The Senior Bowl practices this week have generated a lot of attention, but to Seahawks GM John Schneider the all-star game is just one piece of the evaluation system.
Every pass, catch and block at this week’s practices for the Senior Bowl have been inspected, dissected and then discussed at even greater length.
And rightfully so. The annual all-star game that will be played Saturday in Mobile, Ala., and features the best college seniors in the country comprises a significant portion of the evaluation process leading up to the NFL draft in April.
Significant, but definitely not singular.
“There have been all-star games going on for the last several weeks now. On all different levels, of course,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said this week. “The Senior Bowl is obviously the most visible. It has the best talent.
“But it’s really just a piece of the puzzle.”
Cases in point: Russell Okung and Earl Thomas, the team’s first-round draft choices last year. Okung, a left tackle from Oklahoma State, already was on the Seahawks’ radar at this point of the offseason because of his performance as a senior for the Cowboys and also because Schneider and his staff knew he could be in play when they made the sixth pick overall. Thomas? Not so much, because the free safety was leaving the University of Texas after playing only two seasons.
“That really developed as we went through the process,” Schneider said when asked if he emerged from the Senior Bowl thinking Okung at No. 6 and Thomas at No. 14.
“We knew Russell was going to be in the mix, because we were picking so high. So we were able to concentrate on him. But with Earl, and him being a junior, we had to do extra work on him.”
Schneider and Pete Carroll didn’t become “sold” on Okung and Thomas until they visited each at their respective schools on the same trip – well after the combine, and just before the draft.
“We went bowling with Russell one day, and worked out Earl on another day,” Schneider said. “With Earl, like any junior, you have to try to spend extra time just because the whole story isn’t written yet with those guys.
“Unlike Earl, Russell was a four-year guy that we had plenty of background on and people felt they knew him well. And we also thought he’d be within reach for him.”
Schneider learned the player-evaluation game from Ron Wolf while working for the Green Bay Packers, and still recites what he calls a “rule of thumb” handed down by Wolf.
“He always used to say, ‘An all-star game can only help somebody, it can’t hurt somebody.’ Because really what you’re focusing on is how they played in the fall,” Schneider said, adding that the process also includes how the player progressed through his career, how he played against the better competition and how he played later in the season when the games often took on more significance.
“Some of the biggest mistakes, just from a pure evaluation standpoint, that I have made have been from all-star games – because the guy had a real nice week at the Senior Bowl. So I might have gone the other way, and not really truly stuck with my feelings on how I felt about him in the fall.”
Lessons learned. Mistakes that won’t be repeated.
This year will be not so much more difficult, as much as it will be different. The Seahawks have only one first-round draft choice, and it’s the 25th pick after their late-season surge to win the NFC West and then upset of the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs.
“We really won’t know who our guys are for awhile, especially when you’re picking 25,” Schneider said, well aware that what the teams directly above them do will impact who’ll be available to the Seahawks.
Carroll already has indentified upgrading the offensive and defensive lines as a priority, and Schneider is scouting from the same page
“No question. That’s where it all starts,” Schneider said. “And we felt like, especially on the offensive side of the ball, that we never were able to have consistency there. I wish we had been able do a better job of helping our coaching staff fix that quicker.”
The Seahawks used 10 different starting offensive line combinations and had 20 viable-candidate linemen on the roster at one time or another as injuries ravaged the unit. Max Unger, a second-round draft choice last year, was lost for the season in the opener because of a toe injury that required surgery. Okung missed six games because of high sprains to both ankles. Chester Pitts and Ben Hamilton went on injured reserve during the season, while Ray Willis went on IR before the season began.
It was a similar situation on the defensive line, where the Seahawks used six different starting combinations during the season and burned through 21 linemen starting in the offseason minicamps. End Red Bryant was lost for the rest of the season in Week 8 because of a knee injury and tackles Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole missed a combined nine games with injuries.
“At a certain point, we were playing with guys who had been cut and we had to re-sign or were backup players,” Schneider said. “They were playing their rears off and trying as hard as they could. But we missed the guys who couldn’t play.”
The draft could take on even more importance this offseason, because of the uncertainty being created by the scheduled expiration of CBA between the league’s owners and NFL Players Association on March 4. While free agency and the ability to make trades are in limbo, the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis next month and the April 28-30 draft will go on regardless of the labor situation.
Schneider and his staff will begin their post-bowl games/pre-combine meetings next week, before the assistant coaches get involved in the process prior to everyone headed for Indianapolis. Then there will be the players’ Pro Day workouts at their respective schools in March and early April. That will be followed by more meetings – countless hours of meetings.
All of this is directed at not only determining which player the Seahawks will chose with the 25th pick, but which gems they might uncover in the later rounds – like cornerback Walter Thurmond, strong safety Kam Chancellor, tight end Anthony McCoy and defensive end Dexter Davis, who were selected on the third day of last year’s draft and made contributions during their rookie seasons.
“I’m really excited. I think we’re going to have a great draft,” Schneider said. “It won’t be as exciting for the general public as it is for us, because you’re picking 25 rather than at 6 and 14. But we’re excited about the process.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty cool draft.”