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Seahawks on tape: The corners fighting to take the starting job from Byron Maxwell

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images

On Saturday, I took a long look at the Seattle Seahawks CB2 situation, beginning with the expected player to win the job: Byron Maxwell. If you haven’t already, read that first. Maxwell has his positive and negative attributes, but he’s probably got nowhere else to grow. Not only is he a veteran, but he developed under and worked with Pete Carroll’s staff so much that it’s not like they’re likely to find new ways to help him get better.

And with Shaquill Griffin recently nursing an injury, it’s even more important for the team to find out what corners they have besides Maxwell. It’s possible one of them sneaks around and wins the job right from under him. These are the rest of the candidates who could do so.

Neiko Thorpe

Thorpe is a lock to make the roster based on his special teams ability. A strong argument can be made for him being the best tackling corner on the team, with him consistently sticking to the technique the Seahawks teach.

He led the squad with 9 tackles on specials in 2016 and continued that form last season before being carted off the field in November with a sprained ankle. The day after that injury happened, Carroll reflected upon the importance of the 28-year-old on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Brock and Salk Pete Carroll Show: “Neiko is a big deal to us and he’s been a very, very good player…He makes those plays. He makes us really special. I think there was a little bit of an edge lost there.”

Thorpe started two games for the Oakland Raiders in 2015, recording one interception, and has mainly featured in garbage time for Seattle. The first year he started to receive meaningful snaps in Seahawks blue was 2017; he impressed in limited reps, making him the most likely to push Maxwell. Carroll described him as “right in the middle of the competition.”

Clip #1 sees Seattle down 14-7 late in the first, with the Atlanta Falcons trying to convert a 3rd and 8. The pre-snap motion tells Matt Ryan the coverage is man, and the Falcons try to expose Thorpe with the out-and-up route. Thorpe stumbles at the receiver cut, but he takes advantage of a slightly underthrown pass with his length. He tracks the pass well through the air and knocks it down. He never gave up on play and located the ball really well to recover.

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Clip #2 has Thorpe doing something that Maxwell does not. With the San Francisco 49ers in desperation mode, Thorpe step-kicks downfield with the go route, reaches his near arm at the receiver to make some contact and is in a brilliant position to play the ball. He times his ball location perfectly, turning to see the pass and then batting it to the floor.

Two snaps earlier, Thorpe exhibited his main struggle. Now, we must factor in the context of the situation: it is hard coming into a blowout game like this pretty cold with lots of backups in.

That said, he allows the receiver to reset the line of scrimmage by going backwards rather than stepping and waiting patiently for the receiver. He is two steps late breaking on the slant and is beat inside badly.

Tre Flowers

The fact that Seattle took a safety conversion project, rather than a long day 3 corner like Simeon Thomas, is likely based in Flowers’ willingness to make the hit and hustle to the ball-carrier—Carroll raved about this post-draft. To those who have pointed that Flowers won’t be learning a new technique, defensive coordinator Ken Norton highlighted that he still is: “he played a lot of safety in college, so he’s learning a new technique.”

Flowers stands out in this group as the fast guy. He ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at 6’3”, 202lbs with immensely long, 33’7/8”, arms. He is a fluid mover for his size despite lacking the technique which will take that to another level. Playing in the split-safety system of Oklahoma State, he did backpedal, but he also played half-turn and shuffle in college—which should ease his transition somewhat.

The following video showcases the similar concept of walling the inside and his fluid ability to transition from moving back with a dig route to opening his hips and breaking with it tightly, balanced and at excellent speed. He is also, as the half-field safety, making a #2 to #1 read, taking anything vertical. It is essentially the inverse of Maxwell’s #1 to #2 read, covered earlier, and Flowers performs it flawlessly.

There was other Seahawk-y things he put on tape which looked far more raw. Take, for instance, his look-in shuffle. He is assigned with matching and running over the top with any seam route. He flips into the look-in nicely, but then falls down. This partially comes from unfamiliarity with the assignment. He should have widened with the running back’s route, maintaining an outside leverage. That would have helped him wall the arm bar that the running back employs to duck up the seam after faking the circle route. Flowers realizes this too late.

On the Iowa State play, he is jerky going backwards, but he is fast throughout the snap, keys on the break quickly and uses his length to break up the pass. The way he stays square, not turning fully up field, and then comes down is beautiful. This sort of technique carries over directly from the slot to the outside. He is even lined up with an inside leverage. It is exactly how Seattle want their corners to play comebacks and hitches.

His conversion from safety to cornerback makes sense, given his lack of range from the deep middle third. That shows up on this play against Iowa State, but the way he makes the hit is aggressive and hard. Furthermore, it is done via perfect, “Hawk Tackle” form: he makes contact with his near shoulder and his head out of the way.

Processing two-receiver combinations is a strength of Flowers’ game, and this translates perfectly to Seattle’s scheme. Again, he delivers a hard hit displaying impressive closing speed.

Do not focus on Flowers getting beat here. Remember: he won’t be playing this technique in the NFL. What he shows here though is the ability and faith to speed turn and head flip without losing any speed or his balance. When shuffling this is an absolute necessity for covering the blindspot of the cornerback, often on comebacks.

Flowers is a very rough-edged player in his tackling pursuit angles. The Iowa State game was close at the times of his mistakes, so desperation to make the play possibly played a part.

Flowers misses after being forced to lunge into the tackle because he doesn’t use his feet to get close enough to the runner or under control.

Flowers then overpursues horribly in the open-field, despite there being a man to the left of him. Instead of staying on the near hip, he overruns this landmark. As a result, the cutback is left open to the ballcarrier and the offense picks up what is at least an extra 5 yards.

