Evaluating Safety-to-Cornerback Conversion Candidates for Seahawks in 2020 NFL Draft
Matty F. Brown
There's one measurement at the NFL combine that is always worth observing in relation to the Seahawks: the arm length of the defensive backs.
In the John Schneider and Pete Carroll era, Seattle has never taken an outside cornerback with an arm length below 32 inches. While not a hard-and-fast rule, it’s one Seattle has unconsciously abided by, as they value press coverage ability, ball skills, and aggression from the position - skills that longer arms enhance.
Of course, following the success of long day three cornerback prospects like Richard Sherman, the NFL soon tried to exploit the same market inefficiency as the Seahawks. For Seattle, it became harder to find corners with that magical measurement. The late steals dried up, replaced by far less polished undrafted free agent candidates. So, in typical fashion, the organization improvised.
Tre Flowers was a mediocre safety in the offensive carnage of the Big 12. He struggled at Oklahoma State – playing off the line of scrimmage while rarely getting to use his 33 7/8-inch arms and 6-foot-2, 208 pound frame to beat up receivers in close quarters. Instead, stiff hips and balance issues saw him outmatched when trying to vertical match rapid slot receivers with 15 yards of cushion. To play in the NFL, Flowers needed a reinvention. Seattle gave him that chance by taking him with a fifth round pick in 2018.
It’s clear the Seahawks’ cornerback room did not do well in 2019. Flowers struggled in the playoffs and Shaquill Griffin had another slump to end the year. Asked in Indianapolis what he made of the previous season’s defensive back room, Schneider’s answer matched fan frustration.
“I mean obviously we want to get better,” Schneider responded. “If I told you that we were satisfied with the performance, I’d be lying.”
The 2020 combine featured seven cornerbacks and five safeties with an arm length of 32 inches or longer. Two of these safeties will not escape early day two. Indeed, if Jeremy Chinn and Kyle Dugger played for Power 5 schools with more exposure, the consensus would likely lean towards them going in the first round. Chinn and Dugger will play some form of safety in the NFL, likely starting in Week 1 of 2020.
But there is promise with the other three lengthy alternatives. These safeties with 32-plus inch arms are not considered top players in their class. Michigan’s Josh Metellus, Georgia’s J.R. Reed, and Arkansas’ Kamren Curl are all expected to last potentially into day three. This area of the draft is a feasible time for Seattle to take a cornerback conversion project.
With COVID-19 halting pro days, prospect interviews, and player visits, the combine measurements have gained further importance when trying to narrow down which players should remain on the draft board.
Of even more value when evaluating each prospect is the film. In these bewildering times, suddenly ‘tape don’t lie’ and ‘football speed’ have become the only possible application for the vast majority of prospects. The coronavirus has restricted other scouting tools, so studying each player’s film has therefore rocketed to new heights.
Despite his rough tape, Flowers had elements to his college game that would carry over well to cornerback. I wrote last April that Flowers “processed two receiver route combinations well, shuffled, half-turned and moved like a Seattle corner, played with sound leverage, and was always around the football.” Post-draft, Carroll lauded Flowers’ willingness to hit and consistent presence around the football, elements the coach consistently emphasizes after adding a defensive back.
Aware of what we are looking for from the trio of 2020 safeties, let’s take a look at the coverage traits they exhibited in college. We are looking for translatable skills from Metellus, Reed, and Curl. How did they move? Were they around the football? Did they play with aggression? It should be clear if any of these players are eligible for Seattle’s cornerback conversion program.
Josh Metellus, Michigan - 5-foot-11, 209 pounds with 32 2/8-inch arms
Exposure: vs. Iowa 2019, at Wisconsin 2019, at Penn State 2019, vs. Ohio State 2019, at Notre Dame 2018, vs. Wisconsin 2018
Metellus’ best fit at safety would be in the box, occasionally getting the chance to cover a deep half but predominantly playing a quasi-linebacker role. Yet, we are dealing with cornerback traits and there is an immediate problem. Being less than 6 foot tall makes Metellus a questionable fit for outside duty. (Typically, Seattle is taking cornerbacks taller than 6-foot-1)
Metellus' 3-cone (6.9 seconds) was decent, which brings up potential slot corner potential. Seattle has not yet brought in competition for Ugo Amadi, himself drafted as a free safety. A repeat of last year's predominantly base 4-3 defense feels painful. T.J. Carrie and Damarious Randle have arisen as veteran options Schneider is rumored to be considering. Metellus is a smooth mover in deep halves too, able to transition with control from open hips to closed - and vice-versa.
