“It’s kind of like a freshman class, isn’t it?” says Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “I think it’s a good statement about what we’re doing and we believe in young guys.”
As the Seahawks prepare for their regular-season opener Sunday against Miami, they do so with a roster that includes the most rookies since a year when Seattle basically had no choice but to go with a lot of first-year players — their inaugural season of 1976.
The Seahawks have 15 rookies on their roster, which according to a Seattle Times review of every opening-day roster in team history, is three more than they have had other than in the first year, when they had 17.
As an expansion team in 1976, the Seahawks received extra picks in rounds 2-5 of the NFL draft, and had 25 overall, making it inevitable the roster would be laden with rookies (15 of those draft picks ultimately played for the Seahawks).
Rookie classes with class
The Seahawks have 15 rookies on their roster. That would be the second-most in team history for a season opener. Here are the seasons with the most rookies:
1976 (17): In Seattle’s first season the Seahawks had no real choice but to go heavy on young players. While 15 players the team drafted eventually saw action it was a rookie acquired via trade — Steve Largent — who is best remembered.
1977 (12): Seattle was still rookie-heavy in its second season as a franchise, in part due to ending up with five of the first 58 picks in the draft thanks to the Tony Dorsett trade.
1982, 2000, 2001, 2011 (11): The 1982 class was led by defensive end Jeff Bryant and kicker Norm Johnson; Mike Holmgren’s rebuild of the Seahawks included 11 rookies on the opening-day roster in 2000 (a group that featured Shaun Alexander and Darrell Jackson) and 2001 (led by Steve Hutchinson); Carroll went rookie-heavy in his second season in 2011 with a group that included Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin.
Note: The fewest rookies the Seahawks have had on an opening-day roster is 1997, with two, a year when the team had just five draft picks. The two were good ones, though — left tackle Walter Jones and cornerback Shawn Springs.
With the Seahawks still in franchise-building mode, 12 more rookies were on the opening-day roster in the team’s second season in 1977.
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But since then, the Seahawks have never had more than 11 rookies on the opening-day roster, which happened most recently in 2011, Pete Carroll’s second season as coach.
That’s not a coincidence. Carroll is a staunch proponent of playing players as soon as they are ready, something that dates to his days as coach at USC, when one of the Trojans’ trademarks was a willingness to play true freshmen (which helped Carroll continue to recruit five-star-type players even at positions where the team appeared loaded with returning vets).
Carroll says he would have been fine playing rookies during his earlier NFL coaching stints, as well — with the Jets in 1994 and the Patriots from 1997-99 — but essentially wasn’t allowed to.
“Ever since I went to USC, yes,” he said this week of embracing playing rookies/freshmen. “Those days when I was in charge of personnel. From that point forward. (Before that) I didn’t have the control. I’ve always believed that we can coach up young guys and all that, but not until you have control of who is staying and going can you really make that statement.”
Carroll has that control in Seattle, where he works in lockstep with general manager John Schneider to put together the team’s roster.
But other than in 2011, when the Seahawks had an above-average group of draftees and undrafted free agents (including Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Byron Maxwell, Malcolm Smith and Doug Baldwin), Seattle hasn’t had an abnormal number of rookies on its opening-day roster in the Carroll regime.
Seattle had six last season, seven in 2014, eight in 2013, nine in 2012, and six in 2010 in Carroll’s other years as head coach.
“It’s kind of like a freshman class, isn’t it?” Carroll said of this year’s group of 15 rookies. “I think it’s a good statement about what we’re doing and we believe in young guys.”
As much as it is a philosophy, though, there’s also some practicality at play in how the Seahawks ended up with 15 rookies this season.
Seattle took 10 players in the draft, seven in the first five rounds, with each of those seven generally regarded as likely to make the roster from the moment they were picked. Each did, as well as another draft pick, center Joey Hunt, taken in the sixth round. (League-wide, 213 of the 253 players drafted are on an opening-day roster.)
The other seven rookies on Seattle’s current roster are undrafted free agents, who are the cheapest form of labor possible in the NFL.
Each of the UDFAs is making the NFL minimum of $450,000.
The salary cap goes up each year — this year it’s $155 million — but so has Seattle’s commitment to some of its key players. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s contract, for instance, went from a $7 million cap hit last year to more than $18 million this season.
Seattle is devoting roughly $92.8 million in cap space to the 10 highest-paid players on its roster. The Seahawks also decided to take all of the $5 million salary-cap hit remaining on Marshawn Lynch’s contract this season rather than spreading it out evenly over this year and next.
That meant needing to scrounge for every dollar wherever possible. Keeping undrafted free agent Trevone Boykin as the backup QB, for instance, saves more than $1 million from the $1.5 million cap hit of last year’s backup, Tarvaris Jackson. Keeping Hunt as the backup center and letting Patrick Lewis go also saved more than $1 million.
Carroll cautioned Monday that it’s too early to declare this rookie class a success or worry that the team is relying too much on first-year players.
“We’ll see how these guys do — we’ll have to wait and see,” Carroll said. “But it’s a good statement of the process and getting guys in here that can compete and battle for spots. I’m happy about it. I’m not worried about it at all.”