This offseason he appears to be making excellent progress, with Norton gushing about his ability. “Tre is a natural,” the defensive playcaller said, “not only is he a natural athlete and a guy who’s really smart but he loves coming out. He listens to everything you say and he applies it really well. So he’s gonna be a really, really good player.”

Carroll echoed these sentiments last Friday.

“Flowers has really flashed in a big way,” he enthused, “he’s been really receptive...mentally, and also physically in his ability to make things look the way it’s supposed to look. He’s really on a good track right now.” Additionally, Shaquem Griffin revealed that Flowers had been visiting Shaquill a lot for step-kick advice.

Still, the process of becoming a defensive back with starting ability is likely to take longer than one offseason. Carroll finished with “he’s got a long way to go”. Remember how DeShawn Shead took a while to make it onto the team full-time? Flowers would be in a similar position if Seattle’s depth wasn’t noticeably thinner.

Trovon Reed

Or perhaps Reed will allow the Seahawks to try to sneak Flowers onto the practice squad. He wasn’t even on the roster when training camp began, signed after DeAndre Elliott was waived on medical grounds. Now back in Seattle, after originally signing in the Northwest as a 2015 UDFA, he is making plays in training camp including two interceptions last Thursday.

A High-School All-American, the 6ft, 191lber has been miscast for the majority of his NFL career, with coordinators having him try to soft-shoe guys. He did not look comfortable. Having spent a year on the practice squad of the scheme-mirroring 49ers, Reed should be acclimatized to the system.

He had two NFL starts for the Chargers in 2016, coming in as the nickel back while lining up both inside and outside. There was a lot to like from his brief exposure.

Play 1, Carolina Panthers: His team are down 26-16 with 11.00 on the clock in the fourth and a 1st and goal. Here he half-turns well and jumps the route for the interception.

Play 2, Oakland: He plays with excellent inside leverage, squeezing the receiver to the sideline and walling the inside effectively.

Play 3, Oakland: He shuffles fantastically, runs and opens with the dig route and undercuts it for the interception--fully aware of the safety help over the top. This is a wonderful play.

Mike Tyson

Tyson is wearing Marshawn Lynch’s old number this year, driven by his favorite player HOF DB Charles Woodson. That’s all we’ve heard regarding #24. We are not privy to how much he has developed in a year, but the fact that he has not been mentioned by members of the coaching staff suggests he is on the fringes and is still unrefined.

His college tape at Cincinnati showed an overhang player who would be a raw conversion project. He was stiff and upright, which saw him struggle to transition into running down the field. Carroll said he was reminded of a “young Maxy” last offseason.

The 2016 undrafted free agent ran a 4.56 forty and had arms which were just short of that magic 32”, but his jam was aggressive plus effective and when shuffling he had impressive movement skills.

His interception against Purdue shows exactly what the Seahawks were thinking when they signed him two years ago. It is running downfield with outside leverage, staying over the top and looking in at the quarterback. Tyson then goes up and gets the football.

In this year’s training camp, he has been spending time at safety and nickel—more familiar to him after his college experience—than at outside corner, showing him to be a utility player and practice squad candidate at-best.

Alex Carter

A former third round pick of the Detroit Lions, Carter’s father, Tom, played with ex-Lions general manager Martin Mayhew. Mayhew traded up to pick Carter in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

He has barely played in the NFL, reduced to a handful of special teams appearances. He hits hard, but he is slow with his feet and stiff on his college tape. A player who has never lived up to his third-round billing, the Lions tried to switch him to safety but eventually cut him last year.

It is easy to see why the Seahawks offered him a chance to compete in camp, with the 6’0”, 196 lb corner jumping 40” vertically and running a 4.51 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine. However, he is likely to be a camp body only—particularly with him lunging when jamming and having to learn a different technique to what he used at Stanford and the Lions.

Dontae Johnson

Johnson broke his foot in minicamp, seeing him land on the PUP list. This places him firmly on the periphery of the roster. His progress will be aided by his two-year immersion in Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme at the 49ers.

A Veteran?

Chris Wesseling/Ian Rapaport reported Saturday that the Seahawks would be working out Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, which reflects the poor depth. (DRC ended up not making the trip, as of Sunday.) They have a penchant for adding a seasoned veteran at the position, as Rob Staton talked about on 3000 NFL Mock Draft. This would shake things up.

Cornerback #2?

The actual pre-season games will decide a lot, and it is important to remember that.

Tyson looks like a practice squad candidate; Reed, Johnson and Carter will surprise people if they manage to make the roster—initially impressive camp performances from Reed or not. Seattle has carried five corners on the ‘final’ 53 for every single season of the Pete Carroll-John Schneider reign. Right now, based on my tape study, it is looking like Griffin, Maxwell, Thorpe and Flowers are the favorites—including Justin Coleman as the nickel.

The Seahawks will hope that Flowers will take to the technique quickly, but he will need time to adapt and become polished. In an ideal scenario, he gets up to speed so fast that the 23-year-old takes the position mid-season. The praise he has been receiving has been unprecedented, so maybe he has stronger shot than I am giving him credit for. But that seems overly wishful.

Thorpe has been in the system for two years, and if he is going to take the step forward it has to be now. His better ball skills downfield make him more preferable than Maxwell in such instances, but his step-kick technique is less accomplished.

Maxwell, then, is the most likely starter at cornerback #2. He was solid in his technique and had a sturdy half of a season, but I think teams can pick on him a lot, particularly with slants and comebacks run by nippier receivers. Like a warm beer on a scorching summer’s day, that will have to do for now.

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