RENTON, Wash. -- As the Seahawks prepared for the April draft, their executives considered game tape, player statistics, 40-yard dash times and all the typical barometers of future success. And then they studied players' backgrounds, looking deep into the DNA of each young man's character.
As far as they were concerned, seeing prospects make plays was great. But seeing prospects show strength of character was better. The silver spoon players who had been five-star recruits and skated by on superior ability didn't fire them up as much as the young men who had to struggle to get to where they were. And so their draft board might have looked a little different from most. "If people have had a lot of adversity and have proven they can overcome that adversity, the chances for them to have success at the next level are going to be better," general manager John Schneider said. "It's important to us to find guys who have a chip on their shoulder and feel they have something to prove."
Head coach Pete Carroll put it this way: "It's not always about talent. It's not always about smarts. It's not always about background. It's about who you are, what you bring."
True to their word, each of the first six players the team chose in the draft overcame adversity in some manner, though some was of their own doing.
Second-round choice Paul Richardson was arrested for stealing a backpack as a UCLA freshman, and was subsequently dismissed from the school. The wide receiver transferred to Colorado to start over, but then he missed his junior year after tearing his ACL before coming back to have a very productive senior season. Like Richardson, fellow second-round pick Justin Britt tore his ACL in 2012. And like Richardson, he came back strong in 2013, playing at Missouri. "He is the type of guy who is going to persevere and fight his way through stuff," Carroll said.
In the fourth round the Seahawks selected another wide receiver, Kevin Norwood. When he was a sophomore in high school, Hurricane Katrina devastated his Gulfport, Miss., home. He and his family were without potable water, food and electricity for an extended period of time. Mosquitos made the evenings hell. Norwood took it upon himself to provide means for survival for his family.
At UCLA, Cassius Marsh was recruited by Rick Neuheisel, but Neuheisel was fired in 2011 and replaced by Jim Mora. So Marsh went from a 300-pound defensive tackle under Neuheisel to a 262-pound defensive end/outside linebacker for Mora. He adjusted to a new staff, reshaped his body and became a productive player in a top conference. The Seahawks picked him in the fourth round as well.
The Seahawks' third pick in the fourth round, linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, had to overcome the ordeal of having one close family member shoot another, according to a scout who interviewed him. Meanwhle, fifth-round pick Jimmy Staten battled through much of his senior season at Middle Tennessee State with a knee injury.
Why does this matter to the Seahawks? They are unlike almost every other NFL team -- not because they just won a Super Bowl, but because their locker room is a shark tank. Defensive end Michael Bennett said the Seahawks are the most competitive team he ever has been a part of. So in order to restock, the Seahawks need to add players who won't be eaten alive in a viciously competitive environment.
It isn't just the 49ers or Packers who are potential impediments to player development in Seattle -- it is the Seahawks themselves. Softer players have been chewed up and spit out on the Renton practice fields by an unforgiving group of veterans. It is no given that a fresh-faced kid out of college can stand up to an accomplished, physical, mouthy, intimidating veteran like Richard Sherman. The Seahawks are betting that Richardson and Norwood can. "There is an innate toughness about them, so they should be able to compete," Schneider said.
In order for rookies to become second-year players in Seattle, they have to have survival skills. In 2011 they drafted a smart, productive college safety Mark Legree in the fifth round, but he was beaten out by a college free agent, Jeron Johnson, who was tough as an alley cat after a childhood in Compton, Calif. "We spent a lot of time on it before the draft because this is such a young, confident team," Schneider said. "In order for a guy to come in and compete here he has to have a natural toughness about him. You can't come in and cower here or you will fade away real quick."
The Seahawks have found that grit often beats talent, so Schneider acknowledges the team will sacrifice talent for grit, within reason. A balance is the objective. The philosophy may explain why the Seahawks have so many contributors who were not high round picks. Among them are Sherman, a fifth-round pick, wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who was undrafted, safety Kam Chancellor, a fifth-round pick, cornerback Byron Maxwell, a sixth-round selection, linebacker Malcolm Smith, a seventh-round choice, guard J.R. Sweezy, picked in the seventh, and linebacker K.J. Wright, a fourth-rounder.
Carroll disagrees with science that says grit cannot be developed. He thinks it is possible. But it is better to acquire players who already have it. "I'm looking for guys that if I'm picking a team in the park, I want those guys," Carroll said as safety Earl Thomas walked by on his way to the Seahawks locker room. "That's a good example right there, 29."
Thomas is one of the players who drive the competitiveness on the Seahawks. Others, according to Carroll, are Baldwin, Bennett, Chancellor, Maxwell, Sherman, Sweeney, Wright, defensive end Cliff Avril, linebacker Bobby Wagner and quarterback Russell Wilson. "They aren't just happy being here," Carroll said. "They're not happy getting paid. "They want to prove something."
And if things play out the way Schneider and Carroll think they might, some of their recent draftees will be joining the group of players who are making it difficult for young Seahawks of the future.