Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks Enter Crucial 2014 Season

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Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks Enter Crucial 2014 Season
John Froschauer/Associated Press

After Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond were suspended last season, the Seattle Seahawks were forced to turn to Byron Maxwell as their second-starting cornerback across from Richard Sherman.

Maxwell appeared to seamlessly slide into the starting lineup of a defense that would eventually dominate the Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl victory. Even once Thurmond returned to the field, he was limited to playing in the slot and behind Maxwell in base defenses.

The 6'1", 207-pound 26-year-old is expected to enter the 2014 NFL season as the starter, partly because both Browner and Thurmond have moved on, but primarily because of his play.

Questions about Maxwell's ability to be effective in the Seahawks defense were answered last season. The important question for the Seahawks entering this season is whether Maxwell is a replaceable piece or someone they need to retain moving forward.

Maxwell is entering the fourth season of his career after being selected in the sixth round of the 2011 draft.

Before the 2013 season, he had barely played and never started. He only became a starter for the Seahawks in Week 13 last year, so the sample size on which the Seahawks currently have to judge him stretches just eight games.

Those eight games will set the baseline for how Maxwell is judged after next season. 

 

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays

Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown. This includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn't part of the screen, these plays do not count. 
  • Plays where either the receiver or the cornerback doesn't follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays. Including designed quarterback runs.

 

Failed Coverages

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is not an analysis of how many completions the cornerback allowedthat can be found elsewhere. This is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arm's reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

 

Shut Down

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them toward the sideline, suffocating the space they have in which to catch the football. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

 

In Position

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be "in position," a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

 

Individual Matchups

This series of articles always looks at individual matchups, and each of those matchups qualify if they feature four snaps against the specific cornerback. Because Maxwell didn't play a full season and because he played a huge amount of zone, he didn't have many qualifying matchups.

No. Player Successful Snaps/Total Coverage Snaps Percentage
1 Hakeem Nicks 4/4 100%
2 Brian Quick 3/4 75%
3 Quinton Patton 3/4 75%
4 Michael Crabtree 3/9 33%
5 Chris Givens 1/4 25%
6 Demaryius Thomas 1/4 25%

Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

The brevity of this chart highlights the problem with evaluating Maxwell's all-around game.

He was rarely stressed in man coverage because the Seahawks defensive line was able to get to the quarterback quickly, because their base coverage schemes focused more on zone coverage and because the Seahawks coaching staff made a concentrated effort to give him as much help as possible.

Often, Maxwell would essentially only have to worry about two areas of the field in the Seahawks Cover 3.

As Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen illustrates, the Seahawks asked their cornerbacks to press receivers at the line of scrimmage, but in their Cover 3 defense they would always have linebacker help underneath, and any routes breaking inside the hash marks would often just be funneled to Earl Thomas.

While Maxwell still has to make good decisions and be aware of the route combinations around him in this defense, he was also able to be much more aggressive because his mistakes could be covered by the quality of the defense around him.

 

Weekly Breakdown

This section breaks down each game of Maxwell's season individually.

Week 13: New Orleans Saints
Total qualifying plays: 4
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 3

On the very first third-down play of the game, the Seahawks showed their hand with Maxwell.

NFL.com

The Seahawks initially look like they are going to play a Cover 4 or some variation of that with both safeties deep at the snap. Instead, Earl Thomas immediately moves toward Kenny Stills to double-team him with Maxwell, while Kam Chancellor appears to be responsible for the tight end underneath but gets distracted by the middle of the field.

Ultimately, Richard Sherman is left alone on an island with Robert Meachem, a matchup that Sherman easily wins.

Maxwell had very little to do on this play. He held his depth and outside positioning, but as soon as Stills ran inside he became Thomas' responsibility. Unless Maxwell tackled Thomas before the snap, there was very little he could have done to negatively affect this play.

Thomas immediately looked at Stills, and Drew Brees was looking to his right throughout the play, so it's obvious that the safety wasn't simply reacting to the play as it developed.

Later in the first quarter, Maxwell showed off how he fits in the style of cornerback that the Seahawks want to feature. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wants aggressive, technically sound cornerbacks who understand how to be physical without drawing flags.

On this play, Maxwell is lined up against Jimmy Graham in space.

NFL.com

Graham initially acts like he is going to release toward the sideline and run downfield, but Maxwell perfectly slides weight to take that away. Graham is running a slant route, so he happily seizes his opportunity to break inside.

Not only does Maxwell use his hands well to legally slow Graham down, he wastes no movement or time with his feet as he plants his outside foot and swings his inside foot so he sticks to Graham's shoulder. Maxwell couldn't have covered this route any better.

While that was a play that would make his teammate Sherman proud, it wasn't enough to put Maxwell on his level.

Sherman is a great cornerback for many reasons. One of the most prominent is his ability to consistently disrupt receivers early in routes without giving that receiver space in which to work. While Maxwell clearly has the ability to play that kind of coverage; the consistency simply isn't there yet.

