score and hand out trophies to the teams with the biggest point totals.

Remember how hard Tim Ruskell won the draft back in 2009, only to be shown the door after the team slumped to an embarrassing 5-11 finish?  Three years later, only three of those seven acclaimed picks are still with the team, Max Unger, Deon Butler, and Cameron Morrah, and come September there’s a good chance that only one left on the roster will be Unger.  The crown jewel of that draft, sure-fire Hall of Famer and defensive MVP-in-waiting Aaron Curry, was traded to the Raiders last year for a ham sandwich.  But hey, at least we won the draft, right?

I’ll conclude here with one final example/cautionary tale.  The L.A. Rams of the 1950s are one of the winningest teams in the history of the NFL Draft.  Among other things, they had the biggest scouting department in the league, they were among the first teams to regularly scout smaller colleges for talent, and they were looking for talent in other sports like basketball and track long before the Cowboys became famous for doing so.  Year after year, the Rams picked up a collection of talent that most teams could only dream about, but, well, I’ll let Cliff Christl and Don Langenkamp’s book Sleepers, Busts, & Franchise-Makers finish telling the story2:

Despite this almost constant windfall of talent, the Rams definitely were not the dominant team on the field that they were in the draft.  After fielding that championship team laced with young talent in 1951, it seemed a certainty that the Rams would enjoy a period of years of dynastic proportions.  That wasn’t the case, however.  It was a roller-coaster decade punctuated only by a Western Conference title in 1955.  In the championship game that year, the Rams lost to Cleveland 38-14.  They fell to 4-8 the following year and by 1959, were mired in the doldrums of a 2-10 season—the first of seven straight losing campaigns before George Allen arrived in 1966.

At first glance, it was a perplexing enigma.  How could a team stockpile so much talent and not field a winner, or at the very least, a contender year in and year out?  How could these draft wizards do so well on draft day, yet be so mediocre on game day?

Hamp Pool and Sid Gillman, allowing themselves the luxury of hindsight, admit there were inherent problems in dealing with a new influx of talent each season.

“There were more mistakes made in the area of poor judgment of talent by coaches,” says Pool, head coach from ’52 through ’55.  “Not enough time and effort was made to keep the best players.  Some of those players would leave the Rams and go on to other ballclubs and turn out to be outstanding.”

“We had too many people; we had too many draft choices,” says Gillman, who took over the reins from Pool and coached through 1959.  :We were looking at too many people and not spending enough time to settle down and start coaching them.”

Despite the collective drafting and scouting skills of [team owner Dan] Reeves and [head scout Eddie] Kotal, the bounty produced at least as many negatives as positives.  The key word was instability.  The draft was the only stable facet of the Rams’ organization.  Coaching instability?  Five head coaches from 1950 through 1965.  Front-office instability?  Reeves was involved in an ongoing struggle with his fellow owners to maintain control of the team.  Roster instability?  Proven players were constantly looking over their shoulders, fearful that another batch of highly touted rookies would arrive in training camp, threatening their security.  It led to dissension and general unhappiness.

A disgruntled Rams player told Philadelphia sportswriter Hugh Brown in the ‘50s: “The (the Rams) collected more top draft choices than anybody else in the league and what has it gotten them?  Nothing but dissension and jealousy.”

1 Three years seems to be the general consensus, at any rate.  Personally, I think a four year wait would be more useful, but I suppose there’s only so long you can expect folks to be patient about these things.

2 Christl and Langenkamp’s text is by far the best book on the draft I’ve ever read.  Unfortunately, it was published in limited quantities by a small press in 1983, and today it’s virtually impossible to find a copy, hence the lengthy quotation.  Luckily for you guys, I am not without my sources.