When the Seattle Seahawks selected cornerback Byron Maxwell in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft, head coach Pete Carroll knew the organization had just drafted a big, strong, physical corner that could immediately improve the depth of a position that was vulnerable at the time.
“Byron is a big stud corner that makes hits and tackles and plays very well at the line of scrimmage,” Carroll said prior to the 2011 season, per Eric Williams of The News Tribune.
Yet, Carroll was one of the few that felt that way about Maxwell. A handful of teams had completely written him off based on the fact it took him so long to nail down a starting job at Clemson. Some scouts become unsettled when a player with loads of natural ability struggles to lock up a starting spot at their respective position.
Then there are other scouts who don’t see it as a red flag because of the defensive system the particular player plays in. That was the case for Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Clemson’s defense was known for its vaunted secondary, so it had the ability to rotate a number of starters in the defensive backfield on a weekly basis.
To no one’s surprise, the Seahawks’ decision to overlook Maxwell’s inability to consistently start (in college) has paid dividends. Over the course of 34 regular-season games, the lengthy corner has amassed 43 combined tackles, 16 passes defended, four interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Those numbers are extremely impressive considering he didn’t make his first NFL start until Week 13 of the 2013 season.
Since his first start, Maxwell has morphed into a top-notch corner. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 10th-best cover corner, he registered a multi-interception game against the New York Giants and opposing quarterbacks only completed 47.2 percent of their throws when they threw into his coverage area.
Furthermore, he surrendered two measly touchdown passes on 53 targets. Undoubtedly, Brandon Browner’s groin injury and year-long suspension was a blessing in disguise. Maxwell has upgraded the team’s right cornerback position for now and the foreseeable future.
@PFF_Pete Browner & Thurmond's suspensions were kind of a blessing in disguise because of how well Byron Maxwell has played.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) January 25, 2014
However, one awfully important question remains: What should we expect from Maxwell in the biggest test of his life?
It may sound simple, but we shouldn’t expect Maxwell to play any different than he has. Why? Because he has the right mindset. Here’s what cornerback Richard Sherman had to say about his teammate in a guest column on MMQB.com:
You see, when you’re an inexperienced cornerback playing against the best quarterbacks in the NFL, you know you’re going to get picked on. And there are two ways you can go about it: You can be nervous. You’ll wonder how you’re going to react. Guys ask themselves: What am I going to do if the ball comes? What happens if they keep catching balls on me?
Or you can go in there and say: I understand what they want to do on first down, second down and third down. I understand their concepts, their plays and their formations. I’m going to be aggressive and put myself in a position to make plays. That’s the mentality that Maxwell has. Like Earl Thomas always says, Maxwell gets ‘lost in the game.’
Maxwell’s mentality will come in handy versus Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. In two years' time, Decker has improved mightily and established himself as one of the most productive wideouts in the league.
Pro Football Focus awarded Decker with a plus-16.9 grade this season after he scored 11 touchdowns and hauled in 64.4 percent of his targets. Nonetheless, Sunday’s game won’t be Maxwell’s first rodeo. In seven starts (playoffs included), he dominated players like Jimmy Graham, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Michael Crabtree.
On 12 targets, he held Graham, Cruz, Nicks and Crabtree to 45 yards receiving on three receptions. Not to mention, neither of those four players scored a touchdown on Maxwell. Crabtree was the only pass-catcher who recorded two or more receptions on him.
That’s an interesting figure since Decker caught at least two passes in 17 games this season. The only corner to hold him to one catch was New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The lone reception Dennard allowed went for five yards and a first down.
Another intriguing piece of data to look at is Decker’s success rate on throws deep down the field. Based on Pro Football Focus’ deep-passing numbers, Peyton Manning connected on 48.2 percent of his throws that traveled 20 yards or more downfield. That was the second-best rate in the NFL behind Russell Wilson.
In total, Manning attempted 83 deep passes. Of those 83 attempts, Decker caught 15 of them for 509 yards receiving. Moreover, five of his 15 receptions ended in a touchdown and his catch rate was right at 60 percent.
So, how does Maxwell stack up versus receivers who do damage deep down the field? According to Aaron Randall and Pete Damilatis of PFF, he actually holds up quite well. On 406 pass-coverage snaps (playoffs included), he yielded two receptions and garnered three passes defended on throws 20 yards or more downfield.
@TysonNFL Hey Tyson, we've got QBs at 2-for-11 on deep targets vs Maxwell (including playoffs). Only TD was to Michael Floyd.— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) February 1, 2014
Even though Decker is the more practiced player, Maxwell has the statistical edge heading into Super Bowl XLVIII. And that statistical edge could end up being the difference in the biggest test of his life.
Plus, he knows Manning will be gunning for him. He is the most inexperienced defensive back in the “Legion of Boom.” Listen to what Maxwell told Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com:
I just know I’m unproven. I’ve got an All-Pro corner (Richard Sherman) on the other side. Everybody in the secondary is pretty much Pro Bowlers. I’m the only unproven one out there. So they’re going to come at me. It’s opportunities, really, and I’m just trying to take advantage of it.
The good news is, Maxwell took advantage of key opportunities at opportunistic times all season long. Don’t expect that to change on the NFL’s brightest stage.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).