RENTON, Wash. — It's not often that you see a dedicated right tackle taken with the 25th overall pick in the first round — that position is usually reserved for the later rounds, and the earlier selections for the more glamorous position of left tackle — i.e., the quarterback's blindside protector. It's also quite unusual for a tackle to immediately graduate from two seasons at Coffeyeville [Kan.] Community College to a starting role on the offensive line of a national championship team, replacing a player who went sixth overall in the draft. You might also say that it's a bit weird for an NFL team to draft said right tackle (a college left tackle that projects to the NFL right side) with first-round prospects still on the board.
Yet, all those unusual things happened on the path that brought Alabama tackle James Carpenter to the Seahawks with the 25th pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and the Seahawks couldn't seem to be happier about it.
"We were working on a couple of things," Seahawks GM John Schneider said of the possibility of draft trades before the pick. "But quite frankly, our top-rated guy came to us, and he stayed there the whole time, and away we go."
After failing to qualify academically at Iowa State, Carpenter took the junior college route and then chose Alabama over several other major colleges when he made that jump before the 2009 season. "They were winning, and I wanted to win," Carpenter said during his first post-draft conference call. "I knew that Coach [Nick] Saban was going to get me to be the best I can, and obviously, that's what [he] did."
It certainly seemed that way. Carpenter won the Bart Starr Improved Player Award after his first spring practice, and went on to start at left tackle, replacing Andre Smith, through the 2009 and 2010 seasons. But even though he blocked for a Heisman Trophy winner in Mark Ingram, and anchored the line for a national champion, it was actually during the Senior Bowl week that the NFL started to take serious notice. Carpenter played all over the line that January week in mobile, and impressed everyone who was watching — especially when playing the right tackle position that he will most likely take in the NFL.
"He's a really tough, nasty, aggressive, solid guy," Schneider said. "He showed really well down there at the Senior Bowl against top competition, and he's played in the SEC against top competition, and he's just one of those guys that when you try to change the culture of your team to us being a tougher football team up front.
Toughness and nastiness are great attributes, but road-graders aren't sexy picks, and with Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State still on the board — two tackles with higher grades among virtually any analyst you'd care to mention — you'd forgive the fans for wondering what on earth the Seahawks were thinking, reaching for a guy they could have traded down and picked up halfway through the second round.
At least, fans might feel that way until they started talking to those who have been following the buzz around Carpenter as quite possibly the most underrated offensive lineman in this draft class.
"I'm not a big fan of this year's offensive tackle class," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, before the bells went off on Thursday night. "But the best value in the draft could wind up being Carpenter, who I expect to see drafted in the second round. Carpenter signed with Alabama as a JuCo transfer and was immediately plugged in for former No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith at left tackle and started the rest of his career. Carpenter doesn't have elite athleticism. He might not be able to remain on the left side in the NFL, in fact, but he can come in and win a starting job right now and has the work ethic and physical toughness to start in this league for the next 10 years."
Rang also said that three different teams in the later first round were interested in Carpenter as the draft drew closer. Schneider, who don't seem to follow mock drafts and draft prognosticators all that closely, talked more about the rise based on game tape and postseason performances.
"It's been a little bit of a progression for him through the offseason, sure," Schneider said. "He helped himself a lot, and had a very solid season."
"This is a pick that we needed to make a move on," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said, echoing Schneider's thoughts. "We've watched this guy all along, and there were a number of other opportunities to do some other things we were investigating [speaking of possible trades]. But those didn't work out right for us, and that game us the chance to get James. He brings us a toughness that we need. We have to continue to build out football team up front, and this was a necessary move."
For a team that finished 28th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics for rushing offense, and suffered the highest percentage of plays in which their running backs were tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage (over one of four runs were held up at the line or ended in negative yardage), the thought of a nasty road-grader has to be an appealing thought. It's why Tom Cable was brought in — Pete Carroll remembered what Cable's Oakland running game did to his defense last season — and it's why the overall offensive concept is turning away from finesse, over to smashmouth.
As Cable himself said when asked about Carpenter's supposed reputation as a finesse tackle — "I wouldn't have taken him if he was a finesse player."
Not since the salad days of Steve Hutchinson have the Seahawks made such an obvious commitment to an offensive line that wins battles through sheer physical domination. Left tackle Russell Okung was the first peg in the 2010 draft; he responded by negating the likes of John Abraham and Julius Peppers. If Carpenter can respond to the Seahawks' faith in him with similar results, Carroll, Schneider and Cable will finally have the super-reinforced bookends they have desperately needed.