The lesson of a gradual draft class and how contending teams get better

Posted by Kip Earlywine

(Note:  Be sure to scroll down and check out Rob’s recent entry on Matt Barkley.  The Oregon game may well prove to be a turning point for Barkley’s draft status.)

The apparent beginnings of a second half surge by the Seattle Seahawks has ignited the “lose to win”  debate among fans (which in my imagination, is sung to the tune of Paul Stanley’s “Live to win“).  Its a topic that in the past was shied away from and avoided, but in 2011 its taken off to a level I’ve never seen before.  Even radio personalities like Mike Salk have openly advocated for losing games for draft position.  For some reason, perhaps fueled by the long overdue acceptance of moving beyond Matt Hasselbeck, the nearly undeniable requirement for a franchise quarterback to make the playoffs and the well documented success-rate of first round quarterbacks, the subject has ceased to be completely taboo.  I’m guessing a lot of fans were looking at Andrew Luck after getting crushed by Pittsburgh for an 0-2 start and thought, “if we’re going to be bad, lets be bad enough.”

Despite that, the subject does bring out a lot of heated emotions on both sides.  Even on this very blog we’ve seen some heated discussion in the comments regarding this.  So I figured it was high time I weighed in, to explain that there’s really no reason to freak out either way.  At least not this year.

Depending on the season and the context involved, I’ve actually been on both sides of this issue in the past.  I thought that Seattle gained more by winning in 2002 when a hot finish not only helped Matt Hasselbeck establish himself as a franchise quarterback, but also helped Mike Holmgren keep his job.  Without that late 2002 surge, I very much doubt the Seahawks would have been celebrating their first Superbowl berth in 2005.  Conversely, when it was obvious that the team was in need of a complete roster overhaul and change at the top in 2009, I felt that losing to secure that change, as well as needed draft position (to assist in finding a quarterback) was clearly more important.  Seattle did not draft a quarterback the next draft (2010), and I think its safe to say that though frustrating at the time, it was absolutely the right move in retrospect.  Instead, Seattle stayed calm and simply selected the best players they could, and though they didn’t get a franchise quarterback (who didn’t exist in that draft anyway), they did acquire two players who are already pieces of Seattle’s next great team.

So which is it in 2011?  This season doesn’t really fit well with either of those examples:  Seattle does not have a true emerging franchise quarterback as they did in 2002, nor are they a team trending downward and in need of new leadership.  But if we made a spectrum with 2002 being on one side and 2009 being on the other, I think I’d lean towards putting this season on the 2002 (“winning is good”) half.  And not for the reasons many “win now” supporters have suggested.

Rather, while looking ahead to the next NFL draft, one can’t help but notice that this isn’t going to be a top heavy draft.  I don’t know if there is a single player on defense that truly deserves to be a top 10 pick.  The offensive portion of the draft is actually pretty dang good, but its also a muddled group.  Andrew Luck is the consensus top quarterback, and Trent Richardson (if he declares) will be the top rated running back, but after that expect a lot of different front offices ranking the remaining players in a variety of orders.  Its very possible that with time, the quarterback class could solidify into a consensus order, but with Jones being rated highly, Barkley lower than he deserves, and Griffin’s stock being difficult to predict, the early indications hint at what could become an unpredictable remaining quarterback class not unlike 2011’s.  Additionally, you are looking at probably four or five offensive lineman going in round one (Kalil, Martin, Konz, and DeCastro are locks.)  Similarly, there are about four to six wide receivers who could merit first round consideration.  At running back, Lamar Miller will likely be a first rounder, and Chris Polk could end up sneaking into the first round as well.  I wouldn’t rule out LaMichael James either.

