So much has changed in the last two days regarding the Seahawks and their defensive backfield, that it is worth taking a few minutes to get acquainted with some new names--and some old ones--that may figure into the way the rest of this season unfolds.
IMPACT: Thurmond is due back for the last game of the season against the Rams if he can stay clean. When someone has ignored repeated warnings, it is not generally wise to rely on him. Seattle is a terrific secondary when Thurmond plays, but the front office needs to protect the team against the possibility that Thurmond slips up again. Some numbers could lead one to conclude he has been the best corner on the team this year. His loss is significant. Not only is he a great cover corner, but he is the only player on the roster with the skill set to play inside as a nickel corner. That is why the team starts him on the outside and then slides him inside when Browner is out. The fact that the team is putting on a full-court press to find a slot corner proves they are not satisfied with their internal options for that role. There is no sideline to help a nickel corner, and lateral movement is paramount. The angular corners Seattle employs on the outside tend to be less laterally-gifted, which is part of why Seattle can draft them in the late rounds. Other teams require their corners to be more well-rounded. The Seahawks face Lance Moore, Victor Cruz and Andre Roberts in the time Thurmond will be out. The team is far less equipped to defend those players now than they were with him in the lineup.
As best as we know from media reports, which we have been reminded need to be taken with a grain of salt, Browner has failed a drug test for a substance that is not listed on the performance-enhancing drugs (PED) list, most often reported to be marijuana. It is not yet clear how that has resulted in the reported one-year suspension for Browner versus the four-game penalty usually given first. It is possible that Browner's four-game suspension for a PED last season counts as his first, even if it was a different policy (PED vs Banned Substance). In any event, given Browner is an unrestricted free agent after this season, and word is that his appeal has already been heard, he likely has played his last game in Seattle. The team very likely will cut him to make a somewhat hollow point to locker room. They do not need to cut him as they gain a roster spot from the suspension. Players are very close to him on the team, and will not be thrilled if the team cuts him, but he is not allowed around the team or the facilities during his suspension, so there is little point in keeping him on the roster.
IMPACT: Seattle has 9-0 in the games without Browner in the last two seasons, winning by a combined score of 320-110. That, combined with Browner's very specific skill set, leads many fans to wave off his loss as no big deal. The Seahawks are certainly good enough to win without him, but they are better with him. There is a reason he was starting for the best secondary in football. He has elite ability to disrupt receivers off the line. Nobody may be better at it in the NFL. He is also terrific in run support. There are better pure cover covers on the Seahawks roster, but the real loss is how this impacts depth, which will be discussed later. On a personal note, Browner was among my favorite players on this defense, and I'm very disappointed he made decisions to cost him a chance to be a part of this Super Bowl run.
Walter Thurmond III
The Thurmond situation is more clear. He is suspended for the next four games for violating the substance abuse policy, again for marijuana, according to multiple reports. To reach the point of suspension for a non-PED offense, this has to be the second or third positive test for Thurmond. A player that was playing himself into a lucrative free agent contract next year has cost himself millions of dollars. Top corners of a young age can command as much as $25M guaranteed on the open market. Thurmond will be lucky to get $5M guaranteed at this point. His next offense will mean a full year suspension.
NEXT MEN UP
Maxwell appeared to take a big step forward in the pre-season, and should be ready to be a starting edge corner. He is physical, but does still tend to be a little handsy, and is more prone to penalty than Browner or Thurmond. He will likely be exposed at times as he adjusts to the additional snaps, but he also may make some terrific plays on the ball. He is ultra-aggressive and is a strong tackler and run supporter. He can slide inside, but is not well-suited for it. He did it at the end of last season when Browner and Thurmond were out, but only after the team tried Jeremy Lane there first. Putting him inside takes a good edge player and makes him a below average inside corner. Coaches want to optimize the use of their players, which is why adding a capable slot corner helps maximize Maxwell's contributions.
Lane has a loyal following among Seahawks fans for a guy that has played a very limited number of snaps. He is a fierce competitor with elite top-end speed. He was uneven during his opportunity at the end of last season. There were impressive plays defending the deep ball on the edge, and a number of face palm moments when asked to cover inside players. The team would like him to be the answer at nickel corner, and he very well may get a shot, but it is not what he was built to do. The dropoff from Maxwell to Lane on the edge is far steeper than the dropoff from either Browner or Thurmond to Maxwell. Another injury or player loss at the position makes them more vulnerable.
Shead is on the practice squad after a promising training camp. He has been listed as a corner, but started getting a number of snaps at free safety toward the end of camp. He played well enough there that I thought he may displace Chris Maragos and his larger contract. Not only does Shead display higher upside at safety, but he can play corner as well. That is valuable versatility on any roster. He was at the bottom, though, of the corner pile during camp. It was a damn talented pile that included a guy like Will Blackmon who is starting for Jacksonville. John Schneider has to be wondering if he made the right call in keeping players like Mike Person, Spencer Ware and Derrick Coleman over Blackmon. But I digress. Shead is an unknown at corner. he may have the lateral movement skills needed to be a decent inside corner, but it makes little sense to build any plans around him given the places this team wants to go. He could very well be one of the players added to the active roster, but almost certainly will not see playing time.
Simon never suited up for training camp after being drafted in the fifth round this year. The team knows almost nothing about him, and he knows very little about this scheme. He fits the bill physically of a Seahawks edge corner with height and strength. He is said to be starting practice this week. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the team decides he is part of the answer. Maxwell and Lane are firmly ahead of him on the edge, and no corner position requires more experience and savvy than the nickel corner. He would have perform like a star during practice in the next week or two to get a shot, and even then, the odds are long for him seeing the field.
POSSIBLE OUTSIDE ADDITIONS
Winfield was on top of the depth chart at nickel corner during camp. Thurmond played well enough that the team did not see a reason to carry Winfield's contract. That has looked like a prudent decision until this weekend. Winfield did not stand out during pre-season games or in practice. His age shows, as his speed and reactions just are not on par with a guy like Thurmond. He would be a definite step backward in nickel defense, but his pedigree still puts him light years ahead of any other option on table. Multiple reports state that the Seahawks have been contact with Winfield, and his signing was imminent late Sunday, but something unraveled in the contract negotiations. Winfield may be still evaluating his options. The only reason he would want to come back is if he was going to be part of a Super Bowl run. Coming back for four games until Thurmond is off suspension would not be worth playing for. Other teams have offered him deals to play this year, but has turned them all down. The Seahawks players have a ton of respect for Winfield, and he'd be an ideal replacement in terms of savvy, trust and ability to hit the ground running at the nickel corner position that he has known so well for so many years. The Seahawks would be wise to pay him what he wants and meet his demands. Seasons like this do not come along very often, and to risk it for what has to be a small amount of money or guarantees would border on arrogance.
Trufant is a career Seahawk, and a great guy. I would hate to see him come back and be the weak spot in the defense for a second straight season. Stay retired, Marcus. If the Seahawks sign Trufant, it is only because they refused to meet Winfield's demands. That would be a really tough pill to swallow.
I know the least about Cox. He was released by the 49ers, and has not signed elsewhere. Their corners were not great, as evidenced by Nnamdi Asoughma making their opening day roster. A Cox signing would fall under a similar category as Trufant in that it would mean the team did not meet Winfield's demands.