Seahawks go for young defensive backs

Seahawks go for young defensive backs

Credit: AP

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll watches a walk-through practice at the NFL football team's training camp Thursday, July 28, 2011, in Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)


by Associated Press

Posted on August 6, 2011 at 9:13 PM

Updated Saturday, Aug 6 at 9:13 PM

RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks didn't completely revamp their secondary from last season, but the depth of Seattle's defensive backs is younger and bigger.

A year after the Seattle Seahawks gave up 60 passes of 20 yards or more, the second-highest total in the NFL and five more than any other playoff team, John Schneider has taken a pass on several high-talent cornerbacks who hit the free agent market and opted instead to stick with the young defensive backs that he and head coach Pete Carroll drafted in the last two years.

"I think it's great," he said. "I'm really excited about it. The size, the strength -- you got some guys that are big and can run . I think when you look at that defensive backfield right now, there's a lot of young guys out there that look fast and big and strong and tough."

What they are not is experienced, beyond starting cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings. The 31-year-old Trufant has lost a step along the way, and the 175-pound Jennings struggles to keep up with bigger receivers. Fifteen-year veteran safety Lawyer Milloy was not asked back to the team, and with Schneider's proclamation that he's "happy with our young guys," things could change further.

The only guaranteed holdover in the secondary is second-year safety Earl Thomas, one of two Seattle first-round picks last season. Strong safety Kam Chancellor, another NFL sophomore, is expected to take Milloy's starting position. And at depth for cornerback, the Seahawks present a series of question marks.

The proposed future starter at cornerback, 2010 fourth-round pick Walter Thurmond, has been on the sidelines for the last week with an ankle injury. The 2011 late-round picks and undrafted free agents such as Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell are just trying to hang on for preseason playing time.

According to Carroll, making the grade in the defensive backs rotation has as much or more to do with taking advantage of pure physical gifts -- size, speed, the ability to jump in coverage -- as opposed to positional development or years of experience.

"We're always looking for people with special dimensions -- you've heard me say that before. Aspects of their play, unique characteristics that they have," he said.

Sherman is one good example. A receiver during his first two seasons at Stanford, Sherman switched to cornerback before the 2009 season and showed enough in two years to merit a fifth-round pick by Seattle in the 2011 draft. In his first NFL training camp, he's still putting the ideal skill set together. But he fits the Seahawks' new prototype, and that's why Carroll seems excited about his potential.

"I'm really happy with his progress so far. He's done a lot of really good things. He's a very, very competitive kid, very bright and he gives you the feeling that he might be able to contribute. It looks like a terrific pick for us."

The primary responsibility for developing these young players goes to defensive backs coach Kris Richard, who played for Carroll at USC and was selected in the third round of the 2002 draft by Seattle. When his NFL career ended, he went back to USC as a graduate assistant coach, and followed Carroll to Seattle in 2010.

"We love their physical attributes," Richard said of his young charges. "We want to allow them to let their physical nature take over in certain situations. We want our cornerbacks to be up in the faces of the receivers, and challenge them. They understand that, and that's why they come here (as undrafted free agents). And when we draft them, and he have the opportunity to talk to them before, that's that we let them know."

In the short term, Trufant and Jennings are important because they bring experience - they're "good in the meeting room," as coaches like to say. And while all young players are affected by the compressed preseason time frame brought about by the lockout, Richard makes it very clear that no excuses will be tolerated. If you want more playing time, you'd better stand out to earn it.

The Seahawks have put their money on other positions and left the defensive backfield to tenuous experience and unproven athletic talent. The return on that investment may be the difference between a playoff berth and a long offseason in which the choice to avoid those pricey free agents is questioned over and over again.