NFL.com

On this play, Meachem initially releases toward Maxwell's chest before working toward the sideline. Once Maxwell beings moving that way, he is too aggressive and tries to force Meachem further toward the sideline. This allows Meachem to release back inside where he is wide open over the middle of the field.

Brees never saw him as he worked to the other side of the field.

Overplaying the sideline is something that repeatedly came up with Maxwell. He normally could afford to be that aggressive because he had help around him, but in another setting those mistakes would likely have led to big plays.

Maxwell's aggressiveness stood out in man coverage, but the opposite is what made him stand out in zone.

Consistently throughout the game, Maxwell made excellent decisions and understood how to position himself to best react to different routes in relation to the rest of the defense. He is quick to attack the football and constantly moves his feet, but he doesn't make rash decisions that would lead to more big plays in his direction.

This play is an excellent example of how Maxwell's agility, awareness and ball skills make him so good in zone coverage.

NFL.com

Early on in the route, the receiver runs toward the sideline. Maxwell moves laterally so he can keep his eyes on the football while keeping the receiver in his peripheral vision. When the receiver turns down the sideline, Maxwell is comfortable enough to flip his hips without turning around to locate him.

Maxwell keeps moving with the receiver, but a slight pause comes when he stops to recognize where the deep safety is.

This gives the receiver a slight window to escape, but Maxwell doesn't linger on his pause and is very quick to recover the ground. Eventually, Brees' pass arrives in the end zone, but Maxwell is in the perfect position to go up and knock it out of the air.

 

Week 14: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 9
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 4

Maxwell had one very impressive play in this game when he intercepted Colin Kaepernick.

NFL.com

He didn't get credit for a shutdown on this play because of the linebacker giving him underneath help, but his patience at the release and ball skills to find the football were exemplary. The pass was underthrown by Kaepernick, but Michael Crabtree never had a chance on this play.

Outside of that big interception, it wasn't a day to remember for Maxwell.

Crabtree beat him on a curl route, but Maxwell's aggressiveness took him out of the play. He followed that up with a reception on an imperfect back-shoulder throw that could have been stopped, but Maxwell never turned his head to find the football.

Anquan Boldin beat him on a curl route, but only Crabtree had forced Maxwell to interfere with him twice.

NFL.com

Fortunately for the defensive back, one of the plays when he blatantly interfered with the receiver went uncalled. That play would have been huge for the 49ers, as well, because it was deep down the sideline. The other came on an out route when he was penalized.

 

Week 15: New York Giants
Total qualifying plays: 9
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 5

Maxwell had two interceptions in this game, but before we get to them there are important aspects of his coverage to note.

NFL.com

Victor Cruz isn't the strongest receiver in the NFL, but he can be physical at the catch point on occasion.

On this play, Maxwell is very quick and aggressive with his coverage. Even though the ball is tipped at the line of scrimmage, he would still have been in a great position to break on a well-thrown pass ahead of Cruz. His physicality at the top of the route clearly affected Cruz.

Inconsistency was a recurring trend with Maxwell, and it soon showed up in this game.

NFL.com

After handling Cruz's curl route perfectly, he drifted away toward the sideline in press coverage against his slant route. Cruz didn't catch the football because he understood that he would need to absorb a massive hit from Chancellor.

This is part of the benefit of playing with the best safety pairing in the NFL. Maxwell was beaten, but his mistake went unpunished.

NFL.com

Maxwell's first interception came in zone coverage and required impressive ball skills. While the ball skills were important, this turnover was more a reward for his willingness to be aggressive with the receiver. Maxwell didn't catch the ball cleanly, but he was close enough to Cruz to react to it.

It must be noted that this was a zone play where Maxwell could be aggressive because he was able to prioritize all sideline routes over anything else. The proximity of the safety and linebacker to Maxwell stands out before the ball arrives.

Maxwell's second interception highlighted his ball skills.

NFL.com

Hakeem Nicks didn't put any effort into adjusting to a poorly thrown pass from Eli Manning. Maxwell wasn't playing with that lethargic attitude. He was opportunistic and attacked the football as soon as he recognized the flight of it.

It should be noted that Maxwell doesn't consistently find the football, but when he does, his ball skills to adjust to it and beat the receiver to it are very impressive. 

 

Week 16: Arizona Cardinals
Total qualifying plays: 5
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 3

There wasn't much to read into from this game, but there was one play that serves as an example for every NFL defensive back.

Playing cornerback in the NFL requires an ego. An ego that sometimes rubs people the wrong way, but whether that ego is masked or celebrated nationally, it must exist. That is because there will be plays at this level where the cornerback makes an incredible play, but the receiver still wins.

Maxwell experienced this in one of the worst possible ways, as Michael Floyd caught a game-winning touchdown over him.

