The Seahawks have 15 rookies on the active roster — eight draft picks and seven undrafted free agents. The success of this season might be determined by, as much as anything else, how those rookies progress.
Pete Carroll has never forgotten the words of one of his beloved mentors, ex-Vikings coach Bud Grant: “For every rookie you start, you lose a game.”
No, Carroll has never forgotten it — but he long ago discarded that philosophy, which used to be rampant in the NFL and still might be the prevalent way of thinking.
Not in Seattle, however, where Carroll can joke about his “freshman class” and revel in the sheer audacity of having 15 rookies on the Seahawks’ active roster — eight draft picks and seven undrafted free agents.
Many coaches would consider devoting 28 percent of your roster to first-year players to be a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. But it has became the modus operandi in Seattle under Carroll and general manager John Schneider — an inherent trust not just in the skills of their newcomers, but in the ability of Carroll and his staff to minimize the inevitable learning curve.
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It’s hard to argue with the results. The Seahawks rode rookie quarterback Russell Wilson into the playoffs in 2012, and into the Super Bowl the following two years. Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin and Bobby Wagner are among the players thrown in the fire as rookies on the way to stardom, with many others shining in supporting roles.
This year, however, the stakes have been raised. You could make the case, in fact, that the success of this Seahawks season — and their prosperity in the future — is dependent as much as anything else on how those rookies progress.
The Seahawks built their team into a powerhouse on the strength of sensational drafts and signings leading up to the breakout 2013 campaign. Their ability to keep that nucleus together has allowed them to sustain success, albeit with a top-heavy salary structure that practically mandates a slew of younger, cheaper players each year.
But players age fast in the brutal world of the NFL, and primes don’t last forever.
There is a critical need for the Seahawks to replenish their stock of impact players before the inevitable decline years begin to take their toll.
They haven’t received as much of a jolt from recent drafts as they did in 2010 (Thomas and Kam Chancellor), 2011 (Sherman and K.J. Wright, plus Baldwin as an undrafted free agent), and 2012 (Wagner, Wilson and Jeremy Lane, plus Jermaine Kearse as an undrafted free agent).
The remains of the 2013 draft class is highlighted by Christine Michael, Tharold Simon and Luke Willson, with Justin Britt, Paul Richardson and Cassius Marsh from 2014, and Tyler Lockett, Frank Clark and undrafted free agent Thomas Rawls last year. Some solid players, to be sure, but just one Pro Bowl-type player from the past three drafts, unless Clark or someone else emerges.
That could make 2016 the tipping point for the Seahawks’ so-far-foolproof strategy of identifying young talent and then quickly showcasing it. In an interview with The Times two years ago, former NFL executive Jerry Angelo spoke appreciatively of the courage it took for the Seahawks to commit so strongly to youth.
Most NFL coaches, Angelo said, tend to gravitate toward veterans, even those nearing the end of their career or with a lower upside than a rookie, because they are known quantities and less prone to mistakes.
“They’ll stay with him, and then all of a sudden you have an old and slow team,” Angelo said. “But it’s hard to invest in a young player. You see the worst of them in the beginning. You know he has those traits, but to have the discipline to stay the course, that’s the glue.”
Angelo related how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he was their director of player personnel, nearly cut future standouts Ronde Barber and John Lynch because they struggled as young players. He admires Carroll’s penchant for going against the NFL grain.
“Everybody can talk a good game,” Angelo said. “But when the guy isn’t playing well and you’re saying, ‘Did I miss on him? Was I wrong in my evaluation? Is he going to get better?’ And then you’ve got the season looming up on you. It’s easy to panic.”
The 2016 season is indeed looming, with the Seahawks opening Sunday against the Dolphins, but there’s no panic in sight. They likely will have two rookies starting (Germain Ifedi at right guard and Jarran Reed at nose tackle), with several others in contributory roles.
Carroll is well aware there will be growing pains. He has talked about how even an accomplished player such as Thomas, a five-time Pro Bowl safety, was a “classic example” of learning on the job.
“Earl gave up hundreds of yards trying to make plays — hundreds of yards trying to make a break on the football and steal the ball in his early days,” Carroll said in 2014. “It’s comical to see how crazed he was about trying to help us win — in the wrong ways.
“He couldn’t get out of his own way, but he learned from his experience, so we did have to suffer through it. He still was a remarkable player, but yet he was giving away things because he was trying so hard. We’ve corralled him, and he’s gained tremendous wisdom that makes him an elite player. That’s just one of the examples, but you do have to suffer your way through it.”
On Sunday, the suffering begins — followed very shortly, the Seahawks hope, by the breakthrough that makes it all worthwhile.
“The sooner they start contributing and feeling the confidence that they can do something, the faster they develop,” Carroll said Monday. “That’s really how it’s been. Then somewhere around half of the season, you’ve got guys that are really comfortable playing. You’ve brought your young guys into the fold.”
It’s become the Seahawks Way.