RENTON – They weren’t fooling anybody.
Two months into his tenure as the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks, John Schneider looked down from his second story office window onto the practice field and saw veteran Ray Willis – a bruising run blocker but not the fleetest of foot – taking reps with the first unit at left tackle because of the expected retirement of Walter Jones.
Ding, ding, ding!
The Seahawks had an obvious need for a left tackle of the future and addressed that gaping hole two weeks later by sweating through the first five picks of the 2010 NFL draft before selecting Russell Okung at No. 6.
“When we got here, we had those two high picks and we needed a left tackle,” Schneider said. “Everybody knew that.”
Along with Okung, the Seahawks were fortunate enough to have safety Earl Thomas fall in their laps at No. 14.
Now in the third year of the team’s rebuilding effort, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Schneider said the team’s roster has been overhauled enough that with the No. 12 overall pick, there’s less urgency to draft for need, allowing Seattle to take the best player available.
“We’re definitely at a different place,” Schneider said. “When you look at the draft in particular and some of the areas in free agency that we’ve addressed, I think it put us in a position to just let the draft kind of come to us and not feel like we need to move around or not do anything that would put the organization in jeopardy in any one position.”
Only 10 players remain from the initial roster the two inherited when they took over in January 2010.
The duo transformed Seattle’s roster from one of the league’s oldest to one of the youngest, as Schneider leaned on his experience in Green Bay and focused on rebuilding through the draft.
The Seahawks found seven starters – four on defense and three on offense – through shrewd selections in the past two drafts.
They’ve done a nice job of finding solid performers in the middle rounds, including safety Kam Chancellor (fifth round, 2010), cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round, 2011), linebacker K.J. Wright (fourth round, 2011) and undrafted free agent Doug Baldwin, who led the team in receptions as a rookie last year.
But Schneider and Carroll also have stubbed their toes, releasing 2010 fifth-round choice E.J. Wilson after he struggled to stay healthy. Wilson was expected to serve as depth at defensive end behind Red Bryant.
Seattle also swung and missed on safety Mark LeGree, selected in the fifth round in 2011 to back up Thomas. But LeGree did not make Seattle’s final roster and will try to make San Francisco’s 53-man roster this season.
Carroll has displayed a keen eye for finding defensive talent that fits his scheme, spending 12 of the team’s 18 draft selections the past two years on defensive players.
And in free agency this year, the Seahawks focused more on retaining impact players and keeping the team’s foundation intact, re-signing running back Marshawn Lynch, defensive end Bryant, right tackle Breno Giacomini and fullback Michael Robinson
One of the things to watch as Seattle approaches the draft with six picks overall is whether the team moves up or down to get in position for an impact player.
Last year, the Seahawks traded their second-round pick to Detroit for the Lions’ third- and fourth-round picks and still wound up getting a player they targeted – guard John Moffitt (third round).
Schneider said while he was in Green Bay, Packers general manager Ted Thompson gave up a second-round and two third-round picks in 2009 to move up and draft linebacker Clay Matthews at No. 26 after the team already had selected defensive tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick.
“It depends on the year and what the draft looks like for that specific year and what kind of conviction you have for a player,” Schneider said. “Most recently, I remember Ted Thompson had an incredibly strong conviction for Clay Matthews, so we took B.J. and worked our tails off to get back up to get Clay.
“Ted felt like this player could put us over the top. We picked what we felt were impactful players that year.”
That move paid big dividends for Green Bay, with Matthews emerging as one of the league’s most dominant defenders.
With a belief that their team is ready to contend with San Francisco for the NFC West title, expect Carroll and Schneider to make similar moves in this year’s draft in an effort to add playmakers on both sides of the ball who will help Seattle reach the playoffs for the second time in three years.
“We’re headed down the right track, but we’re in a position now where we’ve kind of covered ourselves a little bit where we can just sit and be prepared,” Schneider said. “We’ve had good input from the coaches, and these guys have been out busting their tails scouting and going to the all-star games and everything. So the preparation is in place and our process is pretty much winding down, and we can just sit and take players.”