Secret Superstars 2014: Seahawks
By the time the Seahawks reached the Super Bowl, star cornerback Richard Sherman had become a household name, as much for his huge plays and bravado as his consistent lockdown coverage. But Sherman himself would admit that he’s only one piece of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary.
When quarterbacks avoided his zone they still didn’t find much success on the opposite side of the field, thanks to the equally impressive play of Byron Maxwell. A third-year cornerback who had to wait for his turn to crack the starting lineup, his clutch performance down the stretch made him both a Super Bowl Champion and a Secret Superstar.
Back Of The Line
Maxwell fell in the 2011 NFL Draft because many scouts didn’t project him to be a cornerback to begin with. His supposedly stiff hips made many question if he could run with pro receivers in man coverage. Coming out of Clemson, he may have seemed better suited to play safety. But Maxwell was an extremely physical player, sometimes opening himself up to penalties but tough in press coverage and eager to help in run support. What may have scared off some teams made him a perfect fit for the Seahawks, and Seattle snatched him up in the sixth round.
Maxwell joined a secondary that was already chock-full of key players who General Manager John Schneider found on Day 3 of the draft. Such a meritocracy helped him secure a roster spot, but he also was far back in the depth chart behind Sherman, Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond, and Jeremy Lane. Maxwell was relegated to special teams duty in 2011 and didn’t take a single defensive snap in 2012 until Browner was slapped with a suspension in Week 14.
Those final four weeks, however, were a sign of good things to come. Maxwell played 57.7% of the Seahawks snaps in that stretched, earned a +2.5 grade with no negative games, and surrendered just five receptions and no touchdowns on 14 targets. But once Browner returned for the playoffs, Maxwell was sent back to the bench.
In the 2013 preseason, Maxwell again showed nothing but promise. He allowed just two receptions in 61 coverage snaps, and also snagged an interception. He also leapfrogged Lane on the depth chart, and came in as the nickel cornerback when Browner missed the first three games of the regular season with a hamstring injury. Maxwell played 40% of the defensive snaps in those games and earned a +0.5 coverage grade, but was again back to the bench when Browner returned.
Window of Opportunity
This ping-ponging between the field and sideline finally came to an end in Week 10, when Browner suffered a groin injury and Thurmond was suspended two weeks later. Another Browner suspension followed, and the starting cornerback job opposite Sherman was Maxwell’s to lose. It was an opportunity he would not waste.
From Week 13 on, Maxwell ensured that the Seahawks had not just one shutdown cornerback, but two:
|Week 13 To Super Bowl||Targets Against||Completion % Allowed||Yds Allowed||TD Allowed||INT||Opponent QB Rating|
Maxwell’s +7.8 coverage grade in that span was second-best of any NFL cornerback, even better than Sherman. Outside of a poor performance against the Saints in the Divisional Round, he earned a positive coverage grade in every single game. Of the two touchdowns he allowed, one was a ridiculous catch by Michael Floyd in Week 15 on a ball that Maxwell actually deflected, and another was a Demaryius Thomas score in the Super Bowl when the game was already in hand. While quarterbacks avoided Sherman on one side, they found no success targeting Maxwell on the other.
Debunking The Draft
The more Maxwell was left in man coverage in Seattle’s Cover-1/Cover-3 scheme, the more he debunked the initial draft reports that dropped him to the sixth round. Often lining up in press, he consistently showed he could run with receivers downfield. He allowed just two receptions on 11 Deep Targets in 2013, with the only score being the aforementioned Floyd touchdown.
In Week 14 against the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick lofted a deep pass to the end zone for Michael Crabtree (sound familiar?) and Maxwell was right at the receiver’s hip to turn and grab the red zone interception. A week later, at the 15:00 mark of the fourth quarter against the Giants, he showcased incredible ball skills when he plucked away an interception from Hakeem Nicks using one hand.
While Maxwell was proving he could succeed as an NFL cornerback, he also kept the physicality that made many scouts peg him as a safety. He missed just one tackle in 27 attempts last season, the fourth-best rate among NFL cornerbacks. He allowed just 52 yards after catch on 29 receptions, and his 1.8 YAC per reception was the second-best rate of any cornerback with 100 snaps (Browner was first). And before allowing the touchdown in the Super Bowl, he ended any hopes of a Denver comeback earlier when he punched the ball out of Thomas’ hands for a fumble.
Including the playoffs, Maxwell’s +8.0 coverage grade last season was the 10th-best of any cornerback, and his 57.8 QB rating allowed was fourth-best among those with 300 snaps. Every Super Bowl winner has some drainage of talent in the offseason, and the Seahawks were no different once Browner and Thurmond left in free agency. But given how lights-out Maxwell was down the stretch, the Seahawks secondary shouldn’t skip a beat in 2014.
Follow Pete on Twitter.