SEATTLE, Wash. -- Perhaps even more surprising than the Seattle Seahawks' 36-25 Sunday win over the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium — the franchise's first win in New York since 1983 — were the key contributions made by two undrafted free agents. Receiver Doug Baldwin and cornerback Brandon Browner came to the NFL on different career paths, but they're both making a difference for a team in need of quality depth and starter-level talent at positions of uncertainty.
Baldwin, who became available for the 2011 draft out of Stanford, actually leads the team in receptions with 20 on 27 targets for 330 yards and two touchdowns. His nine plays of 20 yards or more and 16.5 yards per catch average puts him right up there with highly touted rookies like A.J. Green and Julio Jones in terms of productivity, and he put up his career best against the Giants with eight catches for 136 yards. Not bad for a kid who didn't get a call on draft day, despite some significant interest.
Browner's road has actually been one back to the NFL. An undrafted free agent out of Oregon State in 2005, he signed with the Denver Broncos and lost that season to a broken forearm. He wound up starring for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders for five seasons, and while he got the occasional look from the NFL, it wasn't until Seahawks general manager John Schneider, acknowledged as one of the most comprehensive personnel guys in the business, told head coach Pete Carroll that 2011 was the time to bring Browner in for a better look.
Through his years in the Green Bay Packers organization, Schneider learned about the specific schematic value of bigger cornerbacks, and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Browner looks on tape to be the kind of physical press corner that has come more into vogue in recent years. Browner struggled at first, looking especially rough in a shutout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2, but he rebounded to cover Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald fairly well in Week 3, trailed the aforementioned Julio Jones in Week 4, and played expertly and aggressively against the Giants' Hakeem Nicks in that upset win. His 94-yard interception return touchdown sealed the win over New York. Not bad for a guy who spent five years just trying to keep the dream alive in Canada.
During his Monday press conference, Carroll talked about his two unexpected stars, and how they came to Seattle.
"I do know that with Doug Baldwin, he had a bunch of teams after him — I think there were about 20 teams that tried to get him," he said. "There were a lot of conversations about him, and that's how we heard it — he was one of the hottest guys out there that we were pursuing.
"With Brandon, John just brought his name up, and I remembered who he was. I was excited about him when I heard that he was playing in Canada — I had lost track of him. And just the thought of knowing what he could be like -- I was as optimistic as you could get from the moment John mentioned his name. I just wanted to see him run, and he ran really fast on our timing day. And through the rest of it, he's just shown really good stuff. I think he's really a factor, and he bothered those guys [the Giants] yesterday. They were pushing and shoving and jawing at him, because he wouldn't let them go — he wouldn't get off of them. That's something you don't see often from corners, because he's so much bigger than other guys."
Schneider is the hidden element in the Seahawks' hopeful revival; during one fan event in 2010 -- his first year as the team's general manager — he introduced himself to one fan who didn't even know who he was. But as much as he may lose in Q rating to Carroll, the coach knows how valuable Schneider's acumen is. Especially when it comes to picking hidden talent and making it work.
"I hope there's never been anything that's come out of me that's been anything but that I think he's extraordinary," Carroll said of Schneider on Monday. "I think he's an exceptionally talented guy who has knowledge beyond his years. He's got a great upbringing [in the game] with the guys he's been around. He's got sense and work ethic and timing, and a feel for what's going on that gives me great confidence in everything that we're doing. We make every decision side-by-side. We've got a great support group of scouts and guys who work in personnel — really, I think we have a great department. I need it — I'm coaching on the other end, and I need all the help I can get."
For Baldwin's part, he hasn't just been productive — he's been tough. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has thrown Baldwin into situations in which he had to extend his hands up and leave his ribs exposed. He's never displayed the dreaded "alligator arms"; instead explaining that his position requires a particular attitude that he's proud to establish.
"This game is physical — it's violent," he said before the Giants game. "You're going to take shots like that when you go over the middle. The mindset is that you know you're going to get hit — you've got to grab the ball as fast as you can, get it into your body, and protect it.
"I think you have to have … a bit of an anger management issue, to be honest with you. Usually, slot guys are a lot smaller and quicker, but at the same time, they have to block linebackers and safeties. So, you have to be aggressive, and have a mentality that 'I'm about to go up against a guy who's bigger than me.' I don't care — I'm going to do whatever it takes to get the job done."
Browner, who is that bigger guy for Baldwin in practice at times, comes to the NFL with a quiet humility born of his experience. He's been tempered by his long road and early challenges in 2011, but he's ready for more as he gains confidence. Advanced zone coverage is still a struggle at times, but he's gaining a real feel for aggressive play at the line, and the Seahawks are taking advantage of that ability.
"They try me in press, and it's probably a bad idea to throw a screen when you've got a corner in press," he said recently of the Falcons' tendency to try and get balls underneath to Jones with tight coverage. "I guess they were expecting me to back off a little bit, but press is my game, so I just stay as close to the receiver as I can. That way, I can beat the block coming out.
"I'm just looking to build on what I've started, you know. I just want to show people what I'm about. I just want to grow every game, and I'm getting more comfortable out there — just being free and playing like I know how to play. I'm just looking to get out of the shell — not that I'm in one, but at the same time, this is all new to me. I just want to gel with these guys sooner than later."
They may not be big names, but Doug Baldwin and Brandon Browner are two examples of what happens when deep scouting meets up with untapped talent. Out of nowhere, everybody involved looks a little smarter.