By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The Seattle Seahawks are poised to take their spot atop pro football’s mountain if they can defeat Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey Feb. 2.
That would be a huge accomplishment for an organization that was a miserable 5-11-0 in 2009, the year before Pete Carroll arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and 7-9-0 in his first season.
The Seahawks became the first NFL team to win a division title with a losing record in 2010. However, Carroll and general manager John Schneider have been the architects of a remarkable turnaround that has seen the team put together a competent and consistent offense and the best defense in the NFL.
The Seahawks have been built in an unconventional manner. Their 53-man roster includes 21 players who were undrafted free agents, giving this group extra motivation of having to prove themselves on an every-game basis.
Running back Marshawn Lynch was not an undrafted free agent. He was the Buffalo Bills’ first-round pick in 2007, but after being suspended during the 2009 season by the NFL due to a misdemeanor weapons plea, the Bills traded him to Seattle for offensive tackle Chris Hairston and linebacker Tank Carder, neither of whom played a down last season.
Russell Wilson was an afterthought at quarterback when he was taken in the third round of the 2012 draft. The former Wisconsin Badger was downgraded because of his height. He is generously listed at 5-11, but he is probably no taller than 5-10 and a fraction. He has been the key to the Seahawks’ consistent offense since his selection.
Doug Baldwin was the Seahawks’ second-leading receiver this season with 50 receptions for 778 yards and five touchdowns. Despite his consistent production over the last three seasons, no NFL team saw fit to draft him. He was a free agent out of Florida, largely ignored because of his unspectacular 5-10, 189-pound frame.
Prior to selecting Wilson in 2012, Schneider and Carroll selected Golden Tate from Notre Dame in the second round. Tate led the Seahawks with 64 receptions for 898 yards and five touchdowns.
While neither Baldwin nor Tate were among the league leaders at the wide receiver position, they were good enough to make opposing defenses respect their passing game and allow Lynch with room to ramble in the running game.
The Seahawks are a nasty, overpowering bunch on defense, perhaps the NFL’s best unit since the Baltimore Ravens marauded their way to a championship in 2000.
The back end is the key to this team, and while Richard Sherman is currently in the headlines for his postgame rant against 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, he is simply a spectacular player. He supplanted Darrelle Revis as the best cover corner in the NFL during the regular season.
Despite his status as one of the game’s most skilled defenders, Sherman came into the league in 2011 as a fifth-round draft choice from Stanford. Anybody could have taken him before Schneider used the 154th pick in the draft on him. But they didn’t and he rewarded the Seahawks with eight interceptions and 17 passes defensed in 2013. He also secured the NFC championship with his spectacular deflection in the endzone that kept Crabtree from catching the go-ahead TD pass.
Free safety Earl Thomas is nearly as effective as Sherman. He is a huge hitter in the secondary and was taken in the first round of the 2010 draft out of Texas. Thomas had 105 tackles, five interceptions, 10 passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
The Seahawks selected strong safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth round that year out of Virginia Tech. You don’t have to know that Chancellor wears No. 31 on his uniform to identify him. He is the player that looks like a missile as he tackles running backs and receivers that dare to come into his area.
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is perhaps the most overlooked player on the roster. The 2012 second-round draft choice out of Utah State led the Seahawks with 120 tackles and is almost always in the right position.
More of the attention goes to outside linebacker K.J. Wright, a fourth-round draft choice out of Mississippi State in 2011. He has an explosive quality when he hits opponents and there’s a certain fear that opponents have when they venture near him.
The defensive line is relatively unheralded, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has gotten impressive contributions from Red Bryant (31 tackles), Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks), Cliff Avril (8.0 sacks and four passes defensed) and Chris Clemons (4.5 sacks). Bryant is the only one of that group who was drafted by the Seahawks, and he was a fourth-round draft pick. Avril was selected by the Detroit Lions before coming to the Seahawks as a free agent. Bennett, the brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, and Chris Clemons were undrafted free-agent castoffs.
The defense lacks players who had impressive college pedigrees, but excellent college and pro scouting has given Carroll a defense with a lot of skill and a junk-yard dog mentality.
Bears general manager Phil Emery and his team of scouts need to take notice. You don’t need a lot of high draft picks to build a successful defense. It’s more about finding talented and hungry players who work well as a unit, and that’s what the Seahawks have done better than anyone else.
It has put them on the precipice of a championship, and they have the youth and talent to stay at that level for several seasons.