By John Boyle Herald Columnist
RENTON — Hit on one late-round draft pick, and you might have just been fortunate to see something other teams missed.
Do it over and over and over again, however, and something else is going on; something very unusual in a sport in which teams invest so much time and so many resources into making sure they get the draft right.
Yet somehow, despite the value all 32 NFL teams place on scouting, the Seattle Seahawks have repeatedly found late-round steals at cornerback. A position, by the way, that is highly valued in the league, meaning there shouldn’t be many bargains available.
Richard Sherman, that All-Pro cornerback who is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate? He was a fifth-round pick in 2011. Byron Maxwell, who is currently starting on the other side of Seattle’s defense, was taken one round later in that same draft, and Jeremy Lane, who is currently the team’s nickel corner, was a sixth-round pick in 2012. Maxwell and Lane, who until last month were Seattle’s fourth and fifth options at cornerback, are playing so well that it’s fair to wonder if the Seahawks’ secondary is playing even better since Brandon Browner (undrafted in 2005/signed out of the Canadian Football League in 2011) went down with a groin injury and Walter Thurmond (fourth-round pick) was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy (Browner has since also been suspended for a substance abuse violation).
So to sum all that up, the Seahawks assembled the league’s best and deepest group of cornerbacks by using a fourth-, fifth-, and two sixth-round picks and by signing a guy out of Canada. Oh, and they also released three-time Pro Bowl corner Antoine Winfield before the start of the season, as well as Will Blackmon, who has been a playmaker in Jacksonville’s secondary. How is that even possible?
“I would like to think that we have a real good style about us in the way we’re coaching and what we’ve done,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve done this for years. And you look back, there’s been a lot of corners that we’ve coached over the years that have done real well. And they’re all getting coached exactly the same way that they were years ago, so there’s a real formula to it. And fortunately we’ve drafted guys or acquired guys that could take to it.
“(Secondary coach Kris Richard) and (defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto) and I, we’ve been working on this for a long time. I’m not surprised by it, I’m just thrilled that we have the kind of depth that we have and the guys, with the challenges they’ve been faced with there, they nailed it. So hopefully we can keep going with it.”
To get the best out of a player, it takes good coaching; to find value in the draft, it takes good scouting and knowledge of what kind of player fits a team’s system. To consistently hit home runs on late-round picks? That takes an incredible combination of both.
Asked if it was more coaching or scouting that has led to Seattle’s considerable cornerback depth, Carroll fittingly answered, “Yes.”
It should hardly come a surprise that Carroll and his coaching staff are getting the most of out their cornerbacks. A safety during his playing days, Carroll made a name for himself early in his coaching career as defensive backs coach in Buffalo and Minnesota. Carroll and his assistants drill proper technique into their defensive backs, and their approach is one they’ve honed since Richard and Seto were assistants under Carroll at USC.
“It’s coaching,” said Maxwell, who has three interceptions in the last two games. “Coaching, the technique, getting guys to believe in it, that’s what it comes down to. Coach Richard, he does a great job coaching the technique, and you see it work. It’s not just coaching it, there’s got to be results, and there are results.”
Seattle’s scheme, which frequently has Earl Thomas playing as a single-high safety, is also a big part of the cornerbacks’ success, allowing cornerbacks to be aggressive knowing they have one of the game’s best and fastest safties serving as a security blanket behind them.
Yet as much as coaching and scheme help Seattle’s corners excel, perhaps just as important is the mental approach that instills confidence in everyone from an All-Pro like Sherman to a newly-signed member of the practice squad like Akeem Auguste.
“We need everybody,” said Richard, who played for the Seahawks from 2002-2005 and began his coaching career under Carroll at USC. “There are no weak links, and that’s something we decide on in our meeting room at the beginning before we start to play football. You know that old saying, ‘You’re only as strong as your weakest link.’ Well how about no weak links? How strong are you then? There’s no such thing as a weak link, you’re just waiting your turn. … Everybody is as important as the next man, because the next man is the best man.
“When you come in, you’re part of this group, you’re one of us. There are no letdowns. It doesn’t matter who’s out there, there are no letdowns. We’ve got to go out there and execute.”
And the Seahawks have been executing, even when their cornerback depth is tested. The Seahawks lead the league in interceptions and passing yards allowed, a feat only accomplished three times in the NFL, and two of those teams, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 1963 Chicago Bears, won titles. Seattle has also held opposing offense to 5.8 yards per pass attempt while limiting quarterbacks to a 65.5 passer rating, both of which lead the NFL by a considerable margin. A recent New York Times article, using net yards per attempt adjusted to the league average to account for the NFL’s increase in passing production, put the Seahawks as the fourth best pass defense since 1970. And again, that’s with a secondary full of late-round picks.
It seems shocking to anyone on the outside that the Seahawks could continue to thrive despite the loss of Browner and Thurmond, but nobody inside the locker room is surprised.
Ask Thomas how losing two key players has changed the defense, and he’ll simply tell you, “It hasn’t.”
“I’ve been saying it,” Thomas said. “I told you it was going to happen, because that’s just who we are, that’s the way we do it every day, that’s the way we practice, that’s the way we prepare, we have great coaching that stays on us.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.