Tre Brown and the Seahawks' New Cornerback Mold

After their somewhat surprising selection of short-armed corner Tre Brown, the Seahawks have established a new mold for the position. Matty F. Brown explores the reasons why, looking at Pete Carroll's history and Brown's Seattle fit.
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With the 137th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Seahawks broke an 11-year trend. The coach/general manager combination of Pete Carroll and John Schneider had never drafted an outside cornerback with arms shorter than 32 inches. Competition at this spot for the present and the future was a necessity heading into this year’s draft. 

Consequently, going rogue and befuddling draft analysts, Seattle added a 5-foot-9 and 3/4-inches tall cornerback with arms measuring just 30 3/8 inches long. When the Seahawks spent their fourth-round selection on Oklahoma standout Tre Brown, they established a new era. A fresh cornerback mold has been revealed.

Carroll himself used the term “mold” when describing the process of Brown’s addition. The team first looked at the play of D.J. Reed who, after being added via waivers, won the starting right cornerback gig with impressive performances down 2020’s stretch. Reed measured 5-foot-9 and 1/8 inches with 31 5/8-inch arms at the 2014 NFL Combine.

“The fact that D.J. did such a nice job, it gave us a little bit more of a, kind of a mold of guys,” Carroll told reporters following Day 3 of the draft.

The questions Seattle looked to answer in their evaluations of this new mold for outside corners? Carroll explained by saying, “If a guy is a smaller guy, what is his style of play like? And what does it take to be a smaller guy that can be successful?”

It’s clear that Tre Brown ticked the play-style boxes. His one-on-one performances at the Senior Bowl - highlighted by Carroll himself - featured press technique where he denied space through his body positioning, staying square while playing with a ferocious energy. As Schneider summarized, “If he [Brown] was 6-foot-2, he’d be picked in the Top 10, right?”

The general manager clearly loved Brown's mental make-up too, adding, “This guy’s a true competitor, he’s on the upswing, he’s overcome a lot, Tulsa guy, he’s got a confidence about him and competitiveness that we love and we treasure."

Looking at Seattle’s new mold for the outside corner position in more detail provides interesting conclusions. Let’s start with Carroll’s coaching history.

“I’ve coached a lot of guys over the years... all different kinds of sizes and shapes and all of that,” Carroll imparted after Day 3 of the Draft. “We’ve had guys, in my years in the past, that were under 6-feet tall and it just depends on the kid, you know, and the style of player.”

Following Reed's impressive 2020 Week 15 interception versus the Washington Football Team, Carroll revealed more about his thinking and his coaching history. 

“Everybody's known the long-arm corners and all that stuff, that's what I've always wanted,” Carroll started. “They come in different shapes and sizes, you know. And we just have to be open to it and not be stubborn about everyone has to be like this mold.”

NC State

Carroll then introduced his time at NC State, where he coached defensive backs under Monte Kiffin from 1980 to 1982. The Wolfpack was, according to Carroll, “where all of our corner play and the source of it started" with the techniques Seattle use today. His corners were Perry Williams, who Carroll described as “beautiful, 6-foot-2 [miming a press jam]” and Donnie LeGrande, who was “about 5-foot-7.”

Williams led NC State in pass break ups in 1980 (7) and 1982 tied for the team lead (6). He finished his three-year college career with 23 interceptions (12th all-time in school history) before declaring for the NFL Draft, where the New York Giants took him in the seventh round. Williams was an all-rookie selection following an impressive 1984 season and he played in Super Bowl XXI and Super Bowl XXV with the Giants.

University, NC State; University Archives Photograph Collection. Athletics Photographs, 1893 - 2003 (UA023.004) NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials

University, NC State; University Archives Photograph Collection. Athletics Photographs, 1893 - 2003 (UA023.004) NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials

LeGrande may not have had the long frame, but he still achieved impressive college accomplishments. He was listed at 5-foot-8, 170 pounds in a 1979 Clemson vs. NC State program. LeGrande led the Wolfpack in tackles in 1979 with 104 total. He also led the team in pass breaks up in 1979 (8) and in his senior season of 1981, he broke up 19 passes to rank third all-time in school history. That same year ended with four interceptions, an All-ACC selection, and the Mike Hardy Award - which NC State gives to the player who exhibits "a winning attitude and playing beyond capabilities." LeGrande signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons in May 1982, but his NFL career fizzled out shortly afterward.

