For this mini-series on potential 'surprise' players for the Seahawks, I wanted to identify a few guys that I think could be unpredicted contributors in 2012, and tell you why. "Surprise" is a relative term, and I'll be stretching the definition of that word a bit by looking at players that could be surprise members of the final-53, could be surprise starters, or even surprise Pro Bowl type stars. Inevitably, some of the players I identify won't even make the roster - but nonetheless, here we go.
For today, I'm switching to the defensive side of the football. With much of the starting lineup already set, plus the major additions of Jason Jones and draft picks Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, and Jaye Howard, there may not be a ton of surprises starters or contributors on the defense, barring injury of course. Still, one spot remains up in the air and it's one of the things that beat reporters and writers have been talking about a lot while watching the Seahawks' mini-camps and OTAs, and that spot is the nickel corner.
Gus Bradley talked about Walter Thurmond the other day, noting, "he knows our nickel spot, so we really are counting on him, and we need him to stay healthy. It's just a couple of unfortunate situations - last year, [on the play he got hurt] he played the ball perfectly, and he just got caught up with his legs and had the injury, and then it didn't heal properly, and he's at where he's at right now. Hopefully by training camp we get him back and he can stay healthy because he's very important and in our plans."
There is certainly the hope that Thurmond is ready by training camp but at this point, in my mind, it seems like a long shot. In fact, it seems much more likely that WT3 will start the season on the PUP list, which leaves the very important nickel cornerback position up for grabs. The likely contenders are rookie Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell, Donnie Lesowski, Roy Lewis, Ron Parker, DeShawn Shead and of course, Marcus Trufant.Marcus Trufant -
If Marcus Trufant is able to get and stay healthy this season, he could potentially play a major role in this defense at the nickel spot, the position that the Seahawks brought him back to play. As Thomas pointed out in his piece on the position, "slot/nickel guys are like .75 of a starter" ...- their value is really close to that of your starters, and you could well use high-level players at the slot and nickel spots if you want to compete in the modern NFL."
Greg Cosell wrote about the position as well, noting: "Keep in mind teams also run three-wide groups in normal down and distance situations as a regular feature of their offense. What burden does that place on the defense, as it specifically relates to the slot corner? It means he has three responsibilities: cover man (the most apparent), blitzer and run defender (not talked about enough). Those are three distinct skill sets, but they are all required of a slot corner. Think about that for a minute. It's not a filler position, simply employed because the offense lined up with three wide receivers. It's a well-defined position that is essential to NFL defense, and it demands a specific set of attributes."
So, for a team that has fairly set starters the two cornerback positions in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, the two safety positions with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and a fairly predicable rotation on the defensive line, the two positions that are still up in the air are linebacker and that nickel corner position. This isn't lost on Clare Farnsworth, who conveniently just wrote about it over at Seahawks.com as well. He collected some quotes from Trufant and Roy Lewis' on the position, and they put into perspective just how difficult the transition from the outside to the inside really is. As Beekers would say, it's not just your third cornerback 'kicking inside'.
"It's different from the standpoint that it's not 100 miles an hour, like it is out on the corner," Trufant said on the difference between playing in the nickel slot position. "It slows down a little bit and you've got to see a bigger picture. It's just not you and the receiver. I've got to see the running back. I've got to see the quarterback. I've got to see everybody."
Lewis, who played the nickel role over the last two seasons for the Seahawks, explained, "It's a different world in there. It's a different set of eyes. It's a different train of thought. It's a different technique. To really play inside, you basically are telling a guy he has to guard a third of the field - but watch the deep ball, too. So it is a different world, and for a guy who's been playing outside it may be a little bit of a challenge."
Definitely a challenge, and with no true front-runner for the spot, at this point I might leaning toward a wily vet like Trufant having more success reading the offensive formations, reading the quarterback, having eyes in the backfield and eyes on the receivers at the same time. With the Seahawks, you know that they're willing to play young players and throw them into the fire, but the mental and reactionary demands that are needed for the nickel spot might give Trufant an edge. Said Truf: "You've got to be able to react to the stuff you see. The guys in front of you, the guys behind you, you've got to be able to feel it. So it's a feel position, but you've also got to be able to see a lot."
The Seahawks had a couple of young, fast, physical corners/safeties on the roster last year in Ron Parker, Jeron Johnson, and Byron Maxwell but went with veteran Roy Lewis in the slot a vast majority of the time (after Walter Thurmond was hurt) because it's more than just a 'speed' position. It takes savvy, positioning, reading the defense, reacting at the snap. It's why at 35-years old, Charles Woodson is still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Will Marcus Trufant prove to be a better option at the nickel spot than Lewis (who has been playing safety in spots during OTAs) or one of the young bucks in line for playing time? We'll see.
Right now, I'm very, very interested in watching Trufant in action there because in theory he seems to have a lot of the desirable traits. Speed, savvy, strong tackling ability. Solid in run support and in zone, with a lot of experience diagnosing defenses over his career. Will he excel in blitzing? We'll find out. When healthy, Trufant is a high quality cover corner that can play off or up in press, and his experience could be a boon for a young defensive back unit. I think the spot will be highly contested though - like I said, there are a lot of interesting young players vying for playing time - but Trufant could surprise us all even at 31 years old.
Watch Nate's season retrospective clip again of Trufant to give yourself a better idea on his skillset.