NFL.com

The defensive back's coverage is really, really good on this play. He runs stride for stride with Floyd down the sideline with no safety help or linebacker help. He turns around and locates the football, but he simply can't extend to recover against a perfectly thrown pass from Carson Palmer.

This is the kind of play that can break the spirit of an insecure player.

 

Week 17: St. Louis Rams
Total qualifying plays: 9
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 3

This was a very poor display for Maxwell. An inept offense meant that his poor play wasn't highlighted, and he was even able to add another interception to his tally.

Chris Givens in particular was able to get the better of Maxwell. Givens beat him on a crossing route early on when he used a quick move at the line of scrimmage to send Maxwell toward the sideline. Soon after that, he was able to take advantage of Maxwell not being ready at the snap.

NFL.com

Givens gets in behind Maxwell and appears to be slowly pulling away from him as he runs down the sideline. Maxwell isn't able to turn to locate the ball as he tries to recover, but he doesn't need to because Kellen Clemens badly underthrows the ball.

This erases Givens' separation and gives Maxwell a chance to find the football.

Against Givens, Maxwell was beaten in man coverage three times. One of those occasions saw him interfere with the receiver on a double move, something he also did on a slant against Jared Cook. While Givens definitely got the better of Maxwell, he also gifted the defensive back a turnover.

NFL.com

The Rams receiver appeared to get the play call wrong on this play. He never runs a route. Instead, he runs directly toward Maxwell and appears to be waiting for the defensive back to try and run forward as if he was blocking on a screen play.

Of course, this means that when the ball comes, Maxwell has an easy catch to make.

 

Divisional Round: New Orleans Saints
Total qualifying plays: 3
Failed coverages: 0
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 3

The Saints brought a conservative offense to Seattle in the playoffs. They failed to isolate and attack Maxwell because the Seahawks were rarely pushed out of their Cover 3 defense. Maxwell consistently made good decisions in that zone defense, and his positioning in particular allowed him to be effective.

 

Championship Round: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 10
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 3

In their third meeting of the season, something appeared to click for Maxwell. He seemingly understood that the 49ers didn't have the speed outside to expose any mistakes he made with his aggressive coverage.

This allowed him to be more effective. He was still beaten a handful of times because he was too aggressive and overplayed the sideline, but for the most part he enjoyed his day—a day that was highlighted by two specific plays.

NFL.com

Early in the second quarter, Maxwell was slow to locate a back-shoulder throw while working against Boldin down the sideline. Boldin got his hands on the football, something that generally leads to a reception in these situations. However, Maxwell instantly attacked the ball in his grasp and punched it free.

The second play came early in the fourth quarter, but it was against Boldin again.

NFL.com

This time, Boldin was able to create some space to work his way down the sideline with early hesitation in his route. Maxwell showed excellent footwork to shadow the receiver before immediately reaching up to fight him for the football as it arrived.

Boldin had no chance of making the reception, and this was Maxwell's most impressive play of the season.

 

Super Bowl: Denver Broncos
Total qualifying plays: 8
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 3

Maxwell tried to be aggressive with Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, but they could combine size with quickness and speed, so that became a problem in space. He was beaten too often and had another interference call on him.

While Thomas did score a touchdown on a post route against the Seahawks' Cover 3 look, it was a perfectly timed and placed pass from Peyton Manning, so there wasn't a great deal Maxwell could have done.

 

2013 NFL Season Total
Total qualifying plays: 57
Failed coverages: 24
Shutdowns: 6
In Position: 27
Success rate for the season: 57.9 percent

 

Because the sample size is so small, there isn't really much that we can learn about Maxwell from his raw numbers. His overall success rate of 57.9 percent is horrible compared to other cornerbacks such as Alterraun Verner (79.8 percent), Sam Shields (68 percent) and Patrick Peterson (69.6 percent), but those players also had much more tape to show off.

His small sample of man coverage showed off inconsistency, but he proved to be a good zone cornerback on a much larger sample during that same period.

He definitely has the talent to be a high-quality starter in the Seahawks defense, but he needs to eradicate the inconsistency that spreads through different areas of his play. He needs to do that during the upcoming season, because he will become a free agent after it.

Because of the money they have already invested in their star players, especially in the secondary, it's clear that the Seahawks won't give Maxwell a big deal if he has a great season next year. What isn't clear is just how easy it would be to replace Maxwell and how much the Seahawks should be willing to invest.

Would a veteran on a minimum salary or a mid-round draft pick excel in the conditions the Seahawks can create around that spot on their defense? Or are Maxwell's ball skills and intelligence good enough to warrant a strong contract offer?

Great defenses don't need superstar players at every spot to be great. Building a sustainable unit is all about finding the right value at the spots around your stars. At this stage, Maxwell's value is blurred by his inconsistency and small sample size.

One of those things is guaranteed to be gone after next season. The other will likely determine if the Seahawks want to re-sign him.

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