Through his ascent to the titles of Director of College Scouting in 1992 and Director of Player Personnel in 2001 for Tampa Bay, as well as the Assistant General Manager of the Atlanta Falcons in 2004, Ruskell has always known that the analytical work done on college fields in the early part of one year can pay enormous dividends in the beginning of the next year, as the postseason provides the ultimate judgment of a team’s personnel acumen.
It’s fair to say that Ruskell’s carrying around some pretty high grades right now – the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl in his first year at the helm, and the new emphasis on teamwork, toughness and personal character is the primary focus shared by most dynasties. His team looks to be in good shape for years to come – and after facing decades of uncertainty, Seahawks fans understand and appreciate the enormity of such a turnaround.
Now, as his second season in Seattle begins, Tim Ruskell puts together draft boards based on his own beliefs and principles – things learned from Jerry Angelo and Rich McKay, as well as the notions created in his own mind – and in a way, you could say that 2006 will see the first real Ruskell draft. Last year, he was packing his bags for the Combine before he knew which team he’d be working for. Now, all impediments and miscommunications have been cast aside. “I feel much better – like I said, we’re all on the same page – we’re in the same grading scale. We know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, the coaches are more involved…it’s ten times better,” he said.
When Ruskell spoke to the media on Wednesday, one of the first things he did was to outline his system for player ranking. Some teams rely on positional rankings, while others favor more of a “best-on-down” method. All teams have “Hot Lists”, quick references to organizational favorites. In Ruskell’s mind, it’s best to incorporate every approach in a synergistic fashion.
“It’s all of those,” he said. “We have a ‘best-to-worst’ board, and next to that, you have ‘best-to-worst’ regardless of position, which is by the grade. That 1-to-10 scale. And then we have a “hot list” of about seventy names. So, taking everything into account, who are the guys you’re targeting for the draft? And that’s not a board – that’s just something we would have in front of us. A cheat sheet.
“But we do have the “best-to-worst” by position, and the ‘best-to-worst’, regardless of position, by grade. Those are the two boards we work off of.”
Ruskell also explained that “best-on-down” only works if you know what you want in every round. “With each round, each scenario, these are the guys we’re targeting,” he said. “And we can do that, because we have the “best-to-worst” based on everyone that’s in the draft.
“So, you get a pretty good feel as to where those guys are going to go. You’re not always right, but if you go by your grade scale, they should be there in the fourth round. These guys should be there in the sixth round. If they are, who would you take? And in what order would you take them? That’s what we’ve been doing all week – figuring out who’s above who, within the same grade.”
The efficacy of the “Hot List” method in conjunction with the others was confirmed with one interesting detail – Ruskell revealed that every player picked by Seattle in 2005 was on their list. There were no late-round surprises here.
In the cases of second-round pick Lofa Tatupu and third-rounder LeRoy Hill, Ruskell came up trumps with two starters by addressing a need, or what he referred to as a “vacuum”. Some wonder if he can do it again, especially in the secondary, where needs present themselves at cornerback and free safety.
“We didn’t really have set starters at the linebacker position, and the guys we targeted filled the specific needs we were looking for,” he said. “In Lofa’s case, we knew there were leadership skills, and we knew he had the capability to run a defense, because they (USC) told us and it looked that way on film. The vacuum was there, and he was there. That’s the “fit” deal I talk about, where there’s the plus.
“And LeRoy – we wanted to increase our team speed, all across the board, at linebacker. He was the fastest linebacker, the most athletic linebacker, that was there at that time. I think that’s how he ascended. Can it happen again? Sure. It absolutely can happen again. Especially when you look at the secondary, it’s not like we’re dead-set at every position. We have some key injuries as well.
“But it is rare, and I think that as your team gets better it becomes more rare. I can guarantee you, with those first couple of picks, we’re going to look at the guy and say, ‘is this guy going to be a starter?’ Whether it happens game one or year three is a little harder to say.”
Ruskell was also asked how the recent trade for former Chicago Bears safety Mike Green would affect his draft strategy – a strategy in which the occasional mock has had Seattle re-running the one-two cornerback-safety picks in 2003, which netted them Marcus Trufant and Ken Hamlin. “We obviously (go) into the draft feeling that safety was a need, and we like Mike Green. He’s been a good player. He’s been both a backup and a starter, so it takes a little bit of the pressure off. I look at him as insurance. If there was a safety there (in the draft) that we had evaluated at that round, and we liked the guy, we would take him. So, it didn’t knock us out of the game.”
One oft-discussed aspect of the Ruskell Way is the seeming disregard placed on “measurables” – the 40 times, height/weight numbers and other off-field components that drive the drafts of many teams. When asked if there’s any worry about using what was considered a very non-traditional method before the advent of the Patriot Dynasty, Ruskell pointed to his own past. “I grew up in a system (Rich McKay’s in Tampa Bay) where we didn’t worry about that, but there are teams that really go by (it). That gauges how they’re going to go - the direction they’re going to go. But I don’t feel that way, and our guys don’t feel that way. It tends to be…’Who are the football players?’
“As long as it’s not too crazy, in terms of size…if you feel good about him, if you think he can contribute, let’s go on it,” he said. “We don’t have rules – ‘if he’s not 5’9”, we can’t take him’ – but some teams do.”
More and more, the attempt to make intangibles into measurables begins with the character of a player. The Seahawks have one of the NFL’s most detailed methods when divining the true nature of a prospect, and it starts with the area scouts and the man-hours they put in. “They start looking at (players) the summer before, so that could be a five- or six-hour process,” he said. “Then, they go in August and see them in their training camps, and that’s an all-day deal. We ask our scouts to visit our prospects three times. Then, there’s the cross-check. Then, there’s the All-Star Game. Then, there’s the bowl game, if he’s there. Then, there’s the Combine. Then, there’s the workout. It adds up.
“It’s a lot of man-hours. When you talk about all the people involved, especially the area scout – he would be the number-one guy.”
Spoken like a former area scout.
And as Ruskell says, the Seahawks don’t hire private investigators to do any of that legwork. “No – these (scouts) have to put that hat on. When they go to the campus, we require them to talk to five different people about the prospects. That would be the Academic Counselor, obviously his position coach, when you can get the head coach, the trainer, the strength coach, the guy that does the housing – anybody beyond that is on their own. But we require those five people, and that takes time. That’s why you have to have the three visits. Not every visit’s going to be ‘film room/practice’. Some of the visits are going to be interviews, and getting the detective work done.
“So, it does add up, But our guys enjoy it, and we will live by that. We will always do it. They know that’s the process.”
Such depth in due diligence didn’t use to be the norm, but Ruskell says that is changing. “I think it’s becoming more standard,” he said. “I wouldn’t say, ten or fifteen years ago, that it was. I know that when I started visiting Academic Counselors, they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ They always thought we should come, but they wondered why we didn’t. Now, that’s becoming standard, that everyone’s going to visit with the Academic Counselor and get another opinion, away from the coaches, of, ‘how does he work when the light’s not on?’”
When the lights go on this Saturday, and the 31st pick is on the clock, you can bet that a well-prepared Seahawks organization will send their card to the podium. With twenty years of personnel experience under his belt, and a one-year, near-miraculous team makeover to show for it, Tim Ruskell wouldn’t have it any other way.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, Feel free to e-mail him here.