In other words, there are going to be three or four superstars in this draft, and its likely they will all quickly be gone in the first five or so picks.  But after that, the draft widens out considerably.  To help illustrate this idea, I’m going to use this basic diagram:

The dark blue area represents players who are uncommon talents.  In 2012, this group is expected to include Andrew Luck, Matt Kalil, Trent Richardson, and Matt Barkley (whether his reputation is there or not).  Richardson has indicated recently that he leans toward returning to school next year, and though I do not think Barkley will return to USC, some believe that Barkley may return as well.  Split the difference, and you are probably looking at only 2 to 4 elite players in this next draft.  That’s not an especially low number, but its dwarfed by the number of Upper Tier players that follows it, a list that probably goes fifteen strong on offense alone, and since teams don’t pick purely by BPA, you can expect some of those 15 players to last to the end of the first round.  And while this draft completely lacks top 10 worthy prospects on defense, there are quite a few defensive players who could make a lot of sense from the mid-first round on, players like Zach Brown, Alameda Ta’amu, Vinny Curry or Janoris Jenkins.  It paints the picture of a draft that falls off quickly at the very beginning, but turns into a gradual plateau for a long time after.

Generally speaking, as you move down the pyramid, each sub-group increases in size and opinion increasingly lacks consensus.  By the time you reach the 4th tier, its really anyone’s guess who goes where, and its no surprise then that the very best front offices separate themselves the most in this area.  And in 2012, you’re looking at a pyramid that has very little dark blue, but a lot of regular blue and light blue.  That’s true with every draft, but its more true with 2012’s group than most.

Where have we seen this before?  Though not perfectly analogous, we’ve seen similarly “dispersed” drafts recently in 2005 and 2009.

Top 10 picks, 2005: Alex Smith, Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams, Pac-Man Jones, Troy Williamson, Antrel Rolle, Carlos Rodgers, Mike Willams (the very same).

In a word, brutal.  But consider some notables from the remainder of that same first round:

Notable picks 11-32, 2005: DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Jammal Brown, Marcus Spears, Aaron Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Roddy White, Heath Miller, Logan Mankins.

Its worth noting that while Ware, Merriman and Brown went 11th, 12th and 13th respectively, the rest of those players were drafted 20th or later.  Of course, Seattle drafted Chris Spencer 26th overall in that same draft.  Though not a home run pick, it ended up being the best first round pick Tim Ruskell would ever make.   Now lets take a look at another dispersed year: 2009.

Top 10 picks, 2009: Matt Stafford, Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eugene Monroe, B.J. Raji, Michael Crabtree.

Yet again, another incredibly weak top field.  Matt Stafford’s career is turning out the way you would hope any #1 overall quarterback would, but after that you have four players in a row who were late draft risers, and all four are picks their teams have regretted or will probably regret in the future.  Sanchez isn’t quite a disappointment just yet, as he’s improved every season and is currently sporting an 80 passer rating, but he hasn’t progressed nearly as fast as Stafford despite having almost double the playing time to this point.  Andre Smith, DHB, and Eugene Monroe had terrible beginnings to their careers, and while I wouldn’t rule out a turnaround, I think its safe to say they haven’t been earning their $40 million contracts.   B.J. Raji has been one of the most valuable DTs in the league, chosen by a team that knows a thing or two about evaluating talent.  Michael Crabtree has actually been a pretty solid receiver, just not the superstar many thought he’d be.  Overall though, you’re looking at two great players and two decent players in a top 10 crop.  Consider now how the rest of round one shaped up that year:

Notable picks 11-32, 2009: Brian Orakpo, Malcolm Jenkins, Brian Cushing, Josh Freeman, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Pettigrew, Alex Mack, Percy Harvin, Michael Oher, Clay Matthews,  Eric Wood, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt.

That list already includes 5 pro-bowlers and a franchise quarterback, among other things.  And while I think BJ Raji and Matt Stafford are currently on their way to the pro-bowl themselves, the top 10 group has yet to earn a single pro-bowl bid as of this writing.

I guess a logical question when seeing such unusual results is “how could NFL franchises picking in the top 10 let this happen?”  Well, its partly because the higher a team picks, the smaller their section of the pyramid is, and the more “locked in” they get.  Remember that these were not top-heavy years, and determining the top crust of talent became more of a case of guesswork than usual.  It probably also factors that many of the successful players from these lists landed on good teams who were able to put those players in a good place to succeed.  It didn’t hurt that Michael Oher went to a team that had previously invested heavily in the offensive line, and had both a franchise quarterback and franchise running back to make him look better.  It didn’t hurt BJ Raji or Clay Matthews that they went to a great team coming off a strange down year.

