Recipe for Seahawks' elite secondary: coaching, scouting and chemistry
Genna Martin / The Herald
Seattle cornerback Jeremy Lane (left) defends against Chicago's Brandon Marshall (15) during a recent preseason game. Lane was picked in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Genna Martin / The Herald
Richard Sherman (25) and Byron Maxwell (41), Seattle’s starting cornerbacks, were picked in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, of the 2011 NFL draft.
Over and over again the Seahawks add a cornerback to their roster with a late-round draft pick, and over and over again that player turns out to be a star or a starter or at the very least a dependable backup.
Of course, everyone knows All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman was a fifth-round pick (No. 154 overall, he loves to remind you). And this year's starter on the other side of the field is Byron Maxwell, a sixth-round pick in that same 2011 NFL draft who — it's easy now to forget — actually was ahead of Sherman on the depth chart as a rookie.
Nickel corner Jeremy Lane was a sixth-round pick, and top backup Tharold Simon, one of the bright spots in this year's camp after missing last season because of injuries, was a fifth-rounder. Just for good measure, let's throw in Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor, a fifth-round pick, and Seattle's backup safeties Jeron Johnson and DeShawn Shead, both undrafted, and the league's best secondary is made up of one first-round pick, Earl Thomas, and a bunch of guys other teams passed over.
So what's going on here? It's one thing to strike gold on a late round pick, but how do the Seahawks keep finding quality cornerbacks late in the draft year after year? Is it coaching, is it scouting, is it something else?
The short answer is, yes. It's all of that.
"I don't think it's one thing; I think it's a combination of a lot of things," Maxwell said. "I think it's the leaders we've got in the room, I think it's great coaching. Coach (Kris) Richard makes sure everyone's attention to detail is where it needs to be — his attention to detail is second to none, and he played the position so he understands what it takes. ... And you've got to have the right attitude. That has to be right, you have to come ready to work every day."
Finding an overlooked cornerback who can become an NFL star begins with general manager John Schneider and his scouting department knowing what kind of player is the right fit in Seattle. Part of that is physical — candidates must have long arms, and for an outside cornerback, height helps, as does speed, though not all of Seattle's corners run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. But a big part of scouting is also the process of, as Schneider likes to describe it, "knowing what's in a man's heart." There's an attitude that is a must for Seahawks corners. They don't all have to be as boisterous as Richard Sherman, but they all need to be comfortable playing aggressive, press coverage.
"I know we look for guys who kind of fit a profile," said Richard, Seattle's secondary coach. "Those guys certainly have fit the profile in regards to their mentality and how they want to challenge wide receivers at the line of scrimmage down after down. You start with that mentality, then coaches can take someone, teach them a few things, and you'll end up with a finished product. ... Mentality more times than not is going to overcome ability. It's what's in your heart."
Even Thomas, the lone first-round pick and the most physically gifted player in Seattle's secondary, understands what makes the players on either side of him tick.
"I think the main reason is the understanding of how powerful your mind is," Thomas said. "When you get around greatness, you want to be great. When you're around greatness and you're around this positive talk, it's like, man, if you think you can be the best, you can be the best."
Coaching, too, plays a big role, and that starts at the very top. That's evident in the fact that Seattle's cornerbacks all have spent a decent amount of time in Seattle's system before breaking out. Even Sherman, a two-time first-team All-Pro, was a third-stringer as a rookie before injuries forced him into action. These aren't players who arrive in Seattle NFL-ready, but rather talented, motivated and moldable athletes who Pete Carroll and company shape into a finished product. While Richard and defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto are crucial in the development of Seattle's corners, it all starts with Carroll, a former defensive back who has long been considered a secondary guru.
"I think it starts with philosophy and commitment to what we're trying to get done," Carroll said. "We have a very deep, longstanding commitment — I've been coaching in this style since the mid-80s, the technique and all of that. Kris has done a fantastic job of making sense to these young guys and bringing them through the process where they become system guys for us. But it's not a cookie-cutter thing, because they all have different talents. Just look at the different style of athletes — (Richard Sherman) has got an absolutely unique style that he plays — but the foundation and the fundamentals of it go way back, and Kris and Rocky have done a fantastic job of always cultivating the talent. We just need guys to come in and give themselves to us, and we know we can coach 'em up. We've been doing it for a long time."
And for a long time it has been working. When the website FootballPerspective.com came up with a formula last year to rank pass defenses, the 2013 Seahawks ranked as the fourth best since 1950. No. 2 on that list was the 1988 Minnesota Vikings, who employed a young defensive backs coach by the name of Pete Carroll. And last year when Thomas, Chancellor and Sherman each earned All-Pro honors, it made the Seahawks one of just three teams in NFL history to have three defensive backs earn first- or second-team Associated Press All-Pro honors in the same season. One of the other two was the 1995 San Francisco 49ers, whose defensive coordinator was, you guessed it, Carroll.
So coaching has a lot to do with Seattle's ability to consistently turn late-round picks into productive cornerbacks. But again, so does scouting the right athletes and the mental makeup of those athletes.
"Coaching, scouting, chemistry," Maxwell said. "It's a lot of things."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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