Walter Thurmond III was another pick that got a lot of buzz from the Seahawks' much touted 2010 haul. I had not looked at him extensively, but this was a case of a FO doing its due diligence on a player's injury and deciding he was worth the risk. Thurmond would likely have been a 2nd-round pick if not for a gruesome knee injury, as he tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in his final year in college. He was already months into rehab as the NFL draft happened, and even from an outsider perspective a willingness to work hard at it was obvious. Pete Carroll values that kind of dedication highly in players, and in cases like these he is justified to do so.
Due diligence or not, it's always a gamble when you take a player with that serious an injury. But so far, signs are looking pretty good. Thurmond was active for all but two games in his rookie season, had one start replacing Kelly Jennings as the Seahawks hosted the Cardinals in week 7, and saw significant snaps coming in for Trufant in week 3 against the Chargers and week 11 at the Saints. When not playing a starting corner, Thurmond saw the field as a nickel corner or whenever the Seahawks were creative with 6+ DB sets. It's worth stressing that this is in fact quite impressive for a 4th-round pick, let alone one coming back from injury.
However, to get my worries out of the way first, it's worth noting Thurmond's ugly knee injury doesn't quite stand alone, most noticeably in a lingering pelvic injury that impacted his 2008 college season, and in missing games for the Seahawks due to a hamstring injury. The "injury prone" label is not one I tend to throw about and I won't here, but I can't deny it was a major impact on his draft-day slip and will continue to be a lingering concern going forward.
But however many concerns and labels you shoot at him, I was very impressed by the sheer volume of snaps Walter Thurmond played for the Seahawks. I honestly expected him to play much less as he was carefully brought along and continued his rehab. That said, he was held back in many games, preference given to Roy Lewis or Jordan Babineaux in nickel packages instead. At times he looked to be playing a bit slower than how he looked from the limited college footage I've seen, lacking some of the explosive quickness he had. Surprising? Heck no. It's just a sign he wasn't quite there yet this past season. But when the next season kicks off (assuming we see no delay of the season), it'll have been almost two years since his injury, and barring unreported setbacks I'm thinking we can hope he'll be fully recovered.
Once again I went back through some of last season's games to refresh myself on the player. In this case, I focused on our week 11 game in New Orleans. This wasn't a pretty game for the Seahawks defense, as we could not stop the Saints from gaining significant chunks in the run game, which set them up with very favorable passing situations. Neither rushing nor passing defense were horrible, but neither were they outstanding or sufficient. Marcus Trufant went out in the 2nd quarter with a head injury, and Thurmond played opposite Kelly Jennings for the rest of the game, for 59 of 72 defensive snaps. One other thing worth remarking here is the regular usage of Jordan Babineaux as a "big corner" to match up against the Saints' bigger threats. Off the top of my mind, I remember a similar usage against the Falcons. Babineaux is not a standout player, but I think this flexibility makes him a great fit for our creative backfield packages, and if I'm taking a pre-FA guess I'm wagering we'll see him back next season due to that flexibility.
But this is about Walter Thurmond. Thrown into the fire against one of the league's best passing offenses, Thurmond had a very up and down game. He botched assignments, he was sloppy on tackles, he misread routes, but he also flashed potential. The second drive by the Saints in the second quarter was his first full drive, and he showed a willingness to track the ball closely no matter what, which can of course lead to trouble with young players but is encouraging to see.
I'll highlight one play from Thurmond's first full drive. It's 1st and 10 and on the Seahawks 28. The Saints are set up with a jumbo package (6 O-linemen). Their tight end Jimmy Graham runs a corner route and he runs it well. The jumbo package buys Brees plenty of time to drop back, sit for a bit and release a good pass into the endzone. Walter Thurmond is trailing Graham throughout and as the tight end sets up to catch he turns, jumps up and defends the ball, nearly intercepting it in the process.
That is a thing of beauty. The coverage was tight throughout the route, his timing on the defense was perfect, his ball skills looked good. I couldn't ask more of him in the situation, especially considering that's a 6'6 260 lbs beast of a tight end. That's 7 inches and 70 pounds he has on Thurmond, but to no avail here.
Now lest we become over-enthused, let me continue a bit into the drive. After another incomplete pass, it's 3rd and 10, still on the Seahawks 28. The Seahawks line up in the bandit as you would expect in this situation. Roy Lewis appears to be on Marques Colston initially but he has Thurmond at his back and passes over the assignment. Colston, as far as I can tell, runs a quick comeback route, and next thing we see is him catching the ball, with Thurmond four yards beyond him and still busy reversing direction. Tatupu is close by near the center of the field and the two converge to make the tackle, but Colston had already gained a first down. The Saints got this one way too easy, and as said, Thurmond found himself beat on routes a bit too often throughout this game. But he was a rookie, and that's what rookies do.
One thing I'd like to note specifically for this New Orleans game and other games where Thurmond played as the #1 or #2 CB is that he was not used as a press corner. Pete Carroll has a fondness of big corners capable of intimidating receivers at the line and it should be noted this is probably Thurmond's biggest weakness if we're looking for a press-man corner. It's not a huge weakness and I don't know if there are a lot of corners capable of intimidating the Chargers or Saints receivers, but it's worth noting.
Worst-case scenario: I could rattle off notes on performance and continued struggles playing press man and covering complex routes, but honestly my nightmare scenario for Thurmond would be serious injury regression or a new injury affirming his "injury prone" label. He doesn't lack the talent, but that's true for many players who faded into obscurity due to injuries.
Best-case scenario: Thurmond starts all 16 games opposite Trufant. He flashes big time plays, picking off passes left and right and pushes Trufant for the position opposite the number one wide receiver, while teams learn to look the other way. Occasional hickups as he misreads routes or is duped by quick redirecting from the receiver still occur.
My take: Walter Thurmond comes with a built-in advantage when it comes to being accepted by the fans. He's not Kelly Jennings. Right now, he's our starter opposite a declining Marcus Trufant. That's scary. Yet it's not as scary as it could be, because hey, at least it's not Kelly Jennings. Now Jennings gets a bit more abuse than he deserves, but it's fairly obvious he doesn't have much of a future as a starting cornerback, not with his size and lack of ball skills. His flaws are glaring, whereas for Thurmond I have a harder time coming up with flaws outside of his rookie weaknesses and lack of press skills.
Is Thurmond ideally our starter? Not really. He might make a leap in development but it's more likely he'll need a bit more time to get there. If he does start or play a lot, I expect an adrenaline-inducing mixture of awesome plays with painfully bad plays, a mix of botched assignments that will draw the ire of teammates and fans and pitch-perfect coverage plays ended in batted passes or interceptions. That's not ideal. Ideally, we find someone in the free agent market to play opposite Trufant (who isn't much of a 1st corner anymore at this stage of his career), while Thurmond steadily learns and pushes for more and more playing time as the season progresses. As long as he stays injury free, he has the physical tools to be a starting cornerback for us, but not right now.