The curious case of Kam Chancellor started with a position change.
At 6 feet 4, 230 pounds, Chancellor is a safety in a linebacker’s body. When he walks into a room, you know you’re looking at an elite athlete. But it wasn’t Chancellor’s physique that hurt his draft stock three years ago. It was where he was playing.
If you want to understand how Chancellor fell to the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2010 draft — and, in turn, understand how the Seahawks have mined organization-changing talent in the middle rounds of the draft — this is a good place to start.
After a dynamic sophomore season at Virginia Tech, Chancellor moved from strong safety to free safety. It’s not that different from a second baseman moving to shortstop—it takes a different skill set.
Forced into more coverage, Chancellor’s junior year didn’t match his sophomore season. The position change didn’t completely cripple his draft stock; ESPN guru Mel Kiper still ranked Chancellor as his second-best safety 11 months before the draft. It did, however, raise lingering questions about Chancellor’s coverage ability, his speed and his position in the NFL.
“Athletically, I always thought he was a second- or third-round guy,” said Bud Foster, longtime Virginia Tech defensive coordinator. “If he had just played strong safety for us the whole time, he would have been a no-brainer.”
Instead, Chancellor fell behind safeties Nate Allen (second round) and Darrell Stuckey (fourth) in the draft, and the Seahawks grabbed him, warts and all, in the fifth round. Chancellor has started 31 of his past 32 games, played in a Pro Bowl and Monday signed a four-year contract extension reportedly worth $35 million.
Yet he is not just a crack in the system. He is a blueprint.
Seahawks general manager John Schneider and his staff have been as good — or better — than anyone in the middle rounds of the draft the last three years.
The first round is, of course, undeniably important. But so are the middle rounds, though the spotlight dims by then.
Since taking over in 2010, Schneider has drafted two players in the middle rounds who have played in the Pro Bowl (Chancellor, fifth round, and Russell Wilson, third) and a third player who should have been there (Richard Sherman, fifth). He drafted a linebacker (K.J. Wright, fourth) who has started nearly 90 percent of his games and a running back (Robert Turbin, fourth) who had more than 500 total yards as a rookie.
The Seahawks best middle-round picks in the three years before Schneider and Carroll: Brandon Mebane (third) and Red Bryant (fourth), although Bryant didn’t find success until Carroll arrived.
“There’s no one else who really compares,” said Khaled Elsayed, the chief operating officer at Pro Football Focus. Elsayed spent about three weeks reviewing the drafts of every team from 2008 to 2010 to see how organizations fared. “There’s something different with the Seahawks, and it’s only been since Schneider took over.”
Something is different about the Seahawks, and it works on two planes. First, Schneider and his army of scouts and lieutenants have unearthed players in the middle rounds who other teams undervalued. Second, once those players join the Seahawks, coach Pete Carroll and his staff hold no allegiance to where a player was drafted.
Take the case of Kris Durham. The Seahawks drafted Durham, a 6-5 receiver who the organization viewed as another Mike Williams, in the fourth round in 2011. Just one year later, the Seahawks released him.
The same year the Seahawks drafted Durham, they signed a small wide receiver from Stanford as an undrafted free agent. His name was Doug Baldwin, and he has caught 80 passes and seven touchdowns the past two seasons.
“A lot of teams don’t have a culture built around competition and not where you came from, not the size of your free-agent deal, not where you were drafted,” former Seahawks linebacker Chad Brown said. “The difference sometimes between a fifth-rounder who makes it and a fifth-rounder who doesn’t is often confidence and opportunity. Pete gives those guys that chance.”
Schneider takes it a step further. The competition doesn’t just impact guys on the field. It spills over into the front office, and Schneider calls it a “vital” part of the team’s blueprint.
“As a personnel guy and for the scouts and the guys traveling in the fall,” he said, “it’s huge because they can literally scout a guy and have a feel for him and say, ‘Hey, I really think this guy is maybe a fourth- or fifth- or sixth-round draft choice’ and feel excited about it.”
