It's pretty easy to analyze the Seahawks safety position when it comes to projected starting lineups - Earl Thomas is one of the best in the game and Kam Chancellor is an up-and-coming Pro Bowler this season that should only improve in the next couple of years. The starting lineup for next year's Seahawks is almost set in stone - or more so than any other position on the team I'd say - for both the free and strong safety positions. So, the natural question becomes, 'what about depth?'
An injury to either Thomas or Chancellor could be potentially crippling to the defense, though more so for ET, in my opinion, and I know that Beekers has been beating this drum a lot as well. Pete Carroll learned it the hard way in the 2010 season that lack of depth can become a serious issue after Red Bryant went down with an MCL tear and they've tried to build in more redundancy at each spot to prevent any catastrophic falloffs going forward.
Now, I'm not implying that the Seahawks are going to be able to find a depth player that can do what Earl Thomas does - simply put, Earl is on a different level than most players and really cannot be replaced - but that doesn't mean the front office isn't going to churn the hell out of that spot or potentially draft a guy or sign a free agent to provide a little insurance in the case Earl is forced to miss any time.
Thomas brings excellent range, versatility and instincts, and those skills make him a very important player in this defense. It allows some scheming with certain players and positions that otherwise might be ... ineffective. It's probably not too coincidental that Pete Carroll, a defensive minded coach that used to play free safety, drafted a guy like ET with 2nd piece of draft capital.
In the oft-quoted series from TrojanFootballAnalysis.com, Pete Carroll describes the role of this 'deep safety,' at least from his days at USC:
"The deep safety is a player that is close to my heart. That is what I played. The deep safety has to play two routes. He has to defend the seam route and the post route. That is all I ask him to play. He has to find the seam route from the number two receiver. If there are two of them then he has to get in the middle and play them both. On the post route he has to stay on top of that route. That is easy to do but it becomes harder as offenses do more of it and get better at it."
In other words - he's responsible for the middle of the field, and to take away the deep bomb.
He elaborates, "Teach your [safeties] to play the deep middle and forget about all the confusing rules. The guy who is playing in the middle of the field has to figure out who can get into the middle. We want our safety to play in the middle of the two receivers that can run the post route. He wants to split the relationship with anyone who can get down the middle."
One reason Thomas had a somewhat quiet year was that in watching many of the games on TV, Earl was often so deep you couldn't even see him on the screen. He played a big part in the Seahawks ability this year to diminish, drastically, the big-play, 20+ yard passing plays and over the top touchdown throws that dogged them in 2010, and Earl seemingly improved in his decision making and reaction time. You'll often hear players use the words:
"The game has slowed down a lot for me."
I remember hearing Earl say that one point this season and it makes sense. There's a pretty steep learning curve from the college game to the pros, for any player, and he has adapted quickly, making strides from his first season to his second, and presumably he's caught up to the speed of the NFL game.
Also, I do think they've toned down his role variance a little bit this year too, though that's just my initial reaction. He still gets involved with blitzing now and again but I think they've asked him to do what he does best more often, and that's patrol the secondary and dissuade big passing plays.
So - as of right now, who do the Seahawks turn to for depth? First, for Earl Thomas...
Chris Maragos: Maragos is the first person that comes to my mind and is the most obvious choice because by the end of the year, he was the guy that was backing ET up. He played in 11 games- mostly special teams, where he made a difference, but he did get a few snaps at safety here and there.
Maragos is an exceptional athlete - he ran in the 4.4s at his pro day at Wisconsin in the run-up to the 2010 NFL Draft and his 6.55 second 3-cone drill and 3.98 second short shuttle times would have both been the best times at the NFL Combine, respectively. Of any position. Yeah. That doesn't say what his game speed is like but the dude has some quicks.
He was signed by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent that year but released last season. He's similar in stature to ET as well, and this was pointed out by Maragos himself in an interview with TNT's Eric Williams during the season.
"I'm trying to pattern my game after him," Maragos said. "We're kind of similar in body size, speed and some different things. So I'm just tying to watch what he does and get a feel for it within the system."
