If you asked any knowledgeable Seahawks pundit, prior to free agency, what the Seahawks' biggest needs were for the 2013 season, he or she would most reasonably provide you with a list along the lines of:
1. Pass Rushing Defensive Tackle
2. Playmaking Wide Receiver
3. Weakside Linebacker
4. Offensive Guard
5. Depth at Offensive Tackle, particularly on the not-left side of the line
6. Nickel Corner
After that euphoric period that was free agency, let's figure out which of Seattle's needs were adequately met.
1: Taken care of somewhat in the form of Michael Bennett. Cliff Avril helps alleviate pass rush woes as well!
2: I heard we got some guy named Percival? Doesn't sound like a very footballish name to me.
3. There are rumors that Cliff Avril will play SLB in 2013, functioning as a pass-rushing specialist that Leroy Hill was in 2005 but then was never allowed to be afterwards.
That leaves us with holes at OG, RT, and Nickel CB. I personally consider OG the least serious of these needs. John Moffitt was adept at run blocking last year, and though his pass blocking often left much to be desired, another offseason of footwork training should help ease Moffitt's technical troubles. James Carpenter, while healthy, turned into the human freight train, smothering defenders with his bulk. And, for all of Sweezy's struggles, the greenhorn lineman certainly showed an aptitude for improvement as the year went on. Essentially, this unit is not the one holding the Seahawks back from winning games.
Now, we're left with RT and Nickel CB. Pete Carroll has a lot of faith in Breno Giacomini, much more than most. Breno certainly has his weaknesses (see: little yellow flags, Chris Long), he is able to hold his own more often than not.
And then we have the Slot (Nickel) Cornerback. For most of last season, Marcus Trufant played this position. Remember those games where Seattle's defense would get stops on first and second down, the opposing offense would be in a third-and-long situation, and then they would somehow convert? If it's an explanation you're after, look no further. Some blame certainly can be put on the LB squad, whose late, poorly located zone drops allowed underneath passes to turn into first down conversions. But all too often, we saw Trufant a step behind his man, surrendering first down yardage. Even worse, Trufant often broke down in clutch situations. The Miami game is perhaps the most pertinent example of this, as Trufant practically broke down in coverage against Davone Bess, letting up key plays during Miami's game winning drive. In essence, Trufant was the weakest link in Seattle's defense during the 2012 season.
Of course, expecting Trufant to do well in the Nickel position wasn't very realistic. Trufant had played outside corner his whole career, using the sideline as an extra defender, creating "leverage" against receivers. Heck, Richard Sherman, in all his greatness, struggled mightily during the few plays he was lined up in the slot. Stevie Johnson burned Sherman for multiple catches and a touchdown while Sherman was lined up inside. Simply put, just because a corner can excel outside doesn't mean he can excel inside. Nickel Corner and Outside Corner must possess different sets of instincts - different footwork, different movement. Trufant proved he is just not quick enough to effectively line up against shifty, agile slot receivers. But it's a dirty job, and someone has to do it.
Now that we've identified the problem, how do we fix it? How do we plug that final, major hole in Seattle's defense, and become the equivalent of the 1985 Bears (Exaggeration)? Currently on the roster, we have Walter Thurmond III and Jeremy Lane as candidates to fill the slot spot, as Marcus Trufant is a free agent whom is not expected to re-sign with the team. Thurmond, if healthy, would be an immediate upgrade to Trufant and presumptive starter there. He's shown plenty of the athleticism and playmaking ability that is necessary to succeed while lined up inside. But ... If he's healthy.
So far, injuries have spun the story of Thurmond's young career. I know I'm not alone in believing that if Thurmond spends another year on IR, then his exit from the team is inevitable. Lane is the other option, and in 2012 he did decently well for himself lined up outside, replacing Brandon Browner during Browner's suspension. Just because he succeeded outside, however, is no indication of Nickel Corner success by any means, as stated above. Perhaps Lane could buck the trend, but with a whole draft still left to pursue young players, settling for Lane as a starter would be foolish, and would go against the Seahawks' m.o. of constant competition at every position.
Speaking of the draft, my proposed solution to the Nickel Corner problem is currently projected anywhere from round two to round four. His name has been thrown around Field Gulls before, and many are tentative about taking him. But there is literally no player that I (realistically) desire more than Tyrann Mathieu. But before we get into why he would help the team, let's establish that he won't hurt the team. Mathieu certainly has a past, you know, getting expelled from LSU for smoking too much pot. Looking at historical precedent; however, we can see that Pete and John have brought aboard numerous players with "issues," yet how much locker room drama/ off the field issues do we see affecting the play of the team? Almost none.
Even things like Marshawn Lynch's offseason DUI and Jeremy Lane's fight(s) in practice didn't hurt the team overall. Ultimately, so far, Seattle has been a place where character concerns go to die. Pete Carroll is masterful at working through those kinds of things. Since 2010, there have been guys with way bigger concerns than Mathieu who haven't been a problem for the team. So consider me one who is not at all worried about whether Tyrann Mathieu previously hit the bong in his spare time. Let's talk about his football prowess, and how he really is the perfect fit for Nickel packages.
Tyrann Mathieu is not as fast as your typical slot DB. He ran a 4.5 at the combine. He's short, standing only 5'9" tall (for reference though, Antoine Winfield is 5'9, 180). He spazzed while doing his bench press workout and only notched a pathetic four reps. But as Seahawk fans, and followers of Pete Carroll's and John Schneider's philosophies, we have to look at what a player can do, instead of what he can't do. We all know by now that Pete and John never write off a player simply due to his measurables (especially height!). What Tyrann possesses is a once in a generation playmaking ability. The simple fact that a player that small could, in two seasons (one where he was only a backup), force 11 fumbles, record 133 tackles, 16 for loss, 6 sacks, and 4 picks speaks volumes to this kid's playmaking ability. Watch his highlight film.
Tyrann naturally puts force towards the ball, and reacts to it incredibly fast. I wish the combine measured reaction time and coordination with numbers, because Mathieu excels in these areas. His ball skills are extraordinary; his hands, natural. Tyrann Mathieu is a game-changer.
The best part about Tyrann Mathieu is the fact that he really isn't an outside corner. He isn't technically sound enough to shut down an elite route running receiver. The strength of Mathieu's game is closing quickly on the ball, hitting hard, and making plays. He's perfect for the slot, and even more perfect for Seattle's defense. Tyrann's balance, low center of gravity, and football instincts will help neutralize the shiftiness of the slot receivers who so often rely upon fooling the slot corner. Furthermore, Mathieu doesn't have to be the star of the defense. There are enough elite players around him to compensate for risks he may take. And when Tyrann Mathieu swarms in to help make a tackle, the ball carrier better be sure to have both hands on the ball.
Overall, Tyrann Mathieu would be an excellent addition to our squad. His playmaking ability, and the fact that his football instincts and abilities limit him outside but help him inside indicates that he's the perfect fit for nickel corner. He certainly has his demons, but this would be a draft pick that could benefit the franchise for years to come.