University, Clemson;"NC State vs Clemson (10/27/1979)" (1979). Football Programs. 141

University, Clemson;"NC State vs Clemson (10/27/1979)" (1979). Football Programs. 141

For Carroll, LeGrande’s success for two of the coach’s NC State seasons has influenced his thinking. In 1997, as coach of the New England Patriots, Carroll’s team drafted cornerback Chris Canty out of Kansas State with the No. 29 overall pick in the first round. Canty, at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, started at right outside cornerback for Carroll’s defense in 1998 before being cut in 1999.

USC 

Fast-forwarding to Carroll’s time as USC's coach is also informative. In college football recruiting, you are adding players to your team who are not fully developed - physically, mentally, and football technique-wise. The young adults entering the NFL from college are by no means the finished article, but high school kids pose a whole different challenge.

In addition, there is a far greater available talent pool and more teams looking to add these players. Finally, the other factors combine for a lot less certainty in the process than the meticulously focused professional draft. In short: Carroll, head of a recruiting powerhouse or not, was unable to go and grab any recruit with 32-inch arms that he wanted from across the nation to play cornerback at USC.

Instead, USC emphasized getting the best athletes to play the position. When recruiting, the Trojans looked to add that high school’s explosive playmaker. Often they’d have played running back or quarterback on offense. While the Trojans were able to add more length at the position as they became more and more renowned as a program and better at recruiting, this theme of emphasizing movement skills above anything else at the corner position stuck throughout.

Here’s a look at Carroll’s cornerback recruits during his time in college (JUCOs are excluded purely because they are more developed in terms of positional fit and measurements; the first measurement is from 247 Sports and the second from USC’s team website). Note that, especially in the early days, athleticism is emphasized over length.

  • Justin Wyatt, 2002
    • 5-foot-10 175 pounds/5-foot-10, 185 pounds
    • 3 stars, played at Compton Dominguez in Compton, CA.
    • Played CB on defense. Played QB, RB, WR, and returned kicks
  • Brandon Ting, 2003
    • 5-foot-11, 170 pounds/5-foot-10, 180 pounds
    • 3 stars, played at James Logan HS in Union City, CA.
    • Backup CB and S at USC. QB and DB in HS. Ran track too.
  • Desmond Reed, 2003
    • 5-foot-10, 175 pounds/5-foot-9, 180 pounds
    • 3 stars, played at Temple City HS in Temple City CA.
    • Serious knee injury in 2005. Played RB and WR in addition to DB. Played basketball and baseball. Was a returner for USC.
  • Kevin Thomas, 2005
    • 6-foot, 192 pounds/6-foot-1, 180lbs
    • 4 stars, played at Rio Mesa HS in Oxnard CA.
    • Played WR and DB. Ran track as well.
  • Cary Harris, 2005
    • 6-foot-1, 180 pounds/6-foot, 180 pounds
    • 4 stars, played at Notre Dame HS in Sherman Oaks, CA.
    • Played RB and DB in HS. Known more as RB. Also ran track.
  • Shareece Wright, 2006
    • 5-foot-11, 182 pounds/5-foot-11, 185 pounds
    • 4 stars, played at Colton HS in Colton, CA.
    • Played DB and RB. Played nickel for USC in 2007, but then corner in 2008 and 2009.
  • Vincent Joseph, 2006
    • 5-foot-9, 185 pounds/5-foot-10, 185 pounds
    • 4 stars, played at Long Beach Poly HS in Long Beach Poly, CA.
    • Played DB and Ran Track in HS. Declared academically ineligible in 2007.
  • T.J. Bryant, 2008
    • 6-foot-1, 175 pounds/5-foot-11, 185 pounds
    • 4 stars, played at Lincoln HS in Tallahassee, Florida.
    • Played DB. Was a hurdler in track.
  • Brian Baucham, 2008
    • 5-foot-11, 170 pounds/5-foot-11, 170 pounds
    • 3 stars, played at West Torrance HS in Torrance, CA.
    • Played RB, returner, and DB. Was a hurdler on the track team. More viewed as a RB due to success there.
  • Torin Harris, 2009
    • 6-foot, 175 pounds/6-foot, 190 pounds
    • 4 stars, played at Palo Verde HS in North Las Vegas, NV.
    • Played DB, WR, and returner in high school.

