Luke Kuechly is the red-hot choice for Seattle if you believe the mock drafts. Todd McShay thinks so, stating, “Linebacker is among the Seahawks’ top needs, and Kuechly would immediately improve Seattle’s linebacker corps with his instincts, consistency, production and leadership.”
Rob Rang agrees, “Seattle doesn’t appear particularly concerned about the possibility of losing (David) Hawthorne or (Leroy) Hill to free agency. Perhaps that’s because they’re targeting the All-American Kuechly, who’d be an upgrade in the middle.”
So does Walter Cherepinsky, “Kuechly is the best player available who makes sense for the Seahawks. They’ll need an inside linebacker if they don’t re-sign David Hawthorne.”
It’s certainly true that linebacker is a top need, but whether it’s an issue addressed in round one is open to debate. The aforementioned Hawthorne and Hill remain unsigned despite limited interest in the open market. It’s still technically possible both will return to Seattle, but it seems likely the Seahawks will use the draft to upgrade. After all, Pete Carroll highlighted linebacker as an area for improvement in his end of season press conference. What’s more, this is a strong class at the position with strong depth across the first three rounds of the draft.
So are the Seahawks likely to spend their first pick on a MIKE linebacker? Not for me.
Here’s what I wrote in yesterday’s mock draft to explain my reasoning:
“Improving the pass rush has to be the priority and that’s something Kuechly won’t do. He’s a pure MIKE who will make plenty of tackles at the second level, but isn’t going to cause too many problems behind the LOS. He added size for the combine (appearing at 242lbs) but is likely to have a playing weight of around 235-240lbs. That’s a concern and people wondering whether he’ll have a Brian Urlacher-type impact in the league have to remember Urlacher is 20lbs heavier. A better comparison for Kuechly would be Sean Lee in Dallas – a fine football player, but also the type that doesn’t cost a top-15 pick.
“Great leadership is another reason quoted to justify Kuechly to Seattle, but the Seahawks already have a vocal and emotional leader on defense and just gave him a $35m extension. While a hole remains at MLB, it’s also worth remembering that David Hawthorne was an UDFA and the front office did a good job plucking KJ Wright from round four last year. Without doubt the MIKE spot will have to be filled if no free agent is signed, but with prospects such as Mychal Kendricks available beyond the first round, there’s no real need for the Seahawks to avoid drafting an impact pass rusher with the #12 pick should the opportunity present itself.”
There’s a lot to like about Kuechly’s game. As you can see in the tape at the top of the article, he’s like a magnet to the ball. His decision making is first class, but he also has the pursuit to match. It’s no fluke he made 191 total tackles in 2011 and he’ll likely enter the NFL and just carry on where he left off. He’s a Field-Marshall at the second level, mopping up the work of the defensive line and consistently gravitating to the ball carrier. The comparison to Dallas’ Sean Lee is fair and just, flashing similar instinct and leadership while possessing the kind of attitude teams love. There’s a reason the Cowboys’ war room celebrated drafting Lee with such vigour, and I suspect whoever drafts Kuechly will have the same reaction. Simply put, a defensive coaches a dream.
On the other hand, there are some concerns. The size issue are unavoidable and while he’s a combative player who will consistently make tackles, he’s not a big hitter and won’t always stop the ball carrier on the initial contact. Will Kuechly be quite the same force in the much more physical NFL? He doesn’t have a lot of forced fumbles or game-changing plays and in goal-line/short-yardage situations he can be a bit of a liability because he’s just not that big. He has the speed and athleticism to be great in coverage and teams won’t have any complaints with the tape in that aspect. He’ll work well in zone, he reads the field extremely well and perhaps most importantly – plays with real control. But again, we haven’t seen many big-plays.
It’s hard to dislike a decision to draft Kuechly and there’s a very real chance someone will take him early. One team could buy into the idea he’ll be a safe, steady player for a long time. He’s the kind of prospect Gene Smith and Scott Pioli like to draft and could easily go at #7 to Jacksonville or #11 to Kansas City. Yet it’s just not a vital position on defense anymore. The introduction of mic’d up helmets has taken away the full effectiveness of an intelligent MIKE with a superb field IQ. One of Lofa Tatupu’s greatest strengths early in his career was the ability to read the offense and organise. Now, a coach sitting in a booth can tell one player on defense – usually the MIKE – what needs to happen. Players like Tatupu will soon be dinosaurs and it’ll just be another position for the bigger, faster player you can find. One of Kuechly’s greatest aspects – his ability to organise – won’t be truly maxed out at the next level.
