Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lockout Hangover: Cornerback, Part 1

The secondary seems to be bearing out the same theme that defensive end did last year: Pete Carroll going all batty nutso with competition. The 90-man roster is glutted with defensive back prospects, and this time, there's actual intrigue as to how the roster will shake out. Thanks to Walter Thurmond's injury, the secondary may be wide open.


Marcus Trufant

The veteran starting corner will enjoy a ninth season in Seattle without becoming trade bait or asked to take a pay cut. It's a relief to see Seattle stop short in its shedding of veterans and keep some experience for stability, instead of sticking to the "youth movement" as dogma.

Still, Tru's play has been declining. He was a magnet for PI in 2009, which was partially the result of him covering so many #1 receivers who always draw favorable calls, but still seemed anomalous. He really seemed to lose a step in 2010. Anyone expecting Tru to ever return to his ballhawking 2007 form should probably put those dreams away, as that season was largely the result of a lot of bad QB's wilting under pressure and gifting him with interceptions.

But within that, Tru can still be a good, not great, player when healthy. He's stayed strong in run support (something PC wants from seemingly everyone on the roster) and remains one of the league's best open-field tacklers at the position. Both contributions are huge and shouldn't be underestimated.

Walter Thurmond

In my amateur eyes, Thurmond is the only guy on the roster that approaches a complete press corner. His physicality was questioned by a few scouts, but he has the straight-line speed to recover from tangles at the line and the coverage instincts (read and react, play recognition, ball skills) to make a difference afterward. He's also a good tackler, an unusually good run defender and has potential as a return man (yes, despite the Denver disaster).

Put simply, this defense badly needs Thurmond to get healthy. One reason is his potential. It's important to remember that Thurmond was never a mid-round prospect. He was getting tagged as a second-round pick before he destroyed all his ligaments. That injury was the only serious red flag. Beyond that, he was considered one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country, with a reputation as a ballhawk and big return guy.

The second reason is the amount Seattle has invested in Thurmond. They've been projecting him as 2011's #2 cornerback since he was drafted. They felt confident enough in that prognosis to jettison playmaker Josh Wilson for a paltry fifth-round draft pick (which eventually became Richard Sherman). They kept Kelly Jennings, whose value is mostly situational, to man the position so that Thurmond could develop. They've expended resources, quite a few at that, around the vision of him winning the #2 spot.

But it's becoming easier to wonder if he'll ever manage to stay healthy long enough to develop. Losing practice time to the lockout was bad enough. Now he's lost the entire first two weeks of camp to a lingering ankle problem, and didn't recover in time for San Diego as Carroll said he would. He looked lost at times in his rookie season and really needs the snaps to acclimate to game speed.


Kelly Jennings

There are some surprisingly good numbers in defense of Kelly Jennings. PFF says, stunningly enough, that he was one of the league's best at NOT giving up receptions - only 7.36% of his plays. What I would like to see is more context - specifically, the yardage he gave up on his receptions next to the rest of those guys. A CB can give up few receptions, but if every one of them is a big gain of enough magnitude to shift win probability, a low reception rate is kinda pointless. Those numbers might be inflated by others factors too - poor QB play in the NFC West, Seattle's generous use of the Bandit defense, and the coverage struggles of everyone else. Those possibilities are strengthened because they would explain the fact that Jennings wasn't thrown at much, either.

I'm trying not to fit guesses to my preconceptions, but it's hard to look at Jennings' tape and see a starting cornerback. He's just not hefty enough. He gets blocked aside far too often and is notorious for giving up the big play despite being glued to his receiver. Jimmy Clausen was given a game plan of "Just Target Kelly Jennings" and it worked well for him.

But Carroll does seem to see something. Perhaps it's a one-year stint as a dime back. Perhaps it's the effective coverage that Jennings does pull off against smaller receivers (which might further explain those PFF stats without justifying him as a starter). Perhaps Carroll is trying to give him more safety help than he's enjoyed in the past. Maybe it's just the familiarity Jennings has with the scheme and players that earned him an extension. I don't know.

Basically, the things Jennings does well (blanket coverage, shutting down smaller guys, long snapping) don't stack up against the things he struggles with (giving up game-changing deep balls despite that blanket coverage). It's often been said that Jennings has a confidence problem. I don't know if that's true. But for a one-year contract in a heavily specialized secondary, maybe Jennings isn't so bad?

Richard Sherman

An experienced press corner, the CB Seattle got with the Josh Wilson pick could be valuable. He's tall, aggressive, and aware of the ball. Camp watchers suggest he's smoother and more versatile than his scouting reports predicted - something that you don't always see associated with tall corners, which is why height isn't the end-all of good cornerback play. But Sherman, having a strong camp thus far, is being pushed by some as the ideal combination.

Many of Sherman's knocks in the draft were matters of technique. We'll have to wait and see him in a game situation before we figure out if he's really got all the tools. But with his strength and physicality, I'd be surprised if he didn't wind up a rotational player on this defense.

Brandon Browner

Browner seems like a slower Sherman. He was infamous in the CFL for his aggressiveness and his drawing of penalties. He's also done well in camp and has been tried out as a starter, but I have to ask - if he's a starter, how did he end up in the CFL? His story suggests he may have simply fallen on hard luck. Denver gave him a long, hard look right after the 2006 draft, but injury apparently kept him out of the pros at that time.

Browner is currently drawing raves in camp for his ball skills. He's repeatedly making knocking away passes thanks to his athleticism, awareness, long reach, and competitive streak. That's refreshing to see.

Byron Maxwell

Maxwell has only just started to make noise in camp. Commenter FWBrodie has called him the "physical and sturdy contrast to Browner/Sherman's tall and lanky." Scouting reports liked his speed but knocked his coverage abilities.

Camp fodder

Some decent special-teams ability here, but even though I expect Carroll to run with 6 DB's because that just sounds like him, there's only so much room. Cynical prediction: expect the draft picks to stick.

Kennard Cox

Jesse Hoffman

Ron Parker

Marcus Brown

This secondary is really, really young. As in embryonic. Carroll's defensive philosophy puts a lot of weight on the secondary, so they'll receive a lot of attention and development. But there really isn't a complete CB prospect anywhere on this roster. The skill sets are discrete, rarely overlapping. You've either got tall and physical, or your speedy and fluid, but not both. Combine Brandon Browner and Kelly Jennings and oh, what a playmaker you could have.

But individually, each has weaknesses that affect what Seattle can accomplish against the pass. Amateur explanation to come in Part 2 this afternoon.


  1. Good article. I would drop the self imposed "amateur" monicker, if I were you. It's pretty much amateurs in all directions. Some of the leading writers don't watch film and wouldn't learn from it if they did. Anyhow, reading your article, and taking into account Trufant's skill slide, and Thurmond's latest injury, the Hawks could be looking for two quality corners next draft. (As well as a franchise QB and DT). Meanwhile, pass the spackle.

  2. Thurmond had nothing to do with them trading away Wilson.

  3. Thurmond was one of the reasons they cited. There could have been a bit of over-valuing fifth-rounders thrown into the reasoning, too.

    Not that I'm even remotely interested in justifying that awful trade.

  4. I'm pretty sure they got marshawn lynch for that trade.I would say it was worth it.