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Danny O'Neil covers the Seahawks for The Seattle Times.

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April 16, 2008 12:22 PM

"The Draft" by Pete Williams, Discussion v1.0

Posted by Danny O'Neil

This isn't Oprah's book club since a football has an oblong shape, not a big 'O'. But the first 'Hawk Talk Book Club will convene, discussing Pete Williams' year-long, multi-layered look into the year of preparation that went into the 2005 Draft.

He looked at the competition that agents engage in over clients. He analyzed the approach of an NFL team specifically -- in this case the Atlanta Falcons -- and he provided an epilogue to measure the outcomes.

The result is a wealth of information and very few concrete conclusions, which is pretty accurate because there are no magic bullets when it comes to the draft.

The book is interesting with regard to the Seattle Seahawks on several levels. First, Tim Ruskell was assistant GM in Atlanta for much of the time Williams' spent reporting and then left to become the Seahawks president in February 2005, just before the draft. Secondly, one of the players the Seahawks chose in the 2005 draft -- Florida State tackle Ray Willis -- is featured prominently in the book.

Let's start there because I think what gets lost this time of year is just how many prospects teams are wading through. Ray Willis was a fourth-round pick by Seattle, a second-day selection who was placed on the backburner of any assessments of the team by the time training camp rolled around. But this guy was a top tackle at one of the nation's elite football programs. A prospect who had his pick of agents and who fell to the second day of the draft because of an ankle injury.

The discussion of the draft ends up focusing so much on the players drafted early, but that's only part of the story of the annual talent buffet. A small part. The players selected in the later rounds have put just as much into the draft process, and the teams that pick them need to make the most of those selections to remain competitive in the salary-cap era. It's not just the high-end picks panning out. It's finding solid contributors in the later rounds. Guys like Craig Terrill (sixth-round choice). Rob Sims (fourth-round pick). And Willis, who three years after being picked remains a player the Seahawks coaching staff likes but who hasn't started a game yet.

2005 draft review: Remember this year? Ruskell's first draft when the Seahawks traded down in the first round, picked a center when Robbie Tobeck was already entrenched at that position and then traded up in the second round to pick a middle linebacker everybody said was undersized. That was Lofa Tatupu and he's three-for-three in Pro Bowl appearances in his NFL career.

So was it a good draft? Take a look at Seattle's haul by reading the rest of this link:

PlayerRoundStartsComment
C Chris Spencer1 (No. 26)29Longer learning curve, which is typical for centers.
LB Lofa Tatupu2nd (No. 45)48Three-time Pro Bowler
QB David Greene3rd (No. 85)0Cut in third training camp.
LB Leroy Hill3rd (No. 98)38Athletic playmaker and defensive mainstay.
OL Ray Willis4th (No. 105)0Knee injury set him back last season.
DE Jeb Huckeba5th (No. 159)0Placed on injured reserve in first season because of stress fractures. Never played.
FB Tony Jackson 5th (No. 196)0Beaten out by Leonard Weaver, cut first training camp.
LB Cornelius Wortham7th (No. 235)0Special-teams action as a rookie; waived second season.
OL Doug Nienhuis7th (No. 254)0Signed from Seattle's practice squad to Jets active roster in 2005.

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Posted by pt1095

2:01 PM, Apr 16, 2008

Danny, I think the book makes great points in that both Rich McKay and Tim Ruskell created a new way of evaluating players. Namely, they evaluated players not only on talent, but also on character. They wanted to create an environment where everyone has the same positive attitudes. I agree with their philosophy as the best front offices are very aware of this and has players in the locker room who makes sure everyone is focused not only for themselves but also for the team (San Diego, New England, Indiannapolis, etc.). It is very tempting to overlook character flaws because of talent as shown by the many fans who want players with high talent potential despite character issues. Some teams still take talented players with lots of character flaws. The book also mentions how the incredible amount of research a scout does on players. I remember Warren Sapp stating that scouts had information on him back to when he was in the 8th grade. Still, fans are upset come draft day because the team didn't pick the player they thought was best. Not many fans, I think, realize the entire scouting/evaluating process. A very important point is that good teams pick players that fit their schemes. Players that don't fit a team's scheme, even though they are very talented, usually don't do very well. Case in point is Bobby Carpenter who was highly evaluated as a OLB in college yet played MLB for Dallas. He's sitting on Dallas' bench yet I'm sure he's still a great OLB if Dallas will let him play OLB.

