Bruce Irvin, the Seahawks and the Difficulty of Drafting — or Grading — a Defensive End

Despite heavy criticism from draft pundits, Damon Hatheway thinks the Seahawks found their man in the first round.

The lead up to the NFL Draft marks one of my favorite times of year. The aftermath is among my least. Absurdly early 2013 mock drafts aside, draft analysts use the week following the draft to reinforce their own pre-draft thoughts — many of which were wildly wrong.

Case in point: the reaction to the Seattle Seahawks’ 2011 draft class. Following the ’11 draft the Seahawks were ripped for a number of unconventional picks from their first round darkhorse — left tackle James Carpenter — to perceived reaches such as KJ Wright and Richard Sherman, a wide receiver-turned-cornerback. Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Seahawks the lowest grade of any team in the NFL following the 2011 draft. And while it’s still too early to know exactly how good the Hawks’ draft was, the early results are extremely positive. Four players — Carpenter, John Moffitt, KJ Wright and Richard Sherman — finished the season as starters and Sherman showed flashes of All-Pro talent. After the season, Kiper ranked Sherman as the 10th best rookie and in his regrade of the 2011 draft, improved the Seahawks draft from a D+ to a B-, trailing only Carolina and San Francisco as the single largest improvement in Kiper’s revisions.

Now, cut to the 2012 Draft and the 15th overall pick, which the Seahawks used on Bruce Irvin, a defensive end from West Virginia who the Seahawks ranked as the third best defensive player on their board behind Mark Barron and Luke Kuechly, respectively. The Hawks were lambasted for their selection of Irvin on all sides, despite a ProFootballTalk.com report that revealed seven teams had Irvin ranked in their top 15 players in the draft.

The selection of Irvin faced particularly strong criticism from Kiper and the popular NFL draft website WalterFootball.com. Kiper described the pick as “mindboggling”, while Walter Football deemed the pick as “one of the worst draft picks of all time,” calling Irvin a sixth or seventh round selection due to his one-dimensional skill set and history of legal issues. And yet, in Walter Football’s final mock draft, not only was Irvin projected to be a first round pick, but an acceptable one at that.

Draft pundits aside, Irvin is a player that Pete Carroll and John Schneider deeply coveted. After the pick was made, Carroll raved, “Ever since I’ve been in coaching, we’ve been looking for a guy like this.”

Since Carroll arrived in Seattle two years ago, he has targeted players in the draft and picked them, with very little pause for how his process would be critiqued. Thus far he has been enormously successful, revamping an emerging Seahawks defense that could be among the league’s best in 2012.

Irvin, I believe, could turn out to be Carroll’s best selection yet and the centerpiece to a dominant defensive unit in Seattle. Criticism of the pick, though considerable, is countered by a position that few people — draft pundits, coaches and GMs alike — have had success evaluating in the draft process. Want proof? Here’s the list of defensive ends (as positioned by NFL.com) taken in the first round over a five-year period from 2005 to 2009.

2005: Erasumus James, Marcus Spears, Luis Castillo
2006: Mario Williams, Tamba Hali, Mathias Kiwanuka
2007: Gaines Adams, Jamaal Anderson, Jarvis Moss
2008: Chris Long, Derrick Harvey, Lawrence Jackson, Kentwan Balmer
2009: Tyson Jackson, Aaron Maybin, Brian Orakpo, Larry English

Over that five-year stretch, 17 different defensive ends were selected in the first round. Only three of those 17 first round picks have made it to a Pro Bowl as Williams, Hali and Orakpo have each been selected twice to play in Hawaii. What is perhaps most striking about that group, however, is the number of busts that have been produced. Of the 14 guys not named Williams, Hali or Orakpo, ten can be classified as busts.

Only Castillo, Kiwanuka, Long and Tyson Jackson have become consistent starters or producers while the 10 remaining players were either cut or traded by the team that drafted them or played significantly reduced roles as their careers progressed. Excluding the three Pro Bowlers, the remaining 14 players have combined for 157.5 sacks, or an average of 11.25 per player of the course of their careers, which range between three and seven years. The per player, per season sack average is even uglier, as the 14 non Pro Bowl defensive ends taken in the first round of the draft between 2005 and 2009 have averaged 2.5 sacks per season.

Can Pro Bowl caliber defensive ends be found in the first round of the draft? Absolutely — Williams, Hali, Orakpo and (more than likely) Long have demonstrated that high-end talent is available. But defensive ends have also shown strong tendencies to bust as this five-year window has shown.

So what does this say, ultimately, about Irvin and the Seahawks? Defensive ends carry tremendous risk in the first round and reaching for a player may only confound that problem, but conventional wisdom has been largely inaccurate with a position that has provided far more busts than value picks in the first round.

Since his first day in Seattle, Carroll has changed the culture of the Seahawks, making the team bigger, faster and above all, more competitive. Irvin fits that model to the letter and given Schneider and Carroll’s success thus far, deeming Irvin’s selection “mindboggling” or “one of the worst draft picks ever” displays a tremendous lack of foresight. Carroll and Schneider have shown a keen ability to pull diamonds from the rough. aAd in Irvin, they may have found a diamond in a position that has produced a whole lot of rough.

Damon Hatheway writes for TheFanManifesto. He can be followed @WRMC_BattyBeach. The entire FanMan team can be followed on twitter at @TheFanManifesto, or liked on facebook by clicking here.

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