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Seahawks Breakdown: A look at the transition to CB for Tre Flowers

Switching positions as a rookie is difficult. For Tre Flowers, it’s extra tough.

Tre Flowers’ transition from college safety to pro cornerback is a tough one. Not only because switching positions as an NFL rookie is damn near impossible, but Flowers is going from a largely free role in a surprisingly diverse Oklahoma State defense, to a carefully choreographed, do-your-job style with Seattle.

I say diverse, but the Cowboys’ defense was kind of, sort of all over the place most of the time. If they had succeeded, they’d be called a “matchup” defense – tweaking things week in, week out to suit opponents. They didn’t. And so we typically say they didn’t have a clear philosophy, or something like that.

It had a big impact on Flowers. His role shifted week-to-week. The team was a base quarters-match outfit – as is almost all the Big 12 – with split-safeties, and the boundary cornerbacks and underneath defenders running pseudo man-coverage – matchup zones.

But things changed depending on the opponent and their tendencies. During any game you would see the team switch to the rip/liz three-match style that is prevalent throughout college and the NFL, or consistently use a three-safety set, with Flowers as the high-hole defender. And I’m not just talking about specific down-and-distance playcalls, everyone does that. The team changed its entire base package. Yuck.

Flowers rotated through a variety of spots. In the classic quarters-match look, he played as the field safety, meaning he played on the hash opposite the spot of the ball, covering a much larger piece of real estate. When the team rotated or moved one its safety tandem towards an uncovered receiver, it was invariably Flowers’ buddy, with the Seahawks draft pick sliding over to cover the middle of the field.

In cover-3 looks he played exclusively as the middle of the field defender. He oscillated between the deep-third spots when it was three safeties. And he also played just shy of 100 snaps in the slot in 2017, per ProFootballFocus.

This context is important. Why? Football is changing.

Teams looked at Flowers’ body of work – moving between a bunch of positions and techniques – and emphatically said: Nah. He’s not a safety. The Seahawks didn’t grab Flowers until the fifth-round. They don’t view him as a safety, either. Nor as a slot. They want him to learn one of the most taxing positions anywhere in the sport: Seahawks boundary corner.

Again, why? Don’t we think of that kind of mobile, athletic guy as a moveable, defensive chess piece? Hasn’t every team been falling over themselves to add a middle of the field Tasmanian Devil?

This is an interesting, sport-wide question. Flowers will be a fun test subject.

We now have entire college football conferences running a base system that isn’t anywhere near as prevalent in the NFL. Quarters-match systems are designed to defend against explosive plays: condense the field; keep four guys deep whenever possible; convert to man-coverage when receivers get deep downfield; and help the defense against the onslaught of exotic RPOs. It is the epitome of bend-don’t-break.

The NFL, by contrast, is all about press-and-trail three-match systems (we still have some sneaky spot-droppers here and there), with a fresh wave of trap coverages.

A ridiculous amount of internet data has been used on grand think pieces about spread-option quarterbacks moving up to the NFL level: How ever will they cope? Will the league adapt? Is it possible they could learn to take a snap from behind center? (sarcasm intentional)

Here we have the defensive equivalent.

Everything is different in a quarters-match. There are now two deep safeties, not one. Duh. No one is rotating toward the line of scrimmage — late — in order to reroute any kind of vertical release, and, if necessary, form a second wall against the run.

Run fits are different: A safety is now responsible for the cutback lane, as opposed to the weakside ‘backer – that guy spends much of his time plugging away against inside-zone. And there’s a greater emphasis on making numbers count outside the box, rather than squeezing an extra defender alongside the linebacker tandem – a nice way to ward off option-routes and inhibit RPOs.

Oh, and there is much, much less ground to cover in the pass game – with everything unfolding in front of a safety’s eyes, as opposed to spending some of the game running in-phase with a receiver (as the rotating safety must in Rip/Liz). Their life is spent running bracket concepts – a safety/linebacker double.

