The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Schneider built the Seahawks a Super Bowl roster. He’s starting again with the 2018 draft.

John Schneider has been the Seahawks’ General Manager since 2010. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

RENTON, Wash. John Schneider’s second-floor office has a stunning view of Lake Washington, which rests alongside three plush, green practice fields on the Seattle Seahawks’ 200,000-square-foot waterfront facility.

But the inside view of his office gets much more of his attention, particularly this time of year. On one wall he has a board with the history of every draft pick he has made since taking over as the Seahawks’ general manager in 2010. He can look over at the start of his rebuilding effort with the selections of safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor his first year and cornerback Richard Sherman his second year, creating the defensive backfield that would come to be known as the Legion of Boom. He can revisit the pivotal 2012 draft, which delivered linebacker Bobby Wagner in the second round and franchise quarterback Russell Wilson in the third, fueling the team’s rise to NFL contender and, a season later, Super Bowl champion.

That’s why this all-purpose office is Schneider’s sanctuary. In the lead-up to the seven-round NFL draft, which begins Thursday, he goes through full-day meetings with scouts and coaches to put his board of prospects in order. But in the end, Schneider has to make the final decisions on which players to select.

So, 2½ days before each draft, he retreats to his office for silent reflection, ensuring there are no distractions.

“I can lock the door,” Schneider says. “It’s awesome.”

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Schneider, at 46 still one of the league’s younger general managers, has spent almost half of his professional career turning those quiet moments into bold decisions. His Seattle tenure has been defined by the assembly of the 2013 championship team that had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, and his gamble on a 5-foot-11 quarterback in Wilson, who is second only to Tom Brady in winning percentage among quarterbacks since entering the league.

But even as Schneider personifies what it means to find success in the field of NFL roster-building, he also can serve as a reminder for how demanding and cyclical the league can be. In the years following Super Bowl appearances in the 2013 and 2014 seasons (the Seahawks infamously came within one yard of beating the New England Patriots for a repeat title in the second), the Seahawks have lost twice in the second round of the playoffs before missing the postseason altogether last year for the first time in seven seasons.

The combination of an aging roster with highly paid players who were once overachieving bargains has put the team in a challenging position, and this offseason saw the departures of five defenders who had appeared in a Pro Bowl, including franchise icon Sherman.

The upcoming draft provides another critical opportunity for Schneider to restock the team and return it to contender status.

“John is excellent at what he does. He’s got a very level head and he’s cognizant of all the challenges,” said Bill Polian, the former general manager of the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts who is now an ESPN analyst. “John is in a high-level game, but he is very good at it.”

Long, winding road

Schneider’s NFL career began in 1993 as a scout for the Green Bay Packers, and after a three-year run with the Kansas City Chiefs and one-year stops each with the Seahawks and Washington Redskins, Schneider returned to Green Bay from 2002 to 2009, ascending to the role of director of football operations.

In January 2010, he took over as the Seahawks GM, joining Pete Carroll, the team’s newly hired head coach. Schneider, who had been taught to trust the draft board by former Packers and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, and the essentials of hard work and discipline from former Packers GM Ron Wolf, learned from Carroll the importance of getting inside the soul of a player.

“It comes back to who the person is at their core, and how important football is to them,” Schneider said. “What kind of goals do they have? Do they want to be great, or are they just going to be happy to be there? Do they want to be a starting player or do they want to be a Hall of Famer? What puts them over the top?”

Perhaps no player personified that philosophy more than Sherman, who this summer signed with the division rival San Francisco 49ers after being released by Seattle. Coming out of Stanford, Sherman wasn’t fast, but he was tall with long arms. More importantly, he wanted to be the best.

“Richard would tell you he ran faster than he did, but he had a chip on his shoulder,” Schneider said. “We are constantly looking for guys with a chip on their shoulder and have something to prove. We know how important football was to Richard.”

Schneider drafted Sherman with the 154th overall pick in the 2011 draft. During his seven years in Seattle, Sherman played at a Hall of Fame level. Despite injuries, he rarely missed games. In practices, he challenged teammates to beat him. Like most of the rest of the league, they couldn’t.

Sherman was representative of many of Schneider’s successes as an evaluator in that he was an undervalued talent. Most of the team’s significant contributors during his tenure had been overlooked in some capacity. Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-round picks. Wilson fell to the third round. Doug Baldwin went undrafted in 2011, before signing a free agent deal with Seattle after Schneider wrote him a handwritten letter.

Some of this is enabled by Schneider’s overall approach to drafting. While other general managers sit and wait for the picks to come to them, or occasionally give up draft capital to move up for a player, Schneider is one of the most aggressive GMs in the league at trading down.

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“It’s the more the merrier with draft choices,” Schneider said. “No matter how many of these guys you take, you are not going to be right all the time. These guys are human beings.”

In last year’s draft, Seattle picked up four additional choices in a series of deals that moved them from the No. 26 overall selection back to No. 35. This year, the Seahawks own the No. 18 pick in the first round, and, particularly because they are without their second- and third-rounders because of trades for veterans made last year, it’s a safe assumption that they’ll look to move back and pick up some additional picks if they can.