And as the picture at the top implies, its hard to not notice just how incredibly well Green Bay did in these two “weak” drafts, securing one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, an elite nose tackle and an elite pass rusher.  And they did so while John Schneider was a member of their front office, using a system he brought over with him when hired as the Seahawks general manager.  While Rodgers was gained through patience and luck, and Raji was gained by staying true to their board, Clay Matthews actually required a highly uncharacteristic trade up to acquire.

Could a 1st round trade up be in the books for John Schneider in 2012?  If the season were to end today, the Colts would likely take/trade Luck at #1.  But after that, you have three teams in a row who have invested in quarterbacks recently (Panthers, Vikings, Rams).  If Richardson opts not to declare, that leaves only Matt Barkley and Matt Kalil as the remaining elite prospects.  In a draft where the talent pool at say the 3rd overall pick won’t be radically different from the talent pool in the mid-first, that creates a massive incentive to trade down, even with the new rookie wage scale.  And of course, after Barkley and Griffin are both off the table, you are looking at a flat-out buyers market year, where trading down will be hard to do and trading up will probably cost less than usual.  We know that John Schneider loves to move down, but its just not going to be easy to do that this time.  In 2005 and 2009, there was only one top 10 trade in those two drafts combined.  That one top ten trade was of course for Mark Sanchez, which may not have materialized if not for then Browns coach Eric Mangini’s connections to the Jets.  A friendly rookie pay scale will help entice buyers to a degree, but why would any team spend significant capital to draft from essentially the same talent pool?  Unless its for a quarterback.

In that sense, there could be an ironic advantage to picking later and targeting a quarterback.  The Atlanta Falcons paid a king’s ransom for Julio Jones, but there is something to like about the fact that they controlled their own destiny.  They got their man.  Had they picked 10th, they might have been tempted to wait it out- and miss out- as a result.  As things are shaping up now, you will likely have teams in the top 5 picks holding Barkley and Griffin out for trade.  I’d rather pay two firsts and get Barkley for sure than take a 50/50 shot at getting Barkley for half that price.  If Seattle ends up picking 8th, that will be a very real temptation.

Great front offices work tirelessly so that they will always make the best decisions possible with the available players at each draft pick.  But that hard work and success does not lure them into an arrogant mentality where they believe hard work alone will always bring a needed piece of the puzzle to their doorstep.  When there is a piece out there that is critical to the equation, they’ve shown a willingness to make a bold move for that player, even in the case of Green Bay: a team that is famous for singing the praises of trading down, not up.

Finally, its worth nothing that as unlikely as it would have seemed at the time, the 2005 and 2009 drafts produced franchise quarterbacks after the top of the first round.  Aaron Rodgers somehow fell all the way to the 24th pick.  Jason Campbell isn’t a franchise quarterback, but he’s no slouch either.  He went with the very next pick.  Josh Freeman was the 17th overall pick in 2009.  What if Matt Barkley suffers from Jimmy Clausen lookalike-itis and has an inexplicable Aaron Rodgers fall?  What if Robert Griffin makes a dramatic rise into the first round, but not the high first round, as Josh Freeman did?  While I strongly advocate Seattle taking their fate into their own hands this next draft by moving up, if they foolishly choose not to, there is legitimate hope that they could luck out anyway.  And even in the worst case scenario- no worthy quarterback reaches Seattle’s first pick- we can take comfort in the knowledge that Seattle will at least be getting a pretty good player thanks to a deep second tier of talent, even if that player isn’t playing the position we want the most.

This isn’t to say that its always better to pick later.  That’s hardly the case.  In many drafts, such as the 2010 version, picking twice in the first fourteen picks was a huge blessing.  However, the way that the 2012 draft appears to be shaping up, this looks like a year where there are significant silver linings to picking a little bit later, enough to legitimately question if it makes it worth the losing and the resulting hot seat it would put our coach and front office on.


  1. JC

    Nice piece, Kip, if for no other reason than the perspective it provides.

    Also I don’t think you’re correct Softy. I do listen to a fair amount of his show during the work day and I’m pretty sure he has taken the “win, baby, win” position when the subject has been brought up.

  2. Andy

    You’re making me get my hopes up for a QB trade-up. I would love it but I don’t see it happening. I really think that on this blog in 5 years you will be writing something like “we wondered if John Schneider would ever trade up; now we know he never does that.”

