By Danny O’Neil
Wait until we get some tall cornerbacks in here.
It was a declaration as much as a prediction made by John Schneider during his first year as Seahawks general manager. It was a statement both prophetic and important because of all the changes Seattle made over the past three years, the transformation at the edge of the secondary is the most extreme.
It wasn’t all that long ago the Seahawks drafted Kelly Jennings in the first round and followed that up by picking Josh Wilson in the second, and as steady and professional as Marcus Trufant was in his decade as a Seahawk, he was never the kind of bump-and-run, press cornerback that Seattle now features.
Football games may be won and lost at the line of scrimmage, but Pete Carroll’s defense in Seattle is largely built around its cornerbacks, a fact that is reflected both in the importance of starters Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner as well as the depth this team has developed at that position.
Seattle has kept four cornerbacks at the 53-man cut in five of the past 11 seasons.
Seattle has kept an average of 5.3 cornerbacks in Carroll’s three seasons, which is an increase from his predecessors. The Seahawks kept an average of 4.1 cornerbacks entering the regular season from 2002 to 2009.
And while the pecking order of Seattle’s cornerbacks isn’t up for debate with Sherman and Browner entrenched as the starters and Antoine Winfield and Walter Thurmond expected to enter the game in passing situations, Seattle has other promising players who are going to be fighting for a job in training camp.
The locks: Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman.
Browner was a Pro Bowler in 2011 and Sherman was named All-Pro in 2012, but the biggest testament to their prowess might be the fact that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was reduced to complaining about their physical style after a game in which his San Francisco team actually won. Harbaugh bristled when asked how Seattle managed to lock up the 49ers’ receivers — who had a combined total of six receptions in the Week 7 game.
“I wouldn’t use the words, ‘locked up,’ ” Harbaugh said the day after the game. “We’ll take that up with the officials and get their view of it.”
There might not be a bigger compliment to the way Seattle has overhauled their secondary than the fact that a Seahawks team once known for giving a significant cushion is now pushing the envelope in style of play to the point that the top rival in the division is asking officials to clarify what is allowed.
“Is it physical play within the rules?” Harbaugh asked last season. “That’s the biggest question. We have to ask that question. We have to know what the interpretation is.”
Almost certainly safe: Antoine Winfield, Walter Thurmond.
Danny O’Neil looks at where the Seahawks stand at each position group heading into training camp.
Winfield was added to upgrade the nickel defense. At 36, Winfield is the oldest player on Seattle’s roster. He’s also a three-time Pro Bowler who’s unafraid to stick his nose up to the line of scrimmage and sniff out screen plays.
Thurmond is someone who many have overlooked after injuries largely derailed his past two seasons. But he feels the best he has in two years, and he was one of the most impressive players during the Seahawks offseason workouts. At 5 feet 11, he’s not as tall as either of Seattle’s starting cornerbacks, but his wingspan is equal to that of the 6-3 Sherman. Thurmond is hardly guaranteed a spot on the team, and he must stay healthy, but given his performance this offseason, he is poised not only make the team, but was so explosive coaches were scrambling for ways to get him involved.
Inside track: Jeremy Lane.
Seattle relies upon its cornerbacks more in special teams than it did under previous coaches, a big reason the team has been inclined to carry more players at that position on the 53-man roster. Lane was relentless on special teams a year ago, especially as a gunner on the punt team, and the sixth-round pick out of Northwest State in Louisiana in 2012 continued to impress this offseason.
Sixth sense: Tharold Simon, Byron Maxwell, Will Blackmon, Ron Parker.
This might be one of the toughest training-camp competitions in Seattle, and while it’s not a starting spot that’s at stake, it’s something almost as important: a job.
Simon has that long-limbed build Seattle loves in its corners and a willingness to play a physical style, but a foot injury kept him out for most of the offseason practices. The fifth-round pick from LSU has some ground to make up if he’s going to be on the 53-man roster.
Maxwell was a sixth-round pick in 2011, and in his first training camp with the Seahawks, he looked like someone ready to play right away. Injuries have slowed him, though, as he has appeared in nine games each of the past two seasons.
Blackmon is a veteran whom Schneider knows well since the Packers drafted him in the fourth round in 2006. An explosive punt returner as well, Blackmon last played in the NFL in 2011 with the Giants. Parker has been with the Seahawks for parts of each of the past two seasons in addition to spending some time with the Oakland Raiders and Carolina Panthers.