Earl Thomas is 22 years old and is arguably the most valuable safety in the league. I say "most valuable" instead of "best" because his instincts, elite first step, and closing speed allow Seattle to play cover-1 more often and at a higher level than any other team in the league. This gives us a ton of schematic freedom and has especially helped emphasize Kam Chancellor's strengths.
Despite only two interceptions in 2011, it was clear how special ET is. His range is unmatched and he showed significantly more discipline than in 2010 when he was trying to jump every route under the sun (or clouds or dome). In the season ending presser, Pete Carroll even diverged from the question to comment on the strides ET took from year one to year two.
Earl Thomas is irreplaceable. If injury had befallen him last year then we would have seen a much different trend than the emerging defense we saw. Earl has proven remarkably durable thus far but his small stature and physicality mean injuries a disturbingly likely possibility. Our front office appeared well aware of the situation when they drafted Mark Legree out of Appalachian State in the sixth round of last year's draft.
As with any small school prospect, there's a larger degree of unknown entering training camp and Legree did not quite deliver. He wasn't bad but was beaten out by Jeron Johnson out of Boise State, who is ET's current back-up. Johnson is athletic and particularly well known for his jarring hits. However, his coverage skills are undeveloped and he really struggles with hip fluidity.
Johnson is at his best playing downhill. Even if his coverage skills improve, I would not be comfortable leaving him in cover-1 very often. Johnson could turn out as a career special teamer and might fit better at strong safety anyway. It is easy to see why Legree was the more attractive option entering the draft. The hope was that Legree could play some center field and free up Thomas for more creative uses. Oh well.
As irreplaceable as ET is, finding a suitable back-up is a must and we could also use that player in the deep middle to free up Earl for assignments closer to the LOS. I suspect we will again pick a free safety at some point in the draft. Thomas, Legree, and Johnson are all undersized, fast, physical, and instinctive. The players on this list will be of a similar ilk but with a greater emphasis on coverage since that is Johnson's weakness.
Leonard Johnson (5-10 198) Senior from Iowa State
When I watch Leonard Johnson, I see a less instinctive Earl Thomas. His balance, footwork, and compact frame give him an impressive burst when closing on the ball. He's also physical and tackles better than you'd expect from a guy his size. He will stick with receivers but can draw penalties past five yards and only has average ball skills.
With Johnson in for Thomas, I think we could run essentially the same scheme we are now without much ill-effect. Having both on the field at once would make any QB nervous. He's listed as a corner but I feel he could switch to safety without much trouble. He would definitely command snaps as a nickel back right away.
If Johnson slips to our pick in the third then it wouldn't surprise me if we snag him. Here is a scouting report and below you can watch him
try to defend Justin Blackmon.
Janzen Jackson (5-11 189) Junior from McNeese State
Janzen Jackson was a rising star at Tennessee until he was dismissed from the team prior to the 2011 season, reportedly due to multiple failed drug tests. The tape doesn't lie though. He is fluid and fast and anticipates the play. He's not a reliable tackler but he contains well in the open field and will lower his shoulder if the opportunity is there.
Jackson's coverage, range, and versatility could make him an appealing prospect for us. We've been willing to overlook drug issues in the past and this could mean landing him at a bargain price somewhere in the middle rounds. Jackson has all the talent to be a second round pick but I don't see much chance of that happening given his history.
Below you can watch him against Kentucky in 2010. Note: Randall Cobb is difficult to tackle.
Coryell Judie (5-11 190) RS Senior from Texas A&M
Coryell Judie is a tremendous athlete who didn't start playing football until his Senior year of high school. He's raw but shows a natural feel for coverage and some spectacular ball skills. He's physical in man but can get panicky and will lose steps to the receiver. Judie is much better with his eyes in the backfield reading the QB and attacking. This is what suggests to me he could make the switch from corner to safety.
Judie is a project but he his athleticism, instincts, range, and ball skills could make him an undertaking well worth while. In the mean time he's shown some ability as a return man and is aggressive enough to contribute on kick coverage. The Seahawks won't be able to pick Judie knowing he can play safety. It would have to be a wait-and-see situation but given his skill set, I think he would take to it nicely.
Here is a scouting report and below you can see a short highlight video.
Omar Bolden (5-10 195) RS Senior from Arizona State
Omar Bolden has a sturdy build, explosive speed, and fluid hips. Like Johnson and Judie, Bolden is a corner who I am guessing could move to safety. He looks very comfortable playing off the line and will close on the receive in a flash. His footwork and balance need work but he has all the potential to cover the entire field from the deep middle.
The Seahawks could start Bolden from day one in the nickel and he could also return kicks if need be. Bolden tore his ACL prior to the 2011 season and this could prompt a fall down the boards. Knee injuries are another area of concern our front office haven't shied away from. Pac-12 connection should also be considered.
Here is a scouting report and below you can watch him against California in 2010.
Justin Bethel (5-11 196) Senior from Presbyterian
Justin Bethel has experience at both safety and corner. He seems like an all-around, solid DB to me. He's long limbed and sturdy, fast and fluid, instinctive and quick. I wonder about his ability to play corner because he looks uncertain of himself running with a receiver - slow to get his head around and often loses pace in the process. That is a recipe for being picked on at the next level.
Bethel should be able to man the slot pretty well though and his experience at safety would give us another option back there. It's also worth noting that he reportedly showed well at the East West Shrine Game week of practice. He has some upside and a well rounded game so don't be surprised if we take a shot on another small school DB late in the draft.
Below you can watch an interview with him which includes some scattered highlights in the background.
Big thanks as usual to DraftBreakdown for the excellent scouting videos they put together. If it wasn't for their hard, unheralded and humble work, we'd be forced to watch those godawful horrible highlight videos with terrible soundtracks all day. So, thanks to Aaron Aloysius, JMPasq, JPDraftJedi, TTN2810, MARI0clp and the whole DraftBreakdown crew.