Posted by simpsonian

2:08 PM, Apr 16, 2008

Isn't Leroy Hill starting for us now?

Posted by jerry

2:08 PM, Apr 16, 2008

Leroy Hill is a starter for the Seahawks isn't he?

Posted by Danny O.

2:09 PM, Apr 16, 2008

That's a great point regarding the character quotient Rich McKay and Tim Ruskell introduced to the draft analysis. One of the most interesting tangents it drew was to the Oakland Athletics' approach to building a baseball team, which was subsequently characterized in "Moneyball." What the A's did was look for attributes that were undervalued on baseball's open market. You could make the argument that McKay and Ruskell did the same thing, deciding that a player's "football character" was undervalued in general in the NFL.

Here's the funny part about that. The Athletics' approach under Billy Beane was to base this largely upon cold, hard statistical indicators of success. Things like on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) whereas the McKay-Ruskell approach put lesser emphasis on those cold, hard measurable facts like 40-yard dash times.

Posted by pt1095

2:18 PM, Apr 16, 2008

The point that the book makes is that football is so much more a team sport than baseball. As such, one great player in football will not turn a bad team around whereas a great pitcher might win all the games he's pitching.

Posted by Danny O.

2:28 PM, Apr 16, 2008

That's an interesting point. I think you're onto something here, and I would say that the idea of what makes a player "great" is really what the book was about.

In baseball, a player can be great even if he's sullen, anti-social and a general pain in the neck to be around even for his teammates. There are plenty examples of this. Albert Belle. Kevin Brown. Barry Bonds. Didn't matter what they were like in the clubhouse so much as what they put up on the stat sheet.

In football, I would say a "great" player's influence encompasses more than just his performance because of what you said, that football is more of a team sport. Look at the Seahawks' 2005 draft class. Only four players are currently on the team's roster. Four of the players the Seahawks picked are out of football entirely. Yet, I think you have to consider that draft a pivotal success because Seattle drafted Lofa Tatupu, who brought continuity to a position subject to constant turnover and instilled leadership. He is a "great" player who's made a tremendous impact, but that's because of much more than just his athletic performance.

Posted by pt1095

2:35 PM, Apr 16, 2008

A player like Steve Hutchinson both on the field and in the locker room is a tremendous value. He helps make everyone of his teammates tougher. If they're not playing their best, Hutch will let them know about it. The Pats have those type of players in Brady, Bruschi, etc. Peyton Manning is like that with the Colts.

Posted by pt1095

2:43 PM, Apr 16, 2008

Currently, the Seahawks have several players that get everyone else up for their positions. Lofa for the LB's, Matt for the offensive skill positions, Patrick Kerney for the DL, Bobby Engram for the WR's, and Brian Russell & Deon Grant for the defensive secondary. I don't see a lead player for the Seahawks O line. Walter Jones is a fantastic player but I don't see him getting the O line pumped.

Posted by -k

3:15 PM, Apr 16, 2008

Danny - You bring up an interesting point in your 2:09 post. Every year, teams fall in love with 40 yards dash times, and get burned. Trung Candidate is my favorite example. We was slotted as a late day 2 draft pick until he ran his 40 in the 4.2 range at the combine. The rams then picked him with their first round pick. Guess what, he never did dhow potential to plan at the NFL level.

On the flip side of that, Lofa tatupu, Steve Largent and Jerry Rice were all said to be "too slow" comming out of college. I've been watching over the last 3 years or so, and the teams that ignore the combine's measurables and draft football players the most have been the Seahawks, Patriots, Steelers, and Colts, all perennial playoff teams. The teams that seem to "fall in love with" guys at the combine and draft them high: Lions, Arizona, Rams, and Bills. How long has it been since any of those teams have been good?

No data to back that up, just a my general impression.

