Seahawks and Saints among the NFL's best at finding hidden gems
The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints enter Monday night's game at Seattle's CenturyLink Field as two of the league's most successful teams. There's a lot in common between these organizations looking to establish home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Both have overcome recent controversy (New Orleans with Bountygate, Seattle with multiple suspensions for violations of the league's substance abuse policies), both have height-impaired quarterbacks who were overlooked coming out of college in Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, and both have a balanced attack on both sides of the ball. The 2013 Saints are more of a power-running, I-formation team than you might believe, while the Seahawks aren't just ground-and-pound and a great defense. They actually lead the NFL in passing yards per attempt at 8.7, and they have 40 pass plays of 20 yards or more to New Orleans' 45.
Perhaps the most intriguing similarity between the franchises is that they're two of the best in the NFL when it comes to finding and cultivating players who are undrafted, unheralded and unwanted. Twenty-five of the players on New Orleans' current roster were not drafted -- 18 veterans and seven rookies. Receiver Lance Moore, safety Rafael Bush, fullback Jed Collins, offensive tackle Bryce Harris and center Brian de la Puente came from the team's practice squad. Receiver Marques Colston was a seventh-round pick in 2006 -- many teams pegged as a reserve tight end due to his lack of speed; he's now one of the most prolific pass-catchers in team history. The Saints got the current starting right side of their offensive line in the later rounds of the 2006 draft from smaller schools -- right tackle Zach Strief in the seventh round from Northwestern, and right guard Jahri Evans in the fourth round from Bloomsburg. Pierre Thomas, Kenny Stills, Akiem Hicks ... the list of key role-players on this team's roster that were taken and developed from the scrapheaps of other draft boards is a testament to the job that head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have done since Payton was hired in 2006.
Similarly, the current Seahawks team under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, both hired in 2010, bears little resemblance to the team they inherited. Only defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and center Max Unger remain as starters from the previous administration run into the ground by GM Tim Ruskell, a man who was notoriously fearful of small-school players, prospects in need of further development and diamonds in the rough. Carroll and Schneider have no such issues -- they're ballsy enough to make crucial decisions against the grain, and in step with each other enough to avoid any miscommunications.
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Carroll and Schneider turned a fifth-round pick in 2011 into possibly the NFL's best cornerback in the person of Richard Sherman. Receiver Doug Baldwin, who came from Stanford as Sherman did, became the first undrafted rookie to lead his team in receptions and receiving yards since Bill Groman did it for the Houston Oilers of the American Football League in 1960. Brandon Browner, signed out of the CFL in 2011, made a Pro Bowl that first season and has started 36 games at cornerback for one of the league's best defenses. Most notably, they took quarterback Russell Wilson with the 75th overall pick in 2012 and made him their opening day starter that season, despite having signed Matt Flynn to a lucrative free-agent contract.
Carroll and Schneider flipped defensive end Darryl Tapp for Chris Clemons, who has led the team in sacks every season from 2010 through '12. And they gave the Buffalo Bills a couple of low picks in 2011 for running back Marshawn Lynch, who has defined the franchise on and off the field since. There have been a couple of high-round blunders (most notably offensive lineman James Carpenter), and the Percy Harvin trade from earlier this year looks like a loss in the short term, but there's no doubt that the Seahawks have built as much of their recent dominance on surprise players as any team around -- including the Saints. Their opponents have taken notice -- 15 of the players Seattle released in final cutdowns in 2013 were signed by other NFL teams, a league high. There's perhaps no greater validation of the team's personnel philosophy.
I've asked Carroll and Schneider about that philosophy several times over the last four seasons, and two main points keep coming up -- be sure that you're matching your roster to your overall schematic philosophy, and focus more on what your players can do than what they can't. That second point is subtle and underrated, but the list of general managers and coaches throughout history who become risk-averse and profoundly negative about prospect talent as a result is long, sad and usually not long for the position. When I asked Payton about the Saints' philosophy this week, the same things came out.