Regardless, his quick twitch athleticism and speed are what separate him from other guys on the team and make him an interesting guy to watch for as Earl's backup. Theoretically, his range is the important thing and that's where he'll hope to develop.
Phillip Adams: Who? You might ask? Yeah, me too. Adams was picked up off of waivers from the Patriots this season and was originally drafted by - you guessed it - the 49ers in 2010 in the 7th round (Scot McCloughan connection, possibly?). He's a small school guy out of South Carolina State at 5'11, 190 and his CBSSports/NFLDraftScout profile reads like a Seahawks cornerback job listing:
Seahawks Defensive Back (Full-Time) (I added the stuff in brackets, obviously):
"[Looking for a] Tough corner with good speed willing to lay the wood and be extremely physical at the line of scrimmage. [A guy that] Maintains contact with receivers all the way down the field. [Someone that] Makes the interception and makes hits to jar balls loose after the receiver gets his hands on it. [We need a player that] Closes well on the ball when playing off."
So what's the problem here? Oh, right, he plays cornerback. Well. Yeah, that's true. The thing about that is though - I'm not sure it matters. The Hawks had 'cornerback' Josh Pinkard playing safety at times in camp prior to being released, and many of you may remember that Earl Thomas actually comes up and plays in the slot or just at the true cornerback position against some receivers at times, most notably against Danny Amendola in Week 17 in the 2010 season.
Now, is this ideal? I don't know. I think that defensive backs are somewhat fungible in Carroll's defense as long as they're rangy and physical. Maybe Adams could fill a backup role? Maybe he won't even be with the team next year? I dunno.
Annnnd, that's about it, when we're talking about an Earl Thomas replacement.
The other names I was going to bring up were Jeron Johnson, Atari Bigby, and possibly Byron Maxwell, though I think those guys all fit the mold as strong side safeties or big nickel defensive backs more.
Regardless, let's take a look.
Jeron Johnson: We didn't get to see a whole lot of Johnson this season. He played special teams and a few snaps at safety after making the team as an undrafted free agent. He's a hard hitting guy, strong in run support, and has some speed and athleticism. That said, I'm not sure he's the same type of player as Earl Thomas and his style is more akin to that of Atari Bigby.
Atari Bigby: I believe that Bigby is now a free agent, but he's almost exactly the same size as Johnson at 5'11, 213 but is now into his 30s. I thought that Bigby played well though this season so the Seahawks could reprise his limited role again going forward, but it wouldn't surprise me to see either Jeron Johnson or Byron Maxwell take his spot as the big nickel/Kam Chancellor backup.
Byron Maxwell: I like Maxwell, but it's unclear if he's really a true cornerback. From what I've read and seen, he's a little stiff in the hips in coverage and might not matchup well against top-flight, shifty or quick receivers. The types of players he would match up well against though, theoretically, are tight ends.
This is a need that is becoming increasingly important in the modern NFL but particularly the NFC West with the tight end heavy offenses of San Francisco, Arizona, and St. Louis. Moreover, the athleticism at the TE spot is increasingly difficult to counter so these tweener type DBs become useful. It's no fun trying to guard Vernon Davis, por ejemplo.
Whereas a guy like Walter Thurmond is best in the slot as the nickel guarding the Kyle Williamses, the Danny Amendolas, the Andre Roberteseseses, I see Maxwell more like a Jordan Babineaux type guy. Physical, versatile, able to play outside on a bigger receiver or inside against a tight end. This is all in theory, obviously, but I just don't know if you'd consider Maxwell a true corner, nor a true backup to Chancellor.
So that is essentially the extent of the depth at safety and as you can see, it's a tad thin. Obviously, the starting duo of Thomas and Chancellor is solid and should be for years to come, but knowing this front office, I wouldn't be surprised to see some moves made this offseason to address the strength of the backups there. If not, I hope to see development from Johnson, Adams, and Maxwell or at least a more clearly defined role for each, other than 'special teamer', though that may be their respective career destinies.
We'll see. Thoughts? Did I miss anyone?