It could also be argued that the number of difference makers at middle-linebacker in the NFL can be counted on one hand. Seattle needs a pass rush more than anything, and it’s something they just aren’t going to get from Kuechly. With so much young talent in the secondary and with some nice pieces on the defensive line, the Seahawks really need to find someone who can compliment Chris Clemons and get to the quarterback. While it can be argued there may be some defensive end talent in round two, there could be a late-first round rush on the position leaving the Seahawks with limited options. However, there’s unlikely to be a rush on linebackers and a player such as Mychal Kendricks could be primed for the team’s pick in round two. Drafting Kuechly at #12 would put a lot of pressure on Seattle to attack the second tier of pass rushers, something they’ll want to avoid if possible.
Above all else it just smacks of a luxury pick. Kuechly’s the kind of player most teams want to have, but most team’s will only draft him if they’re set at other key positions. Tony Pauline sums it up best in his pro-day round round-up for Sports Illustrated:
“Kuechly continues to impress scouts with his athleticism and quickness. The linebacker was swift today and looked better in pursuit drills than he showed at the combine. That said, most at the workout feel Kuechly grades as a late-first-round pick.”
Essentially, everybody likes the guy, but he’s likely to go to a competitive team that can afford to spend a first round pick on a middle-linebacker. I had Kuechly going to Baltimore in my latest mock draft– not because I don’t like him – simply because I couldn’t find a team that can justify the pick earlier. Denver are a strong candidate at #25, but may feel obliged to keep building their offense to suit Peyton Manning. I could still see Kuechly going in the top-15, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he dropped to the late first. And it certainly would surprise me if the Seahawks drafted him instead of one of the top pass-rushers at #12.
David DeCastro an alternative?
A quick look at the latest mock drafts on NFL.com show Charley Casserly, Chad Reuter and Bucky Brooks all projecting the Stanford guard to Seattle. There’s some logic to the pick, considering the Seahawks released Robert Gallery and haven’t been able to bring in a big-name replacement. They wanted Steve Hutchinson, but he signed a substantial contract in Tennessee. I like David DeCastro, even if I think he’s a little overrated and believe comparisons to Hutchinson are lazy. His best position might be the one he played at Stanford – right guard – where his technical quality and smarts against the run will be fully utilised. But the Seahawks spending another first round pick on the offensive line would be pure overkill and a move they’re highly unlikely to make.
Although talent will always be more important than anything else, consistency and familiarity are also integral when trying to build a succesful line. The Seahawks have talent and depth, including two first round picks, a second round pick and a third round pick on their line. That’s a sizeable investment so far, while other positions haven’t received quite as much love (namely – quarterback and defensive end). For the most part last year, Tarvaris Jackson stayed clean and Marshawn Lynch prospered. Seattle clearly likes Paul McQuistan, Lemuel Jeanpierre and Breno Giacomini while they recently signed Frank Omiyale for further depth. All are familiar with Tom Cable and the zone scheme the Seahawks wish to run, and that familiarity cannot be underestimated. Let’s not forget that the greatest offensive line in the team’s history included just two first round picks and the rest was built around two mid-rounders and an UDFA.
It’s all about weighing up what will make this team more successful. Sure, you draft DeCastro at #12 and maybe he does become a lynch-pin at left guard for the next decade (but that’s not a lock by any means). If the Seahawks start Paul McQuistan at left guard instead, will the impact on the running game and pass protection be significantly weaker in 2012? I’d argue not. This is a well coached line and I expect that’ll continue next year.
Meanwhile, if the Seahawks avoid improving their pass rush in round one, is a solution likely to be forthcoming later? Because the idea of the draft has to be continued overall improvement, not just plugging guys in who might stick around the longest. Maybe some people could argue drafting a Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram is a little bit more of a gamble (I disagree, but I digress…) yet you’re still taking a chance to improve the overall quality of the team. Seattle needs a pass rush more than it needs another first round offensive lineman and I think Pete Carroll and John Schneider will focus on other areas for now. You can’t just keep pumping first round picks into one area of the team and besides – Seattle’s MVP for the offensive line may well be stood coaching from the sidelines anyway. That counts for something.
I want to see Courtney Upshaw work out
One of the consistent complaints I hear about Courtney Upshaw is the fact nobody has seen the guy work out. In fairness, he did perform at the combine – just not in every drill. He chose not to work out at the Alabama pro-day due to a minor injury, which is his prerogative considering he only gets one shot at this. He also knows that every scout in the league will be coming to watch Trent Richardson and Mark Barron, so delaying things a little bit isn’t too harmful in my eyes.
But one thing that’s also forgotten is that Upshaw did perform at the Senior Bowl – every drill. I’ve added a video from Mobile below which focuses on those work outs. I want to highlight two things. Firstly, the glowing review from Mike Mayock in the booth (the first few drills contain no volume, so don’t worry if you’re not hearing anything – it will kick in eventually). The second is a bag drill at 3:16 used to show a prospects quick feet and mobility. Upshaw is the last to compete in this clip (3:35) which also includes Melvin Ingram (the second to have a try). Anybody worried that this guy can’t move should take a look.