“Well, I think this," he said, when some of those unheralded hauls were recalled. "No. 1, we’ve been fortunate, with regards to some of those picks -- and you referenced initially the 2006 draft, our first draft here, and that class in its entirety was very important. You get past [first-round pick] Reggie Bush, who was very important for us in our Super Bowl run, you had Roman Harper and you had Jahri Evans and you had Colston in the seventh round. Zach Strief was in the seventh round. Rob Ninkovich, who was here, who is now with the Patriots, in the middle rounds.
"I think most important is understanding, or at least appreciating, what you’re looking for and is there a role for that player? The other thing we talk about all the time with our players is once they enter the building, how they got here is of no importance to us. I know that sounds a little bit cliché, but using draft selections to acquire talent, signing free agents after the draft. Even in that minicamp, we have a free-agent tryout where we’ve had players like Billy Miller make the roster and Khiry Robinson this year, who won’t even sign after the draft. It's just paying attention to what you’re seeing. I think with hindsight now, we’re seven or eight years into it, when we’re on the phone with a free agent, there is a track record with their agents that we can point to that they have a chance at playing if they’re good enough and I think that’s kind of helped."
The evaluation-to-decision process happens with the Saints very much like it happens with the Seahawks. You have to start with everybody in the room knowing what the franchise wants, and you have to establish a belief among everybody in the building that there really is a meritocracy.
"There’s a combination of a few things," Payton concluded. "It’s typically a scout. It’s someone who’s got a strong conviction for a player. In Pierre Thomas’ case, Greg McMahon, our special teams coach, was at Illinois, and he had a strong conviction for Pierre. That same year, we had drafted a running back out of Ohio State [Antonio Pittman] in the fourth round and Pierre beat him out and made the team and we ended up releasing the fourth-round draft pick. So I think just understanding how much time we spend in the month leading up to the draft on the first round, 98 percent of the [media] discussion is regarding Round 1, and a real good draft is going to take place long past the first round. It’s going to take place in those middle rounds to later rounds. I think we got six college free agents that made this current roster, which is the highest for us we’ve ever had here.”
The other key component Carroll looks for in Seattle is the physically unique player. The Seahawks want big and fast like everybody else, but they also love to take atypical bodies and point them in some unconventional directions. Red Bryant was drafted in the fourth round of the 2008 draft out of Texas A&M by the previous regime, and he was an unspectacular defensive tackle. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn went to Carroll in 2010, back when he was Carroll's defensive line coach, and hypothesized that Bryant could be one super-effective (and super-huge, at a conservatively listed 323 pounds) five-tech run stopping defensive end. Bryant has been exactly that, and he wouldn't have been for so many teams eager to stay inside the proverbial box.
“There is a philosophical approach here in that we’re looking for the unique qualities, as you heard me say before, in a player, and then we try to amplify those unique qualities where if you try to fit that guy into a role that maybe doesn’t do that, he might not look as good," Carroll said this week. "The classic example is Red Bryant. Red Bryant was playing tackle and nose tackle, and he was so long, that it was hard for him to stay low and have good leverage all of the time. He wasn’t as effective as he is when we moved him outside. Now his length became an asset, and his 340 pounds is an asset. He can really stop anybody at the line of scrimmage. That’s an illustration of it."
Most importantly, Bryant is not an isolated case -- Carroll believes in the unusual player as a philosophical staple as opposed to a rare gambit. It's how this team has been constructed from the start.
"I would like to think I could go through almost every guy and talk like that, because that’s how we’ve looked at our players. Whether you look at Russell [Wilson], whether you look at Marshawn, or [outside linebacker] Bruce Irvin, which was a pick that people challenged. Asking 'Why would you take that guy? Why would you take Earl Thomas, who is a smaller safety, when you love to have big guys?' Because he is such a freakish competitor. We saw that in him and we wanted to get him on our team and make him an essential part of it. That’s a mindset that we utilize throughout.
"I don’t think you see us trying to stuff any square pegs in a round hole. We’re not doing that, and if we’re doing it we’re making a mistake. I think the reason that we do that is because we like to champion the guy’s special qualities, but also we’re trying to make really good decisions on what a guy is capable of doing, and what he brings, and not trying to make him something that he isn’t.”