Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Draft and Character Risks

One last thought as the 2011 NFL Draft (finally) commences today...

I'm not sold on Pete Carroll. I don't know whether he has what it takes to compete at the league level yet. In his first year as Seahawks head coach, he's shown good and bad. He's certainly demonstrated that he can inspire and motivate even a poor team, get them believing in themselves. He can attract a quality coaching staff. He's not shy in free agency and can scrounge up decent talent out of almost anywhere. He's installed a defensive scheme that has documented weaknesses and prioritizes shutting down the run, which honestly shouldn't be a huge priority. He's shown an inflexibility on scheme that needlessly deprived Seattle of a couple talented players. He's betrayed a possible over-valuing of tools, like height.

Something we have yet to see is how he handles character risks with his high picks.

A number of late-first-round prospects commonly mocked to Seattle possess what we call "character concerns". This would include QB Ryan Mallett, CB Jimmy Smith, DT Marvin Austin, and DT Nick Fairley if he falls far enough. LB Justin Houston and DT Christian Ballard can be added to that list now that we know he failed a Combine drug test.

Character concerns can include anything from legal issues (drugs, alcohol, domestic problems) to on-field red flags (laziness, immaturity, cockiness, disrespect for authority). They can also range anywhere from confirmed and undeniable, to rumored and dismissible.

This stuff has to be taken into account when you evaluate a prospect. You don't draft a crucial player who runs the risk of leaving effort on the sidelines or getting thrown in jail for that crucial division game. This is why a player's draft stock takes a hit if this stuff comes out - draftniks know that teams will dismiss him more easily.

What about Carroll?

It's often been pointed out that Seattle's front office has taken some character risks in its young tenure. Such examples include WR Mike Williams, reborn after busting out of the league due to his immaturity; Lendale White, more of an "attitude risk" who refused to buy into PC's program in training camp and wound up getting cut; Anthony McCoy, a fringe first-rounder who decided to get caught with drugs right before the draft; Kentwan Balmer, who griped his way out of San Francisco; and Marshawn Lynch, who brought a minor rap sheet and reputation for poor attitude into Seattle.

At first glance, it's enough to say that Carroll and Schneider don't seem scared of taking risks. Williams and Lynch paid off decently and might yet have some ceiling to hit; McCoy also barely got a chance to contribute before injury cut his season short. White got cut, but came so cheap that his departure was no skin off Seattle's nose.

Once you take a gamble, you're more inclined to do so again. The success of these risks might translate into willingness to look at character guys like Mallett, Smith, Austin, or Houston.

Here's the thing, though - how daring are PC and JS when it comes to first-round picks?

We have no idea yet. None of PC's previous "character leaps", failed or otherwise, held anywhere near the value of a first-round pick. Lynch cost a fourth-rounder. White was part of a far cheaper deal. Balmer cost a sixth. So did McCoy, who could have rightfully gone in the second round according to talent alone. Williams cost Seattle a veteran minimum salary, and after he proved himself, Seattle rewarded him with a still-modest, easily escapable three-year contract with incentives for keeping his weight down. Yes, the team gambled with these guys, but none of them were anything like costly. In fact, they were all cheaper than your average NFL starter.

Mallett, Smith, Austin, and Houston, if taken in the first round, would cost the team a lot more and set the team back a lot further should they flame out by refusing to stay clean or buy in. Carroll and Schneider spent last offseason building a reputation for low-risk, high-reward decisions; a first-round character bust would be high-reward but also high-risk. Completely different ballgame.

Yes, the Seahawks pursued troubled players like Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson. Could be a sign that Carroll isn't automatically turned off by ominous histories, or trusts his ability to settle his players down. But, neither player was signed. The asking price was steep for both - a first-rounder for Marshall, a second-rounder and a heavily guaranteed 5-year, $50-million contract for Jackson. This could be a circumstantial interpretation, but big price + character risk = no-go for Seattle? That's one possible explanation.

When news breaks of a strong player committing some damning indiscretion, most fans will just blow it off and start hoping he'll be available with a lower-round pick, or in the supplemental draft. I saw that this morning with Janoris Jenkins. I tend to do this too, if I like the player enough. But what if there's good reason that a player's stock falls? Not everything is a conspiracy of stupidity. Even a sixth-round pick is more productive when it's not suspended by the league. Franchises are anchored by first- and second-round picks, which are afforded only so much leeway.

Jimmy Smith, for example, worried me. Unlike Mallett's red flags, Smith's diva attitude permeated through to his private Combine interviews and turned off a number of teams. Some people saw a "lazy player" on tape. Marvin Austin, likewise, won't deliver on his massive potential if he doesn't give 100% on the field. Yes, it's often said that Carroll is a great motivator, but Carroll spent conservatively on his projects. A first-round pick should be expected to lead the team.

All I'm saying is, Carroll's views on "character prospects" is still a blank slate for us. It's pretty important, because a lot of talented but untrustworthy players tend to fall right into the lap of teams positioned where Seattle is: the late first round. I see nothing in the short history of Pete Carroll the Seahawks Coach that insists he'll be willing to pay out the nose for a first-rounder with character risks. In fact, the only evidence we have suggests otherwise: that some prices are too high.

A front-office can't be risk-averse; that narrows the possible talent pool, steers teams away from redeemable players, and still doesn't guarantee success, as Tim Ruskell found out the hard way. Some of these players (two guesses as to whom I'm thinking of) may be worth the leap. But...neither should a front office be reckless. There's only so much generosity a first-round pick should be granted. It's a cost-benefit analysis and it needs to be thoroughly investigated and balanced against positional value and team needs. (And, of course, QB, DT, and CB, are the team's greatest needs, in that order.)

Yet another loquacious way of saying how little we know about our mysterious new front office.

Enjoy the draft. I'll be following along as best I can!

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