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Playing beyond their years
Asked about the impact this year’s rookie class has had on his team, Pete Carroll looked surprised that anyone would even have to pose the question.
“Well,” the second-year coach of the Seahawks said, “it’s a big impact.”
As big, in fact, as any team in the league has received from its rookie class. The Seahawks are starting four rookies – right tackle James Carpenter, right guard John Moffitt, strongside linebacker K.J. Wright and left cornerback Richard Sherman. That number climbs to five if you count slot receiver Doug Baldwin, which you should because he leads the team in receptions entering Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cleveland Browns, who beat the Seahawks two weeks ago, also start five rookies. But the only other teams starting more than two are the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles, with three each.
The Seahawks are starting their rookies by design, as Carpenter and Moffitt were acquired with their first two draft picks in the April NFL Draft to comprise the right side of a very-young line. They’re also starting a rookie by necessity, as Sherman is the third option on the left side after Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond went down with season-ending injuries. Wright, meanwhile, is starting because they just couldn’t keep the fourth-round draft choice off the field. His emergence also allowed the club to trade linebacker Aaron Curry to the Oakland Raiders for a pair of draft choices that could turn into other eventual starters.
Then there’s Baldwin, who was signed as a free agent after not be selected in the draft.
But the influx of rookie talent goes even deeper. Wide receiver Kris Durham, cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Malcolm Smith, all draft choices, also are on the 53-man roster; as are safety Jeron Johnson, quarterback Josh Portis, cornerback Ron Parker and tackle Jarriel King, who were added as free agents.
This rookie rampage also carries over to six of the eight players on the practice squad: linebackers Mike Morgan and Allen Bradford, running back Vai Taua, wide receiver Ricardo Lockette and defensive tackle Pep Levingston.
General manager John Schneider points to the coaching staff being able to infuse so many rookies onto the rosters in a season where there was no offseason for them to be evaluated and get acclimated because of the 136-day lockout.
“I think that’s a credit to the coaching staff buying into our philosophy of going young,” Schneider said. “Young, smart, aggressive, tough, reliable – that’s what we’ve been preaching. So it’s a big credit to our coaching staff in terms of their teaching, because not having an offseason was huge.”
But some of the credit also needs to go to Schneider’s staff for finding the players Carroll needs to play the game the way he wants to play it – vice president of football operations Will Lewis; senior personnel executive Scot McCloughan; director of pro personnel Tag Ribary and director of college scouting Scott Fitterer, and their assistants Trent Kirchner and Eric Stokes; scouts Dan Morgan, Jason Barnes, Matt Berry, Ed Dodds, Aaron Hineline, Charlie Jackson and Derrick Jensen; and college scouting coordinator Kirk Parrish.
“Absolutely,” Schneider said. “I tell people all the time, we take the third round (of the draft) through free agency extremely seriously. We take pride in putting the time and effort into those picks and players.”
And it was those picks and players that produced Moffitt, Wright, Durham, Sherman, Maxwell, Levingston, Smith, Baldwin, Portis and Johnson this year; as well as Thurmond, strong safety Kam Chancellor and tight end Anthony McCoy last year.
With all this youth comes growing pains, and that has been most evident with Carpenter and Moffitt. They have played very well at times, and not so well at other times. But the coaches remain committed to them because by growing together they will be able to comprise the right side of the line for many seasons to come.
“Even with the issues we’ve dealt with early on, we can see it happening,” Carroll said. “So that’s been part of the process that’s kind of held us from really moving ahead quickly. But we’re patient with it. We have to be frustrated by it, but patient. We just have to live with it until our guys really grow together.”
And reach the point where the obvious physical skills of Carpenter and Moffitt can really standout because they’re less tentative due to fact that they’re not thinking as much about that they’re doing and just doing it.
“They’re still learning, they’re still growing,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “But they’re in there every single play, so they’re good for us. You can see the improvement they’re making, and they’re doing a nice job for where we are.”
Baldwin has been making plays since the first day he stepped on the practice field during training camp. And it didn’t take his teammates long to notice he was something special.
“I’m really not surprised, honestly,” backup QB Charlie Whitehurst said. “The first few days of training camp we all kind of had a smirk on our face like, ‘How in the world did we get this guy?’ ”
And Baldwin continues to make plays, with 25 receptions for 403 yards and two touchdown catches. His per-catch average of 16.1 yards leads all rookie receivers in the league.
“Adding Doug Baldwin and what he’s brought to the team,” Carroll started, before catching himself. “That’s not part of the draft class, but it is – he’s just after the seventh round, I guess.”
And playing like a first-round pick.
“He comes in as an undrafted free agent, so for me to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I knew this is exactly what he was going to do,’ would be getting ahead of myself,” Bevell offered. “But we learned about him when he got here. He picked things up very quickly, like you’d expect for someone who went to Stanford, and really excelled at the things we’re asking him to do.”
Wright is the defensive equivalent to Baldwin. Wright was drafted, but he’s playing beyond his draft status. He started the season opener at middle linebacker, because David Hawthorne was out with a knee injury, and had five tackles. With Curry struggling with his consistency, the coaches went with Wright on the strongside in the Week 4 game against the Atlanta Falcons and there he remains.
“I think K.J. is a huge get for us with what he’s added with playing all the time,” Carroll said. “You don’t think of him as a young guy. He just functions on the team and does a really nice job for us.”
Sherman might have had to wait his turn, but he hasn’t lost any time in becoming a playmaker at a spot where someone had to step up after Trufant and Thurmond went down. In his first start against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Sherman intercepted one pass at the Seahawks’ 9-yard line and broke up another that was intercepted by Chancellor at the Seahawks’ 13.
“I think he took a step forward because he played a full football game and was out there under the rigors and the stress of that,” Carroll said. “He played very consistently throughout. He didn’t have any kind of busts or issues during the game. Mentally, he was in it the whole time.”
These rookies take pride in the way they are playing – individually, but even more so as a group.
“This is a pretty good class,” Wright said. “They did a good job of drafting us and bringing in free agents. And we’re producing, even thought this is our first year. We didn’t really have time to bond together because of the lockout and all that stuff. But we all know that we’re rookies and we’re just trying to show these coaches that we can play at a young age.”
The best part? They should only get better, which will only help the team get better.
“They’ve had a big impact, but they’re just getting started,” Carroll said. “So I think we see great growth for the future.”