By Kip Earlywine
While Seattle’s record has so far been a disappointing 2-5, in many ways, the roster is shaping up exactly as John Schneider and Pete Carroll hoped it would.
The defense has been death to the run and surprisingly solid against the pass, thanks to the emergence of young potential stars in the secondary such as Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond, and Richard Sherman (Brandon Browner has been a useful contributor as well).
On offense, the team has weapons and a quarterback who seems competent enough to get the ball to them, but is being undermined by other aspects. In my view, there are some areas of this team which strike me as being even bigger problems than quarterback. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Seattle should just forget about drafting a quarterback. Even if Tarvaris Jackson continues to improve and becomes a legitimately good stop gap option, he’s still only a stopgap. Seattle needs to invest in a quarterback soon, especially if they choose the developmental quarterback route in a player like Robert Griffin III.
That said, when I look at how this team ranks statistically in every offensive/defensive category, Seattle is doing surprisingly well, but there are two areas that really leap off the page for concern: Seattle’s offensive line ranks 32nd in the NFL in sacks allowed, and Seattle’s running game ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per carry.
The Seahawks have already invested very heavily in the offensive line. I do not think further high investment in the line is indefensible, the same way that picking first round receivers for years didn’t deter the Lions from drafting Calvin Johnson, but suffice to say, drafting another first round lineman would not be my first preference.
However, there is another way to improve our offensive line performance, and that is by finding a special talent at running back who fits a zone blocking scheme. A truly great running back can make his offensive line’s run blocking look better than it really is, and the threat of a viable running game and play action can also take some of the teeth out of a pass rush. And the last two seasons, that just hasn’t been happening. Marshawn Lynch hasn’t had a productive season since 2008. Leon Washington is a 3rd down back. Justin Forsett is a 3rd down back who at least appears to have lost a little something this year. Seattle needs to get more production out of their offensive line, but the running back group isn’t helping much and, in my opinion, does not have much of a future here. When your most promising back isn’t a workhorse and turns 30 next season, its time to start thinking about finding some new blood.
Fortunately, the 2012 draft is shaping up to be a very solid draft class for running backs. Its not going to be like 2008 when a very hyped class produced five running backs that went in the first round. But this is a running back class that has a few potentially under-rated backs who will prove to be value picks in the first three rounds. Here are a few backs that figure to be on the NFL’s radar next April:
Alabama’s star running back is the consensus #1 running back and has a real chance to be a top 10, possibly even top 5 pick in the 2012 draft. Richardson has a rare blend of size, speed, shiftiness, power, and toughness. He reminds me a lot of a slightly smaller Corey Dillon, or a bigger Frank Gore. How those two running backs were not first round picks I’ll never know, and they went on to make the rest of the league look foolish for it. It doesn’t appear that NFL teams will be caught overlooking Richardson though.
I like Miller quite a bit. He might be the shiftiest back in this class. Miami has been no stranger to producing NFL backs: Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, and Willis McGahee have come out of Miami in just the last decade. The video above makes an interesting comparison between Miller and Clinton Portis. Portis was shiftier and lost less speed making cuts, but its fair to say that the similarities are somewhat striking. I think I actually like Polk more than Miller for the Seahawks offense, but Miller is generally rated a little higher by most draft sites. I can see why.
Polk might be the most unique member of this running back class because he actually converted from wide receiver in high school. It shows too. He runs the best routes for a running back that I’ve seen since Reggie Bush. Polk is also a strong blocker, and a consistent rusher, despite playing behind perhaps the worst offensive line of any player on this list. His vision, toughness, durability, start-stop, and decision-making are excellent, and I like how he lowers the shoulder into defenders and is adept at falling forward for extra yards. He might be the very best back in this draft at “getting skinny” at the first level, which is a huge factor for the Seahawks putrid run blocking. He’s also nearly identical in size to Richardson, which helps. One of the more natural born zone blocking scheme running backs I’ve seen in a while. He may not make huge plays every time he touches the ball, but he will win you over with quality performances week in and week out.
Maybe I’m the first person (who’s not a Duck fan) to use this word regarding James, but has he somehow become under-rated at some point in the last year? People talk about him like he’s a 3rd round pick, yet all the guy does is explode for long touchdowns. From what I’ve seen of him, he seems like a solid receiver and could be a real weapon as a 3rd down back. But something that doesn’t get talked about, and its something that I like about James a lot, is his ability to get skinny and slip through where no running lane exists at all. Its no accident that many of James’ biggest runs were right up the middle, which is very unusual for a scat-back type. James may not survive long with a 300 carry workload in the NFL, but there is no reason to pull him off the field on first and second downs.
I don’t know if Ball is a great fit for Seattle, as he benefited immensely from some great blocking at Wisconsin and he isn’t especially quick or shifty. But he does have excellent vision and is a very smooth, powerful runner, somewhat akin to LaGarrette Blount in Tampa. I like how, like Chris Polk, Ball has a good habit of keeping his legs going which helps him pick up yards after contact. I do not know if Ball would be worthy investment early for the Seahawks, but I do think he has a very bright future ahead of him somewhere else where the blocking is better than what Seattle offers. Knowing how some of my predictions turn up though, I might have just jinxed Ball into becoming a future Seahawk.
Texas A&M’s deadly duo: Cyrus Gray/Christine Michael
Cyrus Gray is kind of this year’s version of CJ Spiller. Which isn’t to say that Gray is as gifted as Spiller, only to say that they both fall into a the same category: not a workhorse back, but plays with good moves and big play speed. The difference between the two is that Spiller put up some gaudy numbers which helped get him over-drafted, and Gray has actually been somewhat quiet this year as he’s shared carries with another quality back in Christine Michael. Seattle needs an every-down back and Gray doesn’t really fit that bill, just like Spiller hasn’t in Buffalo, but Seattle might want to start looking for a successor to Leon Washington.
Michael is a very similar back, and I’d rate the two almost identically. If Seattle is interested in acquiring a back like Gray, but only Michael is left, then drafting Michael would make sense too. I prefer Gray between the two of them, as he appears just a touch more explosive on video.
Davis was injured at the very beginning of the 2011 season and is considered highly unlikely to declare for the 2012 draft. On the off chance that Davis does declare though, I’d probably put him very high on this list, perhaps higher than Chris Polk and LaMichael James. Every game I scouted for Ryan Mallett, Davis had a phenominal game. In fact, over the 4 game sample I watched, I think Davis actually contributed even more to the offense than Mallett did, which says an awful lot. His size, acceleration, and intangibles (knack for the first down marker) was reminiscent of Terrell Davis.