The Seahawks, rather surprisingly, showed some solid depth at the cornerback position this season with the emergence of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman after Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond both went down. Browner and Sherman likely locked up the 'starter' designations going into next season by playing solidly this year and I would guess both go into camp with 'their job to lose'.
In 2011, Browner played every game, nearly every snap - after coming south from Canada and the CFL, and Sherman came in in relief of both Trufant and Thurmond and probably flashed the most potential of any corner on the team.
To play corner in this defense requires a certain mindset. First and foremost, you have to be physical, almost to the point where you're just trolling the opposing receiver. Browner displayed physicality in spades, regularly - I mean, really, pretty much every single game - getting in little tiffs with the opposing receivers, jawing, the occasional suplex body slam. I've been a fan of Browner since the day I found out he existed. For whatever reason, his size and speed intrigued me and I thought he might make a great corner/safety tweener that could come in on nickel situations and contribute. I did not, however, see him as the team's starting right cornerback and certainly didn't think he'd go to the Pro Bowl.
Now, there were some arguments on whether he should have even been included on that team or not and those are valid - I'm not here to dispute that at the moment but I do think that Browner excelled, considering the circumstances, at what he was asked to do, particularly as the season went on. I don't take Pro Football Focus' studies as gospel by any means, but a couple of their articles this offseason have shed some light on Browner as a player.
First off - Browner got off to a bad start. That's putting it mildy. He got off to a wretched start. In week 2, Browner had what PFF called one of the ten worst games by a cornerback in the past four seasons. He 'gave up' 10 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown, and - in a telling statistic of the game - "surrendered a catch every single time he was targeted." He couldn't keep up with Pittsburgh's speedy receivers and clearly looked rattled as the Steelers continued to pick on him throughout the duration of the game. And when I say pick on him, I mean, they essentially abandoned a balanced offense and went into the huddle and said "ok, we're just going to pass to whoever that Browner guy is guarding." Unfortunately, it worked in that game.
At that point in the season I remember people saying to me that he should be cut immediately. I wasn't particularly stoked on Browner at that time, but remained hopeful he could excel in what he really was brought in to do - match up with the big, physical receivers of the NFC West in particular, and re-route and manhandle at the line. Disrupt timing throws. Play strong on the edge against the run. Contain.
Throughout the season, he did this respectfully well. After that Pittsburgh game, he settled down and settled in, and became dependable at worst and even pretty great in some situations. The big plays over the top were cut down drastically - yes, he did surrender an over-the-top touchdown late versus the Redskins that hurt, a lot - but big plays happen and even some of the better corners get burnt from time to time. It's a really, really hard position to play.
Regardless, Browner came into his own. He began to jam at the line more effectively, he began to anticipate a little bit better. He's not going to win footraces with some of the elite receivers but again, he held his own, limited big plays, and tackled well. Which brings me to my second PFF post, this time on "Tackling Cornerbacks." According to their charting, Browner logged 1021 snaps and had 55 tackle attempts in coverage and against the run. According to their numbers, he only missed three tackles the entire year and that trio were in pass coverage. Importantly, particularly in this defense, according to that charting, Brandon Browner didn't miss a tackle in run support the entire year. That's pretty huge, actually.
On the other side, Richard Sherman came out of the gate at full-speed, taunting and trash talking from the get-go. Sometimes you loved it, sometimes you didn't. I love a good trash talker - I mean, my favorite athlete all time is probably Gary Payton - but there's a fine line between being awesome and being annoying. Taunting whilst standing over a player after making a great play in the redzone, leading to a flag and new set of downs for the opposing team is annoying. Getting in the head of opposing receivers and taking them out of their game is awesome. Sherman toed the line separating the two this year but you certainly can call me a fan. He appears to have, still, a lot of room for improvement and refinement after only a few years at the position, so his natural ability to turn his hips while running and head while the ball is in the air make him a very exciting prospect.
Sherman was the only member of the Seahawks secondary to not make the Pro Bowl this season but arguably has the greatest potential of the four, after Earl Thomas. Like Browner, he shows a lot of physicality in run support and tackling, frequently upending running backs or pass catchers. He should be a mainstay for years to come.
Past Browner and Sherman another high-potential player for the Seahawks is Walter Thurmond. Walt not only sports a sick 90's era fade, he backs it up with solid coverage and run support and lightning fast reaction times. I see Thurmond as an ideal small nickel coverage cornerback that can also move to the outside against certain teams that feature smaller receiver units. I don't know if Carroll would really do this much - he stuck with Browner in Pittsburgh even though he was getting smoked, but then again Carroll has shown the willingness to adapt his players to certain situations.
Thurmond is the antidote to the Mike Wallaces, Kyle Williamses, and DeSean Jacksons of the NFL and should have a solid place on this roster moving forward, if he can stay healthy. He was an injury risk to start, as they drafted him after he had suffered a pretty bad ACL injury at Oregon, and he's had his issues since. Hopefully in more limited snaps he can stay healthy through a season and contribute more frequently in the defense. It will be interesting to see what the Seahawks do with their pass defense next season after relying overwhelmingly on their base package in 2011.
The big question mark is obviously Marcus Trufant and is broken out into three prongs - a) his role, b) his contract, and a big c) his back. With the emergence of Browner, Sherman and hopefully Thurmond, Trufant becomes more expendable. The Hawks are looking to get younger and a veteran with a huge contract and bad back as a backup is not super... necessary? Further, the Hawks haven't shown a reticence to drop big-name players here in Seattle and rarely rely on past accomplishments for settling their roster. It remains a big question as to whether Trufe will be back.
Kennard Cox is purely a special teams ace. He does his job well. He was cut last season after camp, I believe, and then brought back after the San Francisco special teams debacle. If one of the younger guys - Byron Maxwell or Ron Parker, can prove to be reliable in special teams, I would guess they'd trump Cox, but that is a big 'if.'
Roy Lewis, in my mind, is essentially Walter Thurmond's backup. If WT3 can't go or gets hurt again, Lewis becomes a go-to guy. That said, with the youth, athleticism, and speed at the CB position on this roster, I could see Lewis becoming a casualty.
Byron Maxwell might be a great nickel cornerback and special teams contributor for the Seahawks going forward. He also might not be. He probably won't be a starting cornerback for this team. There are still a lot of question marks with Maxwell because he hasn't really played much, and when he has played, mostly on special teams, he's just gotten a lot of penalties. He's got a lot of potential though, and he'd be on a short list for me of players to really watch in training camp. If he can cut down on mental mistakes, stay healthy, and bully receivers and tight ends at the line like he was brought in to do, he has the physical makeup and athleticism to really shine.
Philip Adams. I really don't know squat about this guy. He's a press cornerback with some physicality, as per the Seahawks' M.O. We'll see if he sticks with the team.
Ron Parker. I really like Parker - he stood out to me in training camp last year and is similar in speed/athleticism to Maxwell. Proof- he was fast enough to briefly make the RAIDERS 53-man roster last year. He's THAT FAST. He's a virtual unknown coming out of small-school Newberry, but has the attributes this team looks for. Another guy to watch in camp.