“What history would tell you is that from [picks Nos.] 18 to 20 in the first round to 40 [in the second], you are getting the same player,” Schneider said. “So why not try to move back and acquire more players?”

Occasional missteps

The strategy of trading down isn’t always perfect, however, and the draft process has a way of humbling even the more successful NFL decision-makers. The player the Seahawks chose with the 35th pick last year, Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell, missed his entire rookie season following an ATV accident in July, and it’s unclear if he’ll play football again.

The 2013 and 2014 draft classes were leaner than the team’s hauls in other years, and the player for which the Seahawks dealt away this year’s second-round pick, defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, departed in free agency. One of the team’s few remaining veteran stars, Thomas, has been associated with trade rumors over the course of the last year. The defense will look very different given the departures of Sherman and defensive end Michael Bennett, and the uncertain health status of Chancellor (neck).

It could be argued that the Seahawks and Schneider became victims of their own drafting success. Players who were once undervalued bargains on rookie contracts soon had to be compensated with high-paying extensions, and the grind of postseason play wore down and aged a roster once loaded with young talent — the Seahawks’ 53-man Super Bowl roster was the youngest to ever win a championship.

“When you are in the playoffs every year for [six] years, you play so many more games than the rest of the league,” Polian said. “Players who have been at that level for that long a period may [have as much wear and tear as] a player who has been around eight or nine years. They are more prone to injuries. You have to deal with injuries. You have to deal with the [salary] cap.”

All of that might begin to feel insurmountable for some teams. But Schneider’s colleagues say he is uniquely suited to handle a roster reboot such as the one facing Seattle — in part because he is optimistic about many of the young players who will be stepping into bigger roles, and in part because he is willing to admit he doesn’t have all the answers.

“What makes John’s style so successful is that he is a relentless worker, has a great eye for talent and most importantly is an egoless leader,” said Dan Morgan, the Seahawks’ director of pro personnel. “He understands how to surround himself with people who are different than himself and use his or her area of expertise to make smart, informative decisions. His biggest saying is ‘nobody has all the answers,’ and that ‘we are on a constant search for knowledge.’ ”

There is one position that matters most in the NFL, and the ability to find a quarterback often determines how long a general manager is able to keep his job. That’s why, of all of Schneider’s Seattle draft picks, none have been as significant as his selection of Wilson in 2012.

Schneider grew up in Wisconsin, and so he always pays particular attention to the Badgers’ football team, which in 2011 welcomed Wilson as a transfer from North Carolina State. Schneider was on hand to watch Wilson outduel Michigan State and quarterback Kirk Cousins in a Big Ten championship win for the Badgers, and then at the Senior Bowl All-Star Game the following January, the Seahawks invited Wilson to meet with them.

“We wanted to see if the confidence and swagger were real,” Schneider said. “After the combine, we backed off and kept track of him.”

The Seahawks were sold on Wilson and didn’t attend his pre-draft workout at Wisconsin in part to avoid other teams becoming aware of their interest. They had signed Matt Flynn in free agency and didn’t appear to be in need of a quarterback.

During the 2 1/2 days before the draft, Schneider locked himself in his office and tried to find the right place for Wilson on the team’s draft board. The talent checked all the boxes. If extra work was needed, Wilson would put in the effort and fix problems. But his height, at just under 5-foot-11, was a major concern. There isn’t another starting quarterback in the NFL under 6 feet.

“If he wasn’t a shorter quarterback, he would have been taken at the top of the draft,’’ Schneider said.

Schneider studied the second and the third rounds for other teams who might be looking to draft a quarterback, and determined Wilson could fall to Seattle in the third.

“[Schneider] has an uncanny ability to determine where other teams will draft, which enables us to maximize our value,” said Trent Kirchner, Seattle’s co-director of player personnel.

As the Seahawks were wrapping up the selection of linebacker Wagner in the second round, Schneider started thinking about Wilson. “We figured there was enough room for Russell to make it to us,” he said.

With the 75th overall pick of the 2012 draft, Wilson became a Seahawk. Two years later, they were Super Bowl champs.

“[Former NFL GM] Mike Lombardi used to say it’s much more difficult to repeat than it is to win the first time,” Polian said. “But John has Russell Wilson, and a quarterback is someone who can keep you winning while you rebuild the roster. You just have to be savvy.”

John Clayton is a longtime NFL reporter who worked for ESPN’s television networks and website from 1995 to 2017. He is a host for 710 ESPN Radio in Seattle and his weekly podcast.

Read the complete ‘Road to the NFL’ series:

Part 1: Part job fair, part spring break trip, part time warp: Welcome to the NFL’s weirdest week

Part 2: NFL draft analysis is a cottage industry — and everyone wants to join the neighborhood

Part 3: ‘Super agents’ rep 75 percent of NFL players. It’s a competitive fight to sign the rest.

Part 4: For NFL hopefuls, the exhaustive draft process can ‘seem like horse trading’