Of course, every team in the league dabbles with two-deep safeties (the Patriots have a particularly frisky Tampa-2 look from their radar package), some use Cover-2 as base, but that’s different from practicing and playing in quarters your entire college career.

Put simply: the skillsets are different.

Flowers was a fine collegiate safety. He didn’t have the chops to make the leap to the NFL playing the same position.

Flowers lacked size; he is lanky, not bulky. It hurt him in the run-game. He finished 4th in the nation in tackling efficiency, per ProFootballFocus. The numbers are good; the process less encouraging.

He consistently struggled to get in position. Too often, he would dawdle towards the line of scrimmage, fill the wrong lane, and be left to make an arm challenge (#31):

He often showed brilliant diagnose-and-attack instincts against the run. Even when he got himself to the right spot on the field, however, he would failed to square to his man, finishing with an arm tackle:

Other times he was flat-out run over at the point of attack:

You can’t get away with those mental errors or physical deficiencies at the next-level, particularly inside. A bunch of his 79 tackles in 2017 came from bang-bang plays in coverage. His stop percentage (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage) was among the weakest in his draft class.

We know why the Seahawks landed on Flowers, though. Length, baby. John Schneider and Pete Carroll can’t get enough of it. And Flowers is super, duper long.

Lean-cut and gangly, Flowers is 6-3 with 33 7/8-inch arms, taller and longer than any cornerback tested at this year’s combine (Colorado’s Isiah Oliver was closest – 6-0, 33-inch arms). He can really run, too. Flowers tested quicker at the 2018 combine (4.4) than Derwin James, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the DBs considered the freakiest of the freak athletes.

That’s some create-a-player type stuff. Here’s the issue, though: he doesn’t quite look like a football player; he looks more like a high-jumper. Flowers is lean and long and not nimble. His legs are almost too long. He’s not a matchup threat like Fitzpatrick of James; he doesn’t have slippery hips.

Flowers is a tight-hipped defender who struggles to transition out of his backpedal — laterally, or planting and driving forwards. He was a poor high-hole defender in college. He struggled to cover ground whenever he was asked to cover the deep middle third of the field, arriving on the scene too late. He was slow to recognize second-tier/intermediate route-concepts (#31, field side safety):

He couldn’t adjust against double-moves:

Timed speed and play speed are two different things. Flowers is a 4.4 athlete. But his lack of recognition skills and hip mobility rendered it neutral; he couldn’t transition and break on the ball.

You can’t play in the middle of the field without change of directions skills unless you see things a tick before normal, particularly on intermediate concepts. Flowers doesn’t:

Flowers struggled in off-coverage. His eyes and his feet weren’t good enough. For some reason, Oklahoma State persisted (Surprise: they have a new DC this year.):

Watch above, he tracked the motion-man – the epitome of the chuck-him-anywhere Swiss Army Knife defender. Everything after that was a mess. He started with inside position, where he could have nudged the shorter, nippier dude he was covering, buying himself some time and disrupting the route. He didn’t. He over-extended himself and cleared a path for the receiver to accelerate. Flowers had to chop his feet, open the gate, and hang on for dear life. The receiver zoomed past him.

Whenever Flowers descended into the slot, he got roasted, conceding an NFL passer rating of 108.4, per ProFootballFocus. That’s pretty dismal. He doesn’t quite have the agility to twist in and out; his footwork gets sludgy.

Still: it’s not all doom and gloom! There’s plenty of good stuff in Flowers’ tape; he was just miscast.

Kicking outside is his best chance to make it in the league long-term. It could unlock a whole host of potential. He has the size, speed and length to compete with anyone vertically – even when team’s isolate tight ends on one side of the formation, in fact, particularly when they do so.

His unusual length is a major advantage; he can reach his arm to places others cannot. It helps him recover from early losses:

That’s a great example of the good and the bad. Flowers didn’t come out of his break clean, but he was still able to make a play on the ball. Sure, the throw was slightly behind the receiver. A better throw would have punished the safety:

But Flowers remained calm and recovered, punching the ball out.