Movement Skill

It’s obvious that the core tenet to successful corner play is movement skill. You’ve got to be able to run as a corner. However, have the Seahawks, in their search for long cornerbacks, skewed the balance too far from movement skills? Sure, everyone in the NFL is, relatively speaking, supremely athletically gifted. Yet there are levels to this and the information - tape, player tracking, and testing - is widely available to teams.

Following the early success of the long-armed Legion of Boom, the NFL made illegal contact and defensive holding a 2014 point of emphasis. In truth, with the way NFL games have been called for some time, a strong argument can be made that press coverage is increasingly hard for guys who have the length but lack the short area movement skills.

Tre Brown is visibly twitchy on tape. At 185 pounds, he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash (80th percentile) and jumped 123 inches in the broad (58th percentile) and 38 inches in the vertical (75th percentile). His 3-cone time of 7.11 seconds (11th percentile) and short shuttle of 4.27 seconds (24th percentile) essentially limit him to the outside. And that’s okay: there is a sideline as extra coverage help and the angle of breaks out on the perimeter aren’t as agility-dependent as slot duty.

Brown’s burst is appealing. It helps him fly down to routes thrown underneath. Crucially, he is also able to lean into breaks on routes across the field. This is where the argument for the new mold starts gain serious merit. In an NFC West division where the offenses have caused Seattle’s defense big issues with race/over/deep crossing routes, plus some nasty in-cuts, Brown's explosiveness and recovery twitch is vital.

Playmaking Mindset

Brown’s lack of length has bizarrely impacted his playmaking ability in a positive manner. The corner is still able to make plays at the catch point. He does this by high-pointing the ball and attacking it, timing his plays so as to avoid flags and connect with the ball. There is fearlessness about his approach.

“One of the criteria that really - and really, we talked about this extensively in the offseason, was that they gotta have this mentality about them, you know?” Carroll disclosed on playmaking mindset. “That ‘to go for it’, and they’re aggressive, they make plays almost because they can, because of the way they are athletically, and to make sure we have an open appreciation for that kind of play.”

Step-Kick Technique

Seattle’s step-kick cornerback technique is catered more towards players who have the long arms, with the Seahawks wanting their players to press at the line of scrimmage going two arms-to-one-to-none. (A detailed technique explanation will be out soon)

Yet, Carroll in his career has coached different methods to this, such as a mirror step method that may suit shorter-armed guys - the new mold - better. His comments after the draft reflect this open approach to press coverage and also Seahawks cornerback technique in general. 

“We don’t close the book on guys. We’re looking for the ways that they offer their style of play and try to figure out if it fits, if it works it works.”

“Each guy’s on his own side, doing his own thing, playing his style, and we’re gonna try to draw out the best that they have, you know.”

“Some guys are better playing off, some guys are better working off the line of scrimmage, and some guys are better just planting down there, laying it right at the line of scrimmage and starting from there. It depends. I’ve been coaching guys for so long, at this spot, you have to be open to their style, and we have to kind of find that out with the new guys that come in. We had to do that with D.J., you know? How much would be on the line of scrimmage? How much would we mix? And all of that. It’s really, it’s individual assessment that we make. Forever we’ve been doing that. Some guys you just want them there forever, and you don’t want them off the line of scrimmage, and so, it just depends.” 

When Brown was asked about step-kick post-draft, he obviously knew the technique, saying he was "familiar with it." He credited Chip Viney, a former college corner and Oklahoma grad assistant, as well as Will Johnson, former Oklahoma defensive back and current grad assistant.