Metellus’ full-time nickel hopes are dashed by his questionable coverage ability against the quicker and faster targets. He got roasted in the Senior Bowl in coverage versus tight ends, let alone receivers. As is typical for college safety prospects, his press technique was not suited to regularly covering NFL athletes.
With the Wolverines, Metellus’ main man coverage assignments were tight ends. The coaching, as a result, reflected this. He was aware of where his coverage help was and his jam strength got the job done when connecting.
Metellus did not receive many press reps, instead mainly asked to catch his receiver from an off alignment. Lots of the one-on-one situations saw Metellus rely on grabbing his opponent to recover at the route stems. He had difficulty with deceptive stems in general. This mainly stemmed from initially light, buzzing feet not taking Metellus to the target. Once the receiver left Metellus’ frame, the defender was left lunging because he was not close enough to his opponent. His diagnosis of the route and/or his footwork as the play developed betrayed him.
Metellus’ ball location was late when in man, with Metellus overly cautious in timing his look to the quarterback. Too often, he only looked to the quarterback once the ball was in the hands of the receiver, belying a lack of confidence in his one-on-one coverage ability. This damaged his ability to compete at the catch point. Most serious, Metellus lacks the long speed to stay in phase with receivers downfield from the trail position - if he slimmed down from 209 pounds, then maybe he gets faster?
The footage of Metellus’ time at Michigan reminds me of the role Lano Hill played in Ann Arbor. Teaching him a press technique and letting him bully receivers would be intriguing, but Metellus would be better deployed in a defense like the Patriots. For Seattle, he would be a depth safety with some big nickel potential. Whatever team drafts him will grow frustrated with his consistent over-running of plays when trying to tackle.
J.R. Reed, Georgia - 6-foot-1, 202 pounds with 32 4/8-inch arms
Exposure: neutral vs. LSU 2019, vs. Notre Dame 2019, at Florida 2019 , vs. Auburn 2018, neutral vs. Alabama 2018
Reed showed smart football at Georgia. He identified routes that threatened his area, sorting them from a top-down approach. He was able to stay aware of multiple dangers in middle of the field closed and open coverages. The comprehension of route concepts and his assignment extended to underneath zones, where he displayed capable coverage. When visioning the quarterback in zone, Reed was good.
The issues for Reed mainly stemmed from a lack of athleticism, where he lacked range and therefore true play making ability. His cerebral play, plus willingness to stick his nose into plays, makes him an option as an interchangeable safety in Seattle, similar to the role of Bradley McDougald - a man with limited athleticism too.
Reed’s cornerback potential feels unlikely. There is recognition and anticipation. But he was unable to fully capitalize, hampered by a lack of twitch to break. When trying to come down to the football - say on slants in man coverage or on a seam in a deep zone - he could not explode and often needed added steps, which speaks to a lack of agility. He lacked the athleticism to make more aggressive plays.
Reed’s hoppy footwork in off coverage further damaged his short area quickness and ability to cut. The deceptive wiggle utilized by various receivers at route stems preyed on his lack of twitch, seeing him too slow to compete at the catch point and only able to rally down for the tackle. On vertical routes, Reed struggled to transition from catch man, taking too long to begin the process of flipping and then being damaged by some hip rigidity. Receivers were able to get on his toes and burn.
Yet Reed’s length combined with his football intelligence manages to keep a conversion intriguing. His angles to receivers were optimal. His long speed was fine. Furthermore, his ability to leverage routes and maintain that initial leverage impressed. That’s vital stuff for a Seattle corner.
Of greater importance is the ability to press. The Seahawks might prefer a corner who is a moldable piece of putty, a player who has never been coached how to press and therefore is totally receptive to Seattle’s step-kick, with no risk of the player reverting to old habits.