He uses his length best to jam receivers. He can sink those go-go-gadget arms on fools from what must feel like many miles away. We weren’t treated to nearly enough of it in college.

There were intermittent spurts (#31, boundary corner, bottom of screen):

Above, Flowers didn’t quite get a clean hit on his man. The receiver did a nice job of shrinking his body. Flowers still did enough to disrupt the receiver’s release, smothering the in-breaking route and taking away any path for a throw.

There are few coaches walking the earth as good at teaching the nuances of body positioning and how a defender should use their length as Pete Carroll. I imagine he’s giddy with excitement to work with his new toy.

Flowers needs to get better with his radar – Carroll will help with that. He must get stronger, too. There’s no use in driving your arms into the chest of a receiver if you’re going to come off worse for it (#31, slot):

That’s quite clearly a push-off from the receiver. But Flowers engaged first. The other guy was flat-out sturdier.

Flowers has a steep learning curve ahead of him. Gulp. He has, however, shown glimpses of taking to his new position early in the preseason. Huzzah!

His bump-and-run skills are already transitioning:

Being able to get his hands on receivers at the LOS more consistently will make a huge difference. Flowers was called for a PI on that play. It was deserved; he panicked at the end of the play, grabbed and twisted the receiver.

But once again, let’s focus on the process, not the outcome. This time it’s positive: Flowers is a fighter up at the line of scrimmage. His jam wasn’t the cleanest, but he rid the initial part of the rep and hung on the receiver’s hip; he mirrors well in press. At the end of the play, he was in a great position to attack the ball.

A little more composure would have done.

Ball skills have always been a part of his arsenal. Back in school, he had great instincts against quick-breaking stuff. Watch him read-and-fire on this switch concept:

Unfortunately, he spent much of his time viewing the game 15-yards back from the line of scrimmage, where he couldn’t quite be as effective (he still had 8 pass breakups and 2 INTs in 2017. His skills warranted more).

One tidbit to monitor: he has to do a better job at turning his head around to find the ball:

This isn’t a nit-pick. It was one of his annoyingly consistent traits in college. Some coaches, particularly with young corners, ask their guys to track the receiver’s eyes, view the ball into their arms, then knock it out, rather than searching for the ball and losing it in flight:

That’s a play where Seattle shifted Flowers into the slot. The Colts ran a slot fade, a vertical concept playing right into Flowers’ hands. He played it well, stone-walling the receiver and not giving him an inch. He didn’t turn around to find the ball. It’s too small of a sample size to know whether that’s a hangover from his college days, or whether it’s what the Seahawks’ staff has asked of him. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

Look for his development as a tackler, too. It’s a bubble-screen league after all. We know Seattle values tackling on the perimeter – we’re treated to a nice profile of their new, new-age technique each offseason. Flowers’ instincts are there. The hope is he can improve his positioning and form now that he’s outside, where there are less bodies messing with his sightline. This, from the first game against the Colts, wasn’t an improvement:

Again, he’s not drawing his balance or power from the ground up; he throws his arms out and wraps the receiver in his tentacles, rather than squaring up using his full body. It’s a recipe for broken tackles.

Shifting to the boundary from the middle of the field is difficult for anyone. It’s extra difficult for a rookie. It’s extra, extra difficult when you’re coming from a completely different system. And It’s extra, extra, EXTRA difficult when moving into Seattle’s base cover-3 system, with all its intricacies: press-and-trail; the kick-step; being asked to peak and view multiple things at once; and the matchup variants. There have been NFL veterans who’ve been bamboozled by what Carroll and company have asked of them. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, apparently.

Flowers, this strange, appositional, basketball-looking player will be up against it. Perhaps learning this system (not simply the scheme, but the systematic approach to cornerback mechanics) from the ground up is the best thing for him. He’s long, he tries, and he seemingly knows where to be. That’s a start.

Banking on him to be a contributor early in the season is a step too far. Let’s give him some time, maybe?

There is an interesting package of football skills in there. Flowers might never put them together, but it’s going to be fun watching him try.