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This weekend’s rookie minicamp isn’t all about the draft choices
No one in the Seahawks' first 37 seasons played in more games than Joe Nash and Mack Strong.
From 1982-96, Nash played in 218 games – with 169 starts, which ranks fourth in franchise history behind Steve Largent (197), Walter Jones (180) and Jacob Green (176). From 1994-2007, Strong played in 201 games, one more than Largent.
But the tie that really binds Nash and Strong is how they originally made the team: As rookie free agents. Strong even spent a season on the practice squad (1993) before becoming a two-time Pro Bowl fullback and lead blocker for a trio of 1,000-yard rushers – Chris Warren, Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander. Nash spent a season playing behind Robert Hardy before stepping into the nose tackle position that was created in 1983 when Chuck Knox was hired as coach and shifted to a 3-4 defensive front. Nash went to the Pro Bowl in 1984 and was the middleman between Green and fellow end Jeff Bryant in what became known as the "DieHards" for the next six seasons – until Knox made the move to a four-man line after selecting Hall of Fame tackle Cortez Kennedy in the 1990 NFL Draft.
Remembering the productive rookie free agents of seasons past is pertinent because the Seahawks will hold their three-day rookie minicamp this weekend.
Most eyes will be on this year's draft class: Running backs Christine Michael and Spencer Ware, defensive tackles Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams, wide receiver Chris Harper, cornerback Tharold Simon, tight end Luke Willson, defensive end/linebacker Ty Powell and offensive linemen Ryan Seymour, Jared Smith and Michael Bowie.
But the three-practice camp that begins Friday also will be a chance to see this year's rookie free agents, and ponder who might be the latest to join a long and impressive list that is topped by the durable, productive duo of Nash and Strong. Could it be Utah State wide receiver Matt Austin? Or Oklahoma running back Dominique Whaley? What about an offensive lineman – Arkansas' Alvin Bailey or Bowling Green's Jordon Roussos? On the defensive side, there's Old Dominion linebacker Craig Wilkins, Southern Illinois defensive end Kenneth Boatright, Colorado strong safety Ray Polk and linebackers Ramon Buchanan (Miami) and John Lotulelei (UNLV).
Impossible? The Seahawks already have a deep, and young, roster. They're coming off an 11-5 season and the franchise's first road playoff victory since 1983. Some are even wondering what the draft choices are going to have to do to bump one of the vets from the 53-man roster.
But stranger things have happened. Look at Rufus Porter. He was the 108th player signed by the Seahawks in 1988, before the league-imposed 80-man roster limit. The team had made the playoffs in 1987 and would capture the franchise's first divisional title in 1988. How could a 'tweener player from Southern University make the roster, let alone make an impact?
Porter supplied that answer, and then some. He was voted to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player in 1988 and 1989. He then developed into a starting linebacker who would step to the line and rush the passer on third downs. How'd that work out? Porter ranks seventh on the team's all-time list with 37.5 sacks, including a team-leading 10.5 in 1989.
Stranger things have happen, part deux: Eugene Robinson. He joined the Seahawks as a rookie free agent in 1985, as a cornerback out of Colgate – and in a secondary that featured Pro Bowl players in strong safety Kenny Easley and cornerback Dave Brown as well as free safety John Harris and former first-round draft choice Terry Taylor at the other corner.
Robinson didn't just stick, he stuck out. After moving to safety, he was voted to the Pro Bowl twice and by the time he was traded to the Green Bay Packers in 1996, Robinson had become the franchise's all-time leading tackler (984).
The Seahawks have been very good to undrafted rookies, and vice versa, as this team comprised of players who joined the club as rookie free agents indicates:
In compiling the Seahawks' all-time rookie free-agent team, Robinson is joined in the secondary by Paul Moyer, the only person in club history to be a player, coach and radio analyst; Jordan Babineaux, who turned in what was voted the Seahawks' play of the decade for the 2000s when he pulled down Cowboys holder/QB Tony Romo short of the goal line and a first down after a botched attempt on a game-winning field goal in the 2006 wild-card playoff game; and Jay Bellamy, who holds the club single-season record for special teams tackles (34 in 1996) and also started at both safety spots.
Then there was the strange transformation of Mike Tice. He came to training as a rookie free-agent quarterback out of Maryland in 1981. That lasted all of a few errant passes before offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome suggest that Tice might want to move to the tight end line. Once Tice did, all he did from 1982-89 and again after being re-signed in 1991 was start 83 games at his new position, which called for sealing the edge in Knox's "Ground Chuck" offense.
Still not convinced? Don't forget the tale of Dave Krieg. The only reason he was signed after the 1980 draft was as a favor to his coach at now-defunct Milton College. The only reason he made the team that first season was because backup Steve Myer sustained a career-ending neck injury while being sandwiched by the rookie tackle tandem of Manu Tuiasosopo and Hardy during the team's then-annual intra-squad scrimmage at training camp. Sam Adkins was elevated to being Jim Zorn's backup, and you-know-who became the No. 3 QB.
Krieg went on to play 19 seasons in the NFL. By the time he left the Seahawks after the 1991 season, the Man from Milton held most of the team's career, season and single-game passing records – only to have Matt Hasselbeck surpass many of them during the 2000s. But Krieg still is the club's all-time leader in touchdown passes for a career (195) and season (32 in 1984).
And just for kicks, there's Norm Johnson. He was signed out of UCLA after the 1982 draft and had to endure the players' strike that interrupted his rookie season. But Johnson holds the franchise career records for points scored (810), as well as field goals (159) and PATs (333) made.
When it came time to vote for the franchise's 35th Anniversary team, Johnson was on it. So were Nash, Strong, Porter and Robinson.
Ancient history, you say. OK, how about David Hawthorne? He made the team as a rookie free agent in 2008, on a team that already had linebackers Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill and Julian Peterson. Hawthorne would step in as an injury replacement, and step up. He led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons (2009-11) – joining Tatupu, Chad Brown, Fredd Young, Michael Jackson and Terry Beeson as the only Seahawks to accomplish that tackling hat-trick.
In 2011, the Seahawks' second season under coach Pete Carroll, Doug Baldwin not only made the roster, the rookie free-agent wide receiver from Stanford led the team in receptions and receiving yards. Other members of the current 90-man roster who found a way to stick around despite being a rookie free agent: offensive lineman Lemuel Jeanpierre (2010); safety Jeron Johnson, linebacker Mike Morgan and quarterback Josh Portis (2011); and wide receivers Jermaine Kearse and Phil Bates, tight ends Sean McGrath and Cooper Helfet and offensive lineman Rishaw Johnson (2012).
So while scrutinizing the draft choices' every move at this weekend's minicamp, don't overlook the rookie free agents. The coaches won't.