In the cavalcade of numbers that annually overwhelm the normies and titillate the cultists, a simple counting stat illuminated the path chosen by the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL draft that began its three-day football orgy Thursday night.
That represents the cumulative score of the Seahawks’ three games last season against the rival San Francisco 49ers, all losses, including 41-23 in the playoffs that ended Seattle’s season.
Simply put, the talent level of the NFC West leaders was notably above Seattle’s. Not scheme, not coaching, not home field advantage. Even as the Seahawks’ 9-9 final record was better than the expectations of all but the lamest of gee-whiz 12s following the trade of Russell Wilson, the 49ers have become the NFC standard. Had they subsequently not run out of healthy quarterbacks, they would have been NFC champs instead of Philadelphia and a more worthy Super Bowl opponent for the Kansas City Chiefs.
The 0-3 series outcome was something of a milestone. The Niners hadn’t done that to Seattle since 2011, the year before the draft of Wilson in the third round. For the rest of Wilson’s career in Seattle, the Seahawks went 17-4 against the Niners.
So based on the two players taken in the first round — cornerback Devon Witherspoon of Illinois with the fifth pick, and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba of Ohio State with the 20th — the Seahawks pursued the mantra of Best Players Available, instead of drafting to fill needier positions. If closing the gap on the 49ers and regaining NFC West supremacy is the 2023 prime directive, the only way to do it is with game-changing, rare-earth materials. Also, not giving into the temptation to use the high picks on a talented rookie quarterback who likely would sit behind renaissance starter Geno Smith, 33, for one, two or even three seasons.
Most pundits and fans figured the Seahawks would prioritize improving the pass rush, which was woeful last season. Instead, GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll surprised with the choice of Witherspoon, who was regarded generally as the draft’s best among defensive backs. Same for Smith-Njigba, the first of four consecutive wideouts taken in the first round.
Selecting Witherspoon (5-foot-11, 181 pounds) instead of either of two heralded pass-rushers, Jalen Carter of Georgia or Tyree Smith of Texas Tech, meant Carroll was met with cocked eyebrows around the NFL. At least until he invoked the name of a near-deity and one of his favorite players from his days coaching USC: Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.
“I saw a connection there that knocked me out,” Carroll said Thursday night about the similarity to the relentless four-time, first-team All-Pro safety of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “We haven’t come across a guy like that in a long time.”
Asked to explain on a media call his style of play, Witherspoon inadvertently described Polamalu: “Energetic, physical, dog on the field, passionate.”
Even if he plays cornerback, describing Witherspoon as a next-gen Polamalu checkmates the skeptics. An independent evaluator, NFL national writer Doug Farrar of USA Today, graded the selection A+ and offered a more distant analogy:
NFL Comparison: Sam Madison. Selected by the Dolphins in the second round of the 1997 draft out of Louisville, Madison transcended any concerns about his size (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) with great movement skills and the toughness to take any receiver right to the woodshed. Madison parlayed all that into four Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro nominations. Witherspoon seems to have the tools to possibly put up an equivalent NFL career, given the right home.
Regarding Smith-Njigba, Farrar also graded the choice A+ and offered a more contemporary analogy Northwest football fans know well:
NFL Comparison: Cooper Kupp. The Rams stole Kupp in the third round of the 2017 draft out of Eastern Washington, and Kupp made it clear pretty quickly that he was going to define Sean McVay’s passing game, regardless of the quarterback, with his route precision, his awareness of defenders around him, and his ability to move away from them despite decent (but not amazing) straight-speed. The NFL team adding Smith-Njigba to its roster will benefit from all of this at a very high level.
Of Smith-Njigba (6 feet, 196 pounds), Carroll said, “I know Geno is going to fall in love with him.”
In his sophomore season of 2021, Smith-Njigba had 95 catches for 1,606 yards, and had a stupendous Rose Bowl game against Utah — 15 catches for 347 yards (an all-time FBS record) and three TDs. In 2022, a hamstring injury limited him to three games. Health permitting, he will end conclusively the long search for a third wide receiver to go with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
Asked to describe his game, Smith-Njigba ran a precision oral route: “I get open.”
The Seahawks have more shots to bolster the defensive line Friday, when rounds two and three provide them with picks at 37, 52 and 83. The final day Saturday provides five more selections.
The Seahawks are going to have some trouble fitting the rookie salaries with their constrained position under the salary cap. Some veterans are going to have to restructure their deals, or get cut. But that is an institutional hazard when a club chooses to go for it every year.
Thrice spanked by the 49ers last season, there is no absence of welts to remind the Seahawks of the urgency of the task.
I’m used to the Seahawks missing on their top picks, and these two were surprises given team needs. But if those highlight reels are anything to go on, they won’t be misses.