SEATTLE — Pete Carroll came to the Seahawks in 2010 as an epically successful college coach with a mediocre NFL head-coaching resume and a whole country wondering how he was going to bridge that gap.
No one doubted the man’s coaching chops. The question concerned personnel. Carroll was coming from one of the crown jewels in college football, USC, where he made top-five recruiting classes routine. But you can’t talk your way into a talent advantage in the NFL, not with the salary cap and the draft order working to spread talent across the league’s 32 teams.
That’s what makes the assembly of these Seahawks under Carroll and general manager John Schneider so compelling. It hasn’t just been about the draft. It hasn’t just been free agency. And it most certainly hasn’t been about Carroll collecting every NFL player who happened to have played for him at USC.
The Seahawks spent three years searching everywhere from the league’s recycling bin up to Canada and down to Seattle’s own roster to forge a team that won 11 regular-season games this season, third-most in franchise history.
“We found kind of the center of what we believe in and what we’re trying to create,” Carroll said.
Breaking down Seattle’s starting lineup helps understand just how Carroll and the Seahawks put together this puzzle.
The most defining fact of Tim Ruskell’s five years as team president is that only one player he drafted reached the Pro Bowl during Ruskell’s time with the team: Lofa Tatupu, who was the second player he picked.
Well, each of the first two players selected under Carroll has earned that honor, safety Earl Thomas chosen for the Pro Bowl in two of his three years, while Russell Okung is starting at left tackle this season.
This season, the Seahawks might have the best rookie class in the league with quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner each in contention for rookie of the year awards. Defensive end Bruce Irvin led rookies with eight sacks.
It would be a mistake to characterize every one of Seattle’s draft classes as 24-carat gold. There have been imperfections. The Seahawks released E.J. Wilson — a fourth-round pick in 2010 — midway through his first season. He had played two games. They’ve let go of a fifth-round pick coming out of training camp each of the past two years, safety Mark LeGree in 2011 and linebacker Korey Toomer this year.
Those busts have been counterbalanced by the fact that Kam Chancellor was a fifth-round pick in 2010 who made the Pro Bowl last season, and Sherman — a fifth-round pick last year — matched the franchise record with eight interceptions this season.
That upside illustrates the fact Carroll and Schneider have focused on a player’s ceiling rather than the floor. It’s really the difference between looking to maximize the rewards and trying to minimize the risk.
The Seahawks don’t fear taking a player who doesn’t pan out.
They took Sherman, someone who played cornerback only his final two years in college, and J.R. Sweezy, a defensive lineman in college the Seahawks converted to the offensive line. Less than one season later, Sherman might be the biggest Pro Bowl snub in the league while Sweezy is starting at right guard.
“Our nature is to look for the good stuff,” Carroll said. “Our nature is to count on our ability to draw it out of guys.”
Three players in the NFL have totaled double-digits sacks in each of the past three seasons.
One is DeMarcus Ware, whom the Cowboys selected No. 11 overall in the 2005 draft.
Another is Jared Allen, whom the Vikings acquired in 2008 for a first-round pick and two third-round choices and promptly signed to a six-year, $73 million contract.
The other is Chris Clemons, whom the Seahawks acquired in a 2010 trade, getting him along with a fourth-round pick for Darryl Tapp, a restricted free agent at the time.
Cornerback Brandon Browner was an even bigger bargain, someone the Seahawks signed after he spent four years playing in the CFL. The lesson? Just because a player didn’t fit someone else’s prototype doesn’t mean he can’t be a productive, even Pro Bowl-caliber, contributor.
Nothing speaks to Seattle’s ability to make the most of its opportunities than what it has done with pieces passed on by other teams.
Marshawn Lynch was becoming an afterthought on a Buffalo team that was starting Fred Jackson and had chosen C.J. Spiller in the first round.
Seattle acquired him for two picks in the latter half of the draft, and two years later Lynch has concluded the third-most productive rushing season in franchise history.
Fullback Michael Robinson was signed after San Francisco cut him, and he went to the Pro Bowl last year.
Offensive tackle Breno Giacomini was signed off the Packers’ practice squad and now starts at right tackle. Left guard Paul McQuistan was added in 2011, not on an NFL roster when the previous season concluded.