Last year i watched for it with those 8 teams. It seemed that, according to mel kiper and other so-called experts, the 4 playoff teams were always "reaching" for guys, while the 4 perennial bottom feeders were always getting "value" for their picks. It goes to show you that Ruskell's evaluation of players based on items other than 40 yard dash times is working, even if the "experts" at ESPN can't figure that out.

Posted by pt1095

3:23 PM, Apr 16, 2008

Case in point about character, here's what Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly had to say about character when a reader asked about it:

"Most teams take the approach of grading talent separate from character and then factoring in the character grade at the end of the process. For example, Claude Wroten was a first-round talent several years ago, but he warranted a reject character grade from many teams, and his overall grade suffered because of his off-the-field transgressions and unreliability. As a result, he slid to the third round and, thus far, has failed to reach his potential despite showing flashes of greatness, and I would attribute that failure to his character and mental makeup.

To me, even though separate grades can be given for talent and character, the two can never be separated when it comes to determining what type of pros players will become, and anyone who overlooks it, I think, is making a tremendous mistake. To me, work ethic, toughness, competitiveness and intelligence are extremely important traits, and all of the sources you mentioned above (coaches, teammates, scouts) are referenced to arrive at an evaluation of a player’s overall mental makeup, not to mention many others, including high school coaches and anyone who may have come into close contact with players and have intimate knowledge of what makes them tick."

Posted by grizzly bear

6:15 PM, Apr 16, 2008

I read the book on the plane last month going to and from Austin (SXSW).

I have to be a little bit of a contrarian with regards to the whole "Moneyball" versus "Character" debate. Well, really I would argue that statistcal analysis has a place in football and player evaluation, though not in the "moneyball" sense of readily-available stats (like WHIP, OBP, etc).

Essentially Ruskell argues that there are so many variables and players are so system dependent that a statistical approach is not possible.

I argue that pro football should and probably does value statistics and analysis, just not the analysis that comes out of the traditional "draftnik" set - namely 40 times, bench press, etc - the things the book debunks, which is appropriate. But think about it- baseball doesn't really value those things either. Baseball is full of performers, who through sheer competitiveness or whatever qualitative "Talent", excel at hitting. A lot of them would be considered sub-par athletes.

Past performance is the "moneyball" approach, however, and physical tests like a 40 time aren't a part of that.

Something in baseball that is still a bit of a dark art is analyzing defense.

Which leads me to the my point about statistical analysis in football - there are clearly ways to analyze football performance on the field - if you ever notice, players are graded on a position level after games by their teams and I'm sure some teams have "secret sauce" stats which no one knows about.

The problem with football is the only historical stats you can measure on an individual basis are things that are so dependent on the system, the level of competition, etc (as the book states). This makes a moneyball draft strategy hard. You can't really say that if (for example) Jake Long had 1,000 pancake blocks vs. 1 sack in a season that he is a better player than another player who had a 500/20 ratio. Of course even the example I give may have some value if you factor in # of snaps, what point of the game, etc. There are a lot of variables. And THAT's my point - if many variables could be combined in a neutral way, statistically you could say interesting things about individuals.

I would also argue that there could surely be new statistics drawn up by scouts that could factor into their player analysis.

As a side note, The Ken Bering era Seahawks tried to be be performance stat-oriented with drafting receivers named Doug Thomas and David Daniels. They were drafted almost solely because of their speed. Those receivers were fast but were poor football players.

My own feeling on Ruskell is that he might be too character-oriented, but I would be too if I were him since the perception of your team is so important with regards to your community support (and dollars)

Posted by bigmaq

10:27 AM, Apr 17, 2008

Two starting linebackers are certainly good, but, this is at best anecdotal evidence. Empirical evidence would require taking into consideration a much larger sample (say '06 and 07) and comparing to a similarly large control sample. When this is done, Ruskell's draft acumen is average at best. Sorry guys, drinking that Kirkland (soon to be Renton) Kool Aid can be addictive and mind-bending.

Posted by jed01

10:15 AM, Apr 22, 2008

Not sure if it is still up there, but there were a few articles at espn.com rating the draft from three years ago, etc. It was interesting to see a lot of the names from the book (I think the highest pick who is now out of football was that d-lineman from Wisconsin that was featured.)

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