  3. aredub

    Excellent write up man! Solid! Love the thought process, I’ve been back and forth on the win now and lose now train. This helps put it all into perspective.

  4. TJ

    Good article. Teams only trade up to target certain players, not to simply pick from the smaller, more elite pool. The Jets and Falcons didn’t trade up to pick higher, they traded up to specifically add Sanchez and Jones to their teams because those players were considered to be the “missing pieces” for those teams. I believe that the Seahawks are in a similar position where overall, their roster is not bad, but they are in dire need of improving at one specific position – QB. They could certainly sit back in whatever spot they earn and upgrade talent/depth at another position. Would their OL improve with DeCastro at LG? Would their secondary get better if they add a 1st round CB? Could their DL use more talent in the rotation? Or course, but is that going to help them improve at the most important, and unfortunately the weakest position on the roster? No. It will simply make next year just like this, a team without a legitimate QB, but with too much talent to pick high enough to draft a legitimate franchise QB prospect.

    I usually subscribe to the “trade down, add more picks” belief. However, over the past 4-5 years, the Seahawks have ignored the QB position, and with each year, the need has only gotten more and more obvious. This year’s Seahawks provide the perfect example of a team that needs to trade up to fill a specific position with a specific player. Obviously the team needs better talent across the board, but not nearly as much as it needs its QB.

    These are the reasons why I think that a trade up, even as high as pick #2 is the appropriate thing to do.

    1. Obviously, the QB position is the weakest position on the team. An upgrade is needed. I actually expect the Seahawks to draft 2 QBs this year – one early and one developmental backup guy later.

    2. Often, when new GMs and head coaches take over, one of the first things they do is hand pick the QB that will be the face of the franchise and define their tenure as GM/HC. Carroll & Schieder have not done that yet and this will be their 3rd off season.

    3. Assuming Carroll & Schneider view Luck and Barkley as being 1A and 1B, can’t miss guys, what is it worth to draft one of them? How much would you all trade away to get Andrew Luck? Is it worth two #1s? two #1s and #2s? More? Carroll’s friend, UW coach Steve Sarkesian recently said that if he was in the NFL and drafting #1, he would take Barkley over Luck. If Barkley is really just one small step below Andrew Luck, isn’t it worth trading away almost as much to draft him as it is to draft Luck?

    4. The right QB could stabilize the team’s most important position for at least the next decade. Do you really believe that Carroll & Schnieder intend to tie their legacy to a couple of castaway QBs? No way! They probably feel the need to get their guy in place now, to give him a season or two to adjust to the NFL before their contracts are up.

    5. Carroll/Schneider have used the last 2 drafts/off-seasons to create a roster that is perfectly suited to insert a young QB. Okung, Carpenter, Moffit, Gallery, Miller, Rice… Seems like the front office has been drafting and signing guys that will make a young QB’s life a lot easier once he finally arrives.

    6. I am sick and tired of the “wait until next year” argument for drafting a QB. I have heard it since 2009. Assuming Barkely & RG3 declare, this will be a strong QB class. If both stay in school and only Luck declares, that would be very different. I also wouldn’t be opposed to selling the farm to try to get Luck from Indy. I just don’t see that happening.

  5. Jim J

    I don’t think Luck or Barkley are worth trading two #1’s and more. Lets just look at the history of our #1 pick. Okung out with ankle injuries last year. Could be out with ankle injuries by end of this year. Carpenter out with knee injury for the rest of the year. Before that Curry – who never panned out. The only recent uninjured choice is Earl Thomas.

    Look at how many time Tevaris has been tackled this year. It’s not all his fault! He has suffered an injury and he is playing through it.

    So before we go trading the farm for one player who will probably get injured, you should at least finish building the offensive line to protect them.