Hitting in the middle rounds has also allowed the Seahawks to be more aggressive in the free-agent market this offseason. The Seahawks signed defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, filling what Carroll had called the team’s biggest need.
The money the Seahawks spent on those short-term deals — Avril signed a two-year deal while Bennett is on a one-year contract — is directly related to the money the Seahawks are saving by having key starters still on rookie contracts, particularly Wilson.
“That’s the meat and potatoes of your team,” former Seahawks general manager and coach Tom Flores said.
THE SHERMAN EFFECT
The Seahawks’ philosophy under Schneider and Carroll has been to zero in on player uniqueness and team need, particularly in the later rounds. That hasn’t always worked out — the Seahawks liked Durham’s unique size, for instance—but it has also led to some of Seattle’s best draft picks.
Richard Sherman spent his first three seasons at Stanford as a receiver and led the Cardinal in receiving his first two years.
A knee injury forced him to miss most of his third season. When he returned healthy the next year, he volunteered to become a cornerback and played two mixed-review seasons at Stanford.
“Honestly, I wasn’t that optimistic that somebody going into their fourth year could make that transition from receiver to cornerback that effectively,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh told The San Francisco Chronicle at the time.
Where some NFL teams evaluated Sherman and saw questions about his speed and mental lapses, the Seahawks saw a 6-3 cornerback who could be a major factor playing close to the line of scrimmage.
Teams passed on Sherman 153 times before Schneider drafted him in the fifth round, a sting Sherman carries to this day despite being considered a premier corner.
When asked if the NFL draft process is a sham on the ATL Debate Club podcast earlier this year, Sherman didn’t hesitate: “That’s all it is, is a sham.”
He added, “I’m still the fifth-round pick. Those things don’t change. Just because we should have been first-rounders doesn’t mean we were first-rounders. We still have that chip, that anger, that drive. That’s what separates our team.”
The same theory of uniqueness applied to K.J. Wright, a linebacker Carroll thought possessed unique instincts in coverage. In some ways, the Seahawks have taken a Moneyball approach to the draft, looking for subtle values in players they will then try to exploit in the NFL.
That approach hasn’t always received positive reviews.
In 2011, Kiper gave the Seahawks a D-plus, the lowest grade of any team. He eventually adjusted that to a B-minus after Sherman and Wright became productive starters. Kiper rolled out an initial grade of C-minus last year after the Seahawks used their first four picks on Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson and Robert Turbin. He later changed it to an A.
Schneider and his staff have proved their acumen for finding talent in the middle rounds, but Flores, the former general manager and coach, leaves an important reminder as we head into another draft week.
“There are no geniuses in football,” he said. “There are good coaches, good GMs, good talent guys. No geniuses. Anytime you take the label of genius, that’s foolish. Because you’re not. You’re only as good as your last team.”
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Seahawks draft picks in middle rounds since GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll arrived:
3/Russell Wilson/QB/ESPN’s Mel Kiper said Wilson might be “the defining pick of the draft”
4/Robert Turbin/RB/354 rushing yards last year, including 108 against Arizona
4/Jaye Howard/DT/Versatile defensive lineman played in only two games last year
5/Korey Toomer/LB/One of the team’s last cuts; signed to practice squad
3/John Moffitt/G/Started 15 games in two seasons
4/K.J. Wright/LB/Finished third on the team last year with 98 tackles
4/Kris Durham/WR/Caught 3 passes as a rookie before getting cut
5/Richard Sherman/CB/Developed into one of NFL’s best corners
5/Mark LeGree/DB/Cut late in training camp before the 2011 season
4/Walter Thurmond/CB/Positive reviews but played little because of injuries
4/E.J. Wilson/DE/Played in only 2 games before team released him
5/Kam Chancellor/S/Made Pro Bowl as alternate, signed extension Monday