The Seahawks in the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era have feasted on finding the overlooked college player who thrives in the NFL.
The seventh-rounder who becomes a Super Bowl MVP (Malcolm Smith) or the undrafted free agents who become the third-leading receiver in team history (Doug Baldwin) or make the two biggest catches in team history (Jermaine Kearse with the game-winners in consecutive NFC title games), to name a few.
Jon Rhattigan, an inside linebacker, signed in May as one of 13 undrafted free agents for the rookie class of 2021 hoping to follow in their footsteps and forge an NFL career where few others might have seen it coming.
And if he does, he will have traveled a road as unlikely as any of the others, if not more.
To begin, Rhattigan played his college ball at Army, where few go with the idea that an NFL career will follow.
“That wasn’t my main goal,’’ Rhattigan said frankly when he talked to reporters last week via Zoom of whether the NFL was on his radar when he enrolled at Army in 2017.
Indeed, for years anyone attending a military academy had to fulfill a service commitment before thinking of a pro sports career. As longtime NFL fans may remember, in the most notable case quarterback Roger Staubach of Navy had to wait five years before pursuing a pro career with the Dallas Cowboys, which finished with him making the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That changed in 2019 when rules were approved allowing athletes to apply for waivers and pursue playing careers immediately after graduation while agreeing to serve their enlistment time later.
Two Army players last year received the waiver and made NFL regular-season rosters as rookies — defensive back Elijah Riley with the Eagles and linebacker Cole Christensen of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Now Rhattigan hopes to duplicate their feat.
“I’m just blessed that I was able to graduate from West Point and there’s a policy in place that allows us to represent and play in the NFL, as well,’’ Rhattigan said.
Christensen plays into the other reason that 12 months ago, even Rhattigan might have thought it a longshot he’d be on an NFL roster right now.
Rhattigan grew up in Naperville, Ill., where as a junior he began to attract interest from Big Ten schools. That cooled when he suffered an ACL injury his junior season. And according to an Associated Press story last year, one reason he chose Army was that the school was one of the few to stick with him through his recovery.
But once at Army, he found himself a backup on the depth chart at middle linebacker to Christensen, a two-time team captain who basically never left the field.
And that meant that entering his senior season, Rhattigan had played just 21 defensive snaps for the Black Knights — he didn’t play at all as a freshman and mostly on special teams his next two years — making him about as far off the radar of NFL scouts as could be.
“I guess it just happens,” Army coach Jeff Monken told the AP last year. “You don’t always find yourself at the top of the depth chart right away. We knew he was a good player, but I felt like we had some good players there that were playing.’’
With Christensen off to the NFL in 2020, Rhattigan finally got his shot as a senior, and almost immediately showed why Big Ten schools had been interested in him early in his high school days.
On what was the first series of the first start of his career in the season opener he recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown.
Later in the game he picked off a pass and returned it for a score to key a 42-0 win over Middle Tennessee State.
Rhattigan kept piling up the stats for an Army defense that led the nation in fewest yards allowed per game (275.3) and was second in points allowed (14.8) while going 9-3.
At the end of the season he was ranked 55th on Pro Football Focus’ list of the best 101 college football players in the country — he ranked fifth among FBS off-ball linebackers in PFF grade (86.6) and was one of eight at the position to earn a grade above 70.0 against the run, in coverage, as a pass-rusher and in tackling.
The Seahawks were intrigued from the start, with Rhattigan saying Seattle had been “steadily interested’’ in him throughout the draft process. But Seattle only had three picks after deciding to move up to take offensive tackle Stone Forsythe in the sixth round. Rhattigan said the Seahawks let him know they’d be interested if he went undrafted, and a deal was struck quickly after the draft ended.
“It was a pretty easy pick,’’ Rhattigan said.
That decision kicked off a whirlwind of a month for Rhattigan. He flew to Seattle to take part in rookie minicamp May 13-16, then back to West Point to walk in graduation having earned a degree in geography.
“It was more than I could ask for,’’ Rhattigan said of signing an NFL contract and getting his degree in the span of a few days.
Then it was back to Seattle for the rest of the offseason program.
Rhattigan is being used at both middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, each spots where Seattle has set starters — Bobby Wagner and 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks.
But there could be room as a backup with the depth at the inside spots unclear. With K.J. Wright remaining unsigned and no indication he’ll be back, Cody Barton, Ben Burr-Kirven and international pathway player Aaron Donkor loom as the other players vying for time inside.
A few no-pads practices without veterans around makes it difficult to judge much yet. Carroll’s main takeaway after rookie minicamp when asked about Rhattigan was that “he seems like a really cool kid.’’
Soon, though, Rhattigan hopes to make a more lasting impression, vowing to take full advantage of a chance he admits he wasn’t sure would come after the high school injury and three years stuck mostly on the sidelines in college.
“Football has been everything me and when I went to West Point, obviously the military was really important to me and academics are really important to me,’’ he said. “So I try to find a good balance between everything and I certainly didn’t put the NFL (at the top). … but at the same time I was going to be ready if the opportunity came and since it has I’ve taken that and run with it.’’