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Originally published Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Tim Ruskell's legacy at stake in NFL draft

With the No. 4 overall pick, Seahawks GM needs to make the right call.

Seattle Times staff columnist

More intensely than ever, the spotlight is on Tim Ruskell this weekend. This is the draft that will define him. This is the pick for which he will be most remembered in Seattle. This is the selection he can't get wrong.

This choice trumps all other decision he has made in his four seasons as the Seahawks' general manager. This is the pick that will determine his legacy in this town.

This selection, the fourth overall in the draft, has to hit. Make the wrong move and it could economically cripple the franchise.

Get it right and he will be a star. Get it wrong and he could be remembered with the same grumbling anger as the Mariners' Bill Bavasi and the Sonics' Wally Walker.

Hero? Or goat? This is Tim Ruskell's draft.

The report card on the Ruskell years is a mixed bag of A's, B's and D's.

It is fair to say the Seahawks wouldn't have made it to the 2006 Super Bowl without the moves made by Ruskell in his first season as Seahawks GM.

He traded up in the '05 draft to pick Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the second round. At the time it was a controversial move. It turned out brilliantly.

Ruskell also did what he does best in that first year here. He signed an underappreciated defensive lineman, Chuck Darby, who anchored the Hawks' defensive middle.

There also have been the mistakes, none worse than the catastrophe of Steve Hutchinson.

After the Super Bowl, Ruskell allowed left guard Hutchinson to leave for Minnesota. The Hawks wasted two years looking for Hutchinson's replacement, before signing Mike Wahle, a solid guard but no Hutch, before last season.

In the second week of the '06 regular season he traded a first-round pick to New England for wide receiver Deion Branch, who has been hurt more often than he's been helpful. I thought it was the right move at the time. Remember how upset the Patriots' players were after the trade was made?

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But it hasn't worked.

Ruskell also hasn't distinguished himself with his previous first-round Seahawks draft picks — center Chris Spencer in 2005, cornerback Kelly Jennings in '06 and pass rusher Lawrence Jackson last year.

Although none of them have been busts, neither have they been game-breakers. They also came lower in the first round, where the guarantees are fewer.

Ruskell has been at his best in the draft's other rounds, taking linebacker Leroy Hill and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane in the third round and, last season, picking tight end John Carlson in the second.

But this pick will be his albatross, or his halo. He will forever be identified with the choice. It's boom or bust time in Seattle.

This should be his wheelhouse pick. He grew up in this game as a scout and talent evaluator. He sold the Tampa Bay Bucs on the virtues of safety John Lynch, then sold Lynch on the idea of playing football instead of baseball.

The Bucs drafted Lynch in the third round in 1993, and he was a leader on their Super Bowl XXXVII winner.

Ruskell also lobbied for Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, taken in the third round of the 1997 draft. On the other side of the argument, he was part of the Bucs' staff that chose quarterback Trent Dilfer with the sixth pick of the '94 draft.

Ruskell has been a wizard at finding talent deep in the draft. But now we need to see that same wizardry at the draft's upper end.

The party line at Hawks headquarters states that last season's 4-12 record was an aberration, a function of the calamitous injury avalanche. If that's true, this pick can help the Hawks recover immediately. It will validate their belief that '08 was a fluke.

But if the pick is a bust, it almost assures the Hawks of a couple of seasons of rebuilding.

"We have needs, not priorities," Ruskell said late last week.

The Hawks have needs everywhere — defensive line and cornerback, to name a couple. They don't have a spot on the field that isn't a need. In other words, Ruskell has a blank slate of possibilities.

If he picks a wide receiver, either Michael Crabtree or Jeremy Maclin, and that pick becomes the next Larry Fitzgerald, Seattle will be deeper and much younger at that position.

If he chooses a left tackle, which is unlikely, the Hawks won't be as concerned about Walter Jones' health.

And if he gets lucky and Aaron Curry falls to them, the Seahawks could have a monstrous linebacking corps of Tatupu, Hill and Curry. They could give Curry this season to mature, then make a decision on whether to trade Hill (after this season).

And, if he chooses quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is rocketing up mock draft lists, Ruskell had better hope he's right and also pray that incumbent QB Matt Hasselbeck stays healthy for two more years, allowing Sanchez time to grow.

The only redeeming value of a 4-12 season is the excitement it generates on draft day.

In Seattle the buzz has begun. It's only April, but it's already game time for Tim Ruskell.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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