Reed had an elongated sideways shuffle that spoke of no real technique. He could learn how the Seahawks jam and bully receivers down at the line of scrimmage. Playing outside at cornerback would provide him with the certainty of a sideline. It would enhance the leverage Reed plays with, giving him more security to make plays.
The issue is Reed would still lack quickness and agility. This, ultimately, is likely to keep him at safety. Not being the best athlete firmly caps Reed’s development potential. But him defying the athletic limitations to become a starter at safety would not be overly surprising given his reliable IQ. After all, Reed arrived at Tulsa as a two-star recruit, transferred to Georgia and graduated as a senior defensive leader.
Kamren Curl, Arkansas - 6-foot-1, 206 pounds with 32 5/8-inch arms
Exposure: at LSU 2019, at Kentucky 2019, vs. Auburn 2019, vs. Alabama 2018, at Mississippi State 2018, vs. Auburn 2017
Curl understandably chose to leave the mess of Arkansas early after back-to-back 2-10 seasons. The junior played his last two campaigns as a safety, mainly assigned a “hash protector” role. Most interesting, though, the 21-year old started as a left cornerback in his true freshman year.
Curl spent the majority of his safety snaps aligned to the field, a testament to his coverage. On a woeful defense, he managed to execute his assignment and regularly do his job. He was visibly calm and patient processing vertical threats, reading his triangle well, honoring the deepest route, and not taking the cheese. His leverage maintenance was consistent in deep zone matching but also when in one-on-one coverage assignments. He pitched his tent taking on receivers in the slot.
Matchups on the inside were what Curl struggled with most though. Like Reed, Curl struggled due to a lack of twitch. He ran a 7.14 second 3-cone at Arkansas’ pro-day. His agility was lacking on tape, with added steps when reading and slips when trying to break on stuff in front of him. He lacked the quickness necessary to succeed in the motor mirror press the Razorbacks coached him. Length that would have been useful attacking receivers at the line was wasted - and often trickier to use due to slots mainly being off the line of scrimmage.
Looking back at Curl’s 2017 year at corner, the absence of technique carryover to Seattle’s system continued. Curl rarely pressed and rarely was tasked with maintaining a distinct leverage. The Arkansas defense asked corners to play with a head-up backpedal that is, frankly, antiquated. In this technique, Curl had whiffs of balance and fluidity issues when trying to transition from his pedal to a sprint. But, again, this isn’t overly applicable to the Seahawks’ defense. It would be nice to see him in half-turn stuff.
During his senior year of high school, Curl caught 46 passes for 533 yards and six touchdowns as a wide receiver. His route identification skills from off man in his college backpedal therefore made sense. He managed to undercut vertical routes and benefit from his length to play the football. Even when getting his prognosis wrong, which happened too often with stem deception, there was a comfortable speed turn to recover from Curl.
Flowers at the 2018 combine ran a 4.45 40-yard dash. You’ll notice that none of the 2020 triumvirate ran in the 4.4 second range. However, the reliability of the combine testing numbers is questionable, with results less impressive across the board as the NFL emphasized prime-time television and damaged the job opportunity of the prospects in attendance.
A sound approach is weighing the tape more heavily than usual. I guess I watched this many games so you didn’t have to arrive at a similar conclusion. Of the trio, Reed and Curl feel eligible if they are hanging around late in the draft or as undrafted free agents. They both like to hit, albeit needing some technique changes, and were around the football. Curl revealed to the Athletic’s Kelly Stacy that he spoke to the Seahawks.
Their athleticism won’t improve though. The absence of potential converts may have been a partial influence on Schneider - always looking to “tweak” - when the general manager decided to trade a 2020 fifth round pick for Quinton Dunbar. The arrival of the skilled corner, who predominantly played right outside in Washington, calls into question the starting place of Flowers himself. By no means is the concept of converting safeties to cornerback dead but, as ever, the roster construction process is about maximizing value. I’ll have a full report on Dunbar up soon.
Finally, looking towards the draft, the defensive back names linked with the Seahawks have started to become more small school in nature, with the team taking interest in cornerbacks who are most likely to be priority undrafted free agents - I wouldn’t actually know, because good luck acquiring this kind of footage!