RENTON — When Pete Carroll and John Schneider first began the process of rebuilding the Seahawks, the general manager painted a picture for the head coach.
Someday, Schneider explained, the Seahawks’ roster will be so deep that cutting down to 53 players will be incredibly difficult, and many of those who are released will quickly find work elsewhere.
Obviously that wasn’t the case right off the bat. In fact, the Seahawks spent most of the 2010 season overhauling their roster by bringing in other teams’ castoffs, making a whopping 284 roster moves that year.
But eventually the Seahawks built a roster with the depth Schneider desired, and that was never more evident than the team Seattle had in training camp in 2013, and in particular at one position: cornerback.
And while that was more than a year ago, Seattle’s cornerback and overall depth are a relevant topic now for two reasons. For starters, on Sunday the Seahawks will face the Kansas City Chiefs and starting cornerback Ron Parker, who has been a star on their defense this year, and who was released by the Seahawks before the start of last season.
And secondly, as injuries pile up and Seattle’s depth is tested, this year’s team compared to last year’s provides a great example of how hard it is to maintain the talent level Seattle had in 2013.
This season, Seattle’s top cornerbacks are Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon. Those four were all in camp last season, though Simon was injured, as were Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond, Parker, Will Blackmon and Antoine Winfield.
Look at that list one more time: Sherman, Maxwell, Lane, Simon, Browner (now with New England), Thurmond (New York Giants), Parker, Blackmon (Jacksonville) and Winfield. Four are key players for the current Seahawks, and the rest all have starting or significant roles on their current teams, or did before suffering injuries. All, that is, except Winfield, who came to Seattle as a three-time Pro Bowler in free agency, but retired when he realized he likely wasn’t even going to make the roster out of camp.
“It’s incredible; in my time here, we’ve seen a lot of guys and a lot of them are still starting in this league, and I think that’s a testament to the development and the talent that we have and also to the kind of work ethic and talent that those guys have and everything that they were able to do,” said Sherman, who himself began his Seahawks career as third-string developmental prospect before blossoming into the best cornerback in the game. “All of them come from pretty tough spots — Ron Parker was undrafted and played safety then had to move to corner, and had a back and forth career up until that point. Then it end up coming in handy at Kansas City because he’s been able to play both and he’s been able to stay on the field and that’s exciting.”
Indeed Parker’s versatility, a trait that was in part honed in Seattle, has helped him and the Chiefs this season. Parker has started games at safety and cornerback this year while also contributing on special teams, and is coming off of huge game against Buffalo that saw him force a fumble at the goal line to save one score, then break up three passes in the red zone late in the game to help the Chiefs preserve a lead and improve to 6-3.
“Gosh, he’s played over 500 plays this year, that’s fantastic for Ron,” Carroll said. “He’s a great kid. He always was in the competition of everything we’ve done here, and we knew he had a great future. We always tried to keep him around; we just had some really good guys battling with him. I’ve watched him closely and he’s playing really good football.”
It’s no secret that the Seahawks have been great at finding and developing late-round gems at cornerback. From Sherman, a fifth-round pick, to Browner, who was signed out of Canada, to sixth-rounders Lane and Maxwell, the Seahawks have, through an impressive combination of scouting and coaching, filled their roster — and now those of other teams — with starting corners while never using a pick at that position higher than the fourth-rounder they used to select Thurmond.
Yet even though we have known for a while how good Carroll and his assistants — Kris Richard and Rocky Seto in particular — are at developing cornerbacks, it’s still crazy to go back and look at that list from last year’s training camp.
“We knew that was a special team,” Maxwell said. “We all knew we had the capability to win a Super Bowl. We knew it was a special group. That made you better. Going against those guys, you knew you had to be on top of your game every day.”
And it wasn’t just the cornerbacks who survived cut day that benefited from that competition. Quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers frequently mention how much it helps them to play against one of the league’s top defenses, and that was never truer than in training camp last year, when facing the third-string defense meant facing a future NFL starter.
“It made you better every day, that’s for sure,” said receiver Bryan Walters. “Wherever else you go, you’re not going to find a better group than that. You have to be on your game every day or you’re going to get embarrassed out there. A lot of those guys are starting other places. It just shows the depth we had there. Having been on a couple other teams, I could notice a difference, hands down. It helped me a ton going against those guys.”
And of course it wasn’t just Seattle’s cornerback depth last year that was astonishing. Of the players who were on Seattle’s 90-man roster at camp and didn’t survive the final round of cuts, 21 of them found work on other teams’ 53-man rosters at some point last season, and again, that doesn’t include the retired Winfield.
As injuries pile up this season, the Seahawks have had to frequently scramble to find replacements — anybody remember Josh Thomas playing cornerback for a little bit? Will Tukuafu, a fullback recently brought in from San Francisco, might get reps with the defensive line this week. Last year the Seahawks’ line depth meant a seven-man rotation of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald, plus occasional pass-rushing help from Bruce Irvin and O’Brien Schofield.
That the Seahawks aren’t as deep this year is both a testament to the roster Schneider and Carroll built leading up to last season, and also to the realities of the NFL’s salary cap, which made it impossible for the Seahawks to keep Bennett, extend Sherman and Earl Thomas, and still keep some of the players who left in free agency or were released in cost-cutting moves.
Despite some early hiccups, the 2014 Seahawks still have the talent to make the playoffs and do big things when they get there, but as a certain playmaking cornerback for the Chiefs demonstrates, they may never match the top-to-bottom talent they had in camp last summer.
Herald Columnist John Boyle: email@example.com