Aug 7, 2012; Renton, WA, USA; NFL: Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas (29) celebrates a play during a training camp scrimmage at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE
Moving on to the defensive side of the ball - and the depth chart stuff isn't quite as interesting over here, at first blush. Whereas with the offense, the starting left guard, right guard, several wide receiver spots (depending on health), and of course the quarterback job are still sort of up for grabs, the defense is much more 'set', so to speak. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas at safety, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman at corner. Red Bryant and Chris Clemons at defensive end and Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle. Leroy Hill and K.J. Wright at outside linebacker. That leaves middle linebacker up for grabs. Boring, only one spot??
Only it's not that simple.
With defense, especially the way the NFL is trending now (passing league grumble grumble mumble), sub-packages are used on upwards of 50% of plays or more for some (most?) teams. League-wide, teams played in their "Base Defense" only 45% of the time, per ProFootballFocus' tracking. That means that nickelbackers, big nickels, specialist pass rushers, and the now non-pejorative "sub-package" players were almost de-facto co-starters with the team's listed starting group.
The Seahawks were in their nickel defense on 35% of plays in 2011 and I really have to believe that number will only go up in 2012 as the talent on defense improves. Injuries beset the Hawks at the defensive back position last season so they eased up on the DB-heavy packages that we saw in 2010, but after making some more investments in personnel there, coupled with the Seahawks schedule (facing pass-heavy teams like Green Bay, Detroit, New England, etc), guys like Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell, Winston Guy, possibly Jeremy Lane or obviously Roy Lewis and Marcus Trufant, if they're on the final roster, should see significant numbers of snaps.
Leroy Hill may cede snaps to guys like Malcolm Smith, Korey Toomer, or Mike Morgan as the Seahawks look to get a little more speed on the field. Alan Branch or Brandon Mebane might step off and let Jason Jones and Clint McDonald into the action. Red Bryant will come off to get Bruce Irvin on the field and throw in guys like Dexter Davis, Pierre Allen, Cordarro Law and the different looks this defense could possibly feature is very interesting.
Let's take a look at some very preliminary depth charts, first for the defensive backs:
Last year, Kam Chancellor started at strong safety and was backed up by Atari Bigby and Jeron Johnson. "Backup" is a loose term of course, and as stated above, depending on the package, we could see Chancellor and Johnson, or Winston Guy, or whoever, on the field together in the big nickel packages. Essentially, getting another safety on the field to run with a running back out of the backfield or to cover a tight end that releases off the line but still possess a nice run defending group. Big nickel is most typically used to defend teams that are in tight end heavy packages - like the San Francisco 49ers ran with a lot of the time last year.
But, in the case that Chancellor goes down, Jeron Johnson is a definite option to fill in. He'll have to beat out Winston Guy though, I think, for a roster spot.
Jeron Johnson is probably in this group as well, and obviously, the Seahawks will not be able to keep all of their big nickel types. Thomas Beekers has maintained for quite a while that Byron Maxwell might fill that role well as a bigger, more physical corner/safety hybrid type that can still run quite well and in theory, defend against some of the top-flight NFL tight ends like Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley, Gronk/Hernandez, Brandon Pettigrew, and Jason Witten, and tier-two guys like Greg Olson, Kyle Rudolph, Dustin Keller and Scott Chandler (and yes, I just named players from teams that the Seahawks will be facing this season).
Winston Guy is the other probable recipient for this role and his experience at Kentucky as a sort of linebacker/safety hybrid has prepared him well for what he may be asked to do - namely, play very strong against the run, but stick to the more rangy and athletic tight ends (and running backs) that release into pass patterns.
I would guess that Shead is a developmental option there too.
Pretty straight forward here. If Earl goes down, Maragos has similar speed in the deep middle of the field, and though he's obviously a big step down in talent and probably range, it's pretty tough to find a backup that could do everything that Earl can do. No one on the roster, probably, has Earl's versatility to play up on the line, behind the line of scrimmage, in coverage of slot receivers, and in two-deep zone but that's why we love him. Another possible player at the free safety spot would be Ron Parker, who played a single-high safety spot at small-school Newberry and is now seeing time at corner. This dual ability might give Parker a spot on the roster, and he was on the Seahawks' 53-man unit towards the end of the year in 2011.
Browner and Sherman are holding it down, but there has been a bit of buzz lately about both Coye Francies and Phillip Adams. Both players have looked very good in camp and both are the physical, athletic prototype that this team looks for at the corner position. I have no idea what the depth chart looks like right now, but Davis Hsu was saying that Adams took over for Brandon Browner yesterday when he sat out practice. It will be interesting to see how things shake out in the preseason.
The nickelback is not just 'your third corner', and we've talked about it a lot during this offseason. It's truly a distinct position with distinct skillset requirements, and looking down the road into the future of the NFL, it's going to be something that teams will start putting more emphasis on during their scouting and drafting process. The nickelback has to be strong against the run, a strong blitzer, and strong is pass coverage. They play off in coverage more often than not so their read/react skills must be honed. They must have spacial awareness as to where the linemen are playing, where the linebackers are playing, and keep their eyes in the backfield and on the receiver all at once.
In zone, they must know the precise moment to hand off a receiver, and also look for other offensive players coming into their area. It's a whole new world - and when you hear a wily, savvy vet like Marcus Trufant talk about the learning curve to 'bumping inside', you'll realize just how difficult the transition can be.
Walter Thurmond is the most likely starter for this position, but that completely hinges on his health. It seems likely at this point that he won't be ready to start the year. That mans we may see Jeremy Lane get a shot at that spot, and he'll be competing against incumbent Roy Lewis and the abovementioned Trufant. I would guess Byron Maxwell gets a look there, as should Parker, Francies, and Adams. Even Desean Shead, perhaps. Definitely something to watch over the next few weeks - so keep an eye out for when the Seahawks face 3+ receiver formations.