  6. TJ

    Jim J. – I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. I would say that the offensive line is finished. To say that Okung “could be out with ankle injuries by end of year” could be said of any player in the league. Tom Brady could reinjure his ACL, Drew Brees could reinjure his shoulder, We have every position on the offensive line filled with young talented players with bright futures – with the exception of LG. Would you really forego an opportunity for a legitimate QB to upgrade the G position? Admittedly, the injury situation is unfortunate, but I think that Okung, Unger, Moffit, and Carpenter have the potential to become one of the league’s better offensive lines very soon. Even the great Steve Hutchinson lost a season due to a broken leg. He still turned out pretty solid. I don’t think anyone would ever say that Holmgren should have drafted his replacement because he lost his 2nd season to an injury. If our 1st round picks will “probably get injured” anyway, it would make perfect sense to trade 2 for 1 – since they could both end up injured.

  7. Alex

    ^ Pete Carroll and Scheinder has both said that they’re done building the line. We’ve already invested two 1st on our book end tackles, a 2nd on our center, a 3rd on our OG, and a fairly decent FA for our other OG. If we’re picking OL, it’ll be with a mid round pick like a 3rd-5th round pick. Our investment on our OL is far greater than most other teams.

    As for QB, I would take it if it needs 2 1st rounds (3 is mortgaging the future). We’re delaying this for way too long. If we miss, what do we do? Another year of Tavaris? I think I’ll shoot myself.

    Furthermore, this draft doesn’t match up with our other needs – particularly the DL (pass rush 3 Tech or a super DE). The highest rated DT is Clemson Brandon Thompson and the seemingly highest rated DE is Quinton Coples, both of which I would not be jumping off my couch. Do those people excite you? Not for me.

    Oh yeah, if you’re taking the “wait for next year” route, well, if RG3 and Barkley declares, the QB crop next year is void. It might be even worse than 2010 when Bradford was the only 1st round grade QB (I had him as mid 1st round grade).

  8. Don

    TJ, I agree with everything you say, 100%. This is what I have been preaching as well. Though I have been taking it a step further, and just hoping for the team to improve and somehow lose. Atlanta was a good example of this, miss that 60 yd field goal! The higher up in the draft you are, the less you have to pay to move up to get the QB. Also, this makes it more enticing to the team that you are trading with, since they will not be trading down so far and be able to get a quality player themselves, or even trade down again. I am all for trading whatever it takes to get Luck or Barkley, because they are worth it in the long run. The teams that can sit back and take the best player available already have their QB in place.

    Excellent article Kip!

  9. Jim J

    You’ve sort of got me convinced we should trade all our draft picks for Luck now. Just don’t cry if he gets injured and we got nothing from the draft until he recovers.

  10. Alex

    ^ The thing is injury is ALWAYS a risk no matter what. There is every possibility that Peyton Manning could have ended up like Chad Pennington who needed 4 surgeries on his arm, which turned it into the weakest arm in the NFL at one time.

  11. Kevin

    That was a really good article. I agree that based on your reasoning a trade up for a QB is a very sound option. You mentioned your scenario may include offering two 1st round picks for Barkley. I agree and personally would throw in Tate or a 2nd round pick in 2014 to cement the deal with Carolina at the #2 pick.

  12. Sea-Town

    You can’t manage your team around a “what if he gets injured mentality.”

  13. Sounder

    Advocates of losing a season for the benefit of one draft pick often ignore the value of playing well and supplementing the draft with free agency. A good free agent player obviously looks for the best contract, but Carroll and Schneider have made huge progress with UDFA signings like Baldwin, Browner this year and free agent signings like TE Miller, DT Branch, OG Gallery, QB Jackson, etc. I would like this team to be a haven for good players to want to come here and play for a winner. If the money is the same, i would like good players to be attracted to Seattle. (I don’t want players comfortable with losing.) A lot of the current front office success is a function of their ability to evaluate talent and project their vision of that talent into their system. Their success with middle and lower ranked draft picks further illustrates that ability. For that reason, I am comfortable with their decision making ability and actually hope for opportunities to trade down and always pick up extra draft picks as opposed to trading up. Give me more players like Chancellor (5th), Sherman (5th), Wright (4th) to go with Ruskell’s Red Bryant (5th), Mebane (3rd), Hill (3rd). Compare these 1st round picks like Ruskell’s Curry (#4pick), Holmgren’s Koren Robinson, Jeremy Stevens, Chris McIntosh, Lamar King etc. and you get a sense of the quality of the drafting and rapid rebuilding that is going on right now.

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