“They taught me a lot of those, a lot of different techniques,” Brown praised. “How I slide, kick, or if the receiver goes that way how I slide, kick, and try to just go 45 and stay on top of them. Or we got the inch technique where I can inch, let the receiver dance and then just mirror them that way.”

The corner learned the step-kick technique without the outside read step that the Seahawks coach their more inexperienced corners as a way of preventing the outside release routes first and foremost.

Match-Ups 

There are inevitable moments where Brown’s lack of length and height does impact his game. When asked whether he would put Brown in press alignments less often, Carroll answered by saying, “not necessarily; it depends on the match ups, and also depends on the player.”

The dilemma of playing with two 5-foot-9 outside corners was a real talking point in Seattle’s draft room.

“We went through those conversations,” Carroll admitted. “Do you want two guys that are both 5-foot-9 out there playing? You could think of it that way.”

Looking at the match-ups across the NFC West is encouraging. Most of the receivers rostered around the league are not notorious as vertical, go-up-and-get-it threats, asides from the obvious danger of DeAndre Hopkins and the durability question mark of A.J. Green in Arizona. Cooper Kupp is known for aerially attacking the ball, but it’s often working the intermediate areas of the field and usually not matched up with an outside corner. We will have to see whether the arrival of Matthew Stafford on the Rams impacts them into being more of a jump ball team.

San Francisco 49ers

  • Brandon Aiyuk—6-foot-0, 205 pounds
  • Deebo Samuel—5-foot-11, 214 pounds
  • Mohamed Sanu—6-foot-2, 211 pounds
  • Richie James—5-foot-10 1/8-inches, 183 pounds

Arizona Cardinals

  • DeAndre Hopkins—6-foot-1, 214 pounds
  • A.J. Green—6-foot-4, 211 pounds
  • Christian Kirk—5-foot-10 3/8-inches, 201 pounds
  • Andy Isabella—5-foot-8 3/4-inches, 188 pounds
  • Rondale Moore—5-foot-7, 181 pounds

Los Angeles Rams

  • Cooper Kupp—6-foot-2, 204 pounds
  • Robert Woods—6-foot, 201 pounds
  • Van Jefferson—6-foot-1, 200 pounds
  • DeSean Jackson—5-foot-10, 169 pounds
  • Tutu Atwell—5-foot-8 7/8-inches, 155 pounds

New Mold

“We’re still going for these guys individually, see what they got,” Carroll described of Seattle’s cornerback scouting. “We’re trying to find the guys that bring something special, that can play the game, and they don’t have to be all the same. And that’s just the way it is.”

The Seahawks had been more open to this smaller type prior to Brown’s arrival. Linden Stephens and Reed are examples. Then, this offseason, it was announced that the re-signed Damarious Randall was making the move to cornerback, presumably to mirror Reed’s style of play.

SPREADSHEET

It’s open for debate whether Seattle had Brown as their top corner available in the fourth round. After the team’s second round trade down collapsed, the Seahawks felt they had to shift down in the fourth. (They used the additional pick to trade up for tackle Stone Forysthe) Following Seattle’s move from pick No. 129 to pick No. 137, the Rams took cornerback Robert Rochell out of Central Arkansas at No. 130. Rochell, another Senior Bowl attendee, met every one of Seattle’s historic cornerback measurements asides from being under 6-foot.

“Yes we would love to have, you know, big corners and all that - and we did right when we got here - but you gotta adjust to the times too,” Schneider reflected on Seattle’s CB strategy and selection of Brown. “And there’s only a certain amount of players that you can pick from.”

Most of the long, athletic, glitzy corners in the 2021 draft rarely aligned in press and, on the few occasions that they did, failed to show the style the Seahawks are looking for from their corners. Brown, on the other hand, 30 3/8-inch arms or not, was able to display these elements on tape. The team loved his character and has established special teams return ability to fall back on if Brown's profile does result in struggles at corner.

By taking Tre Brown to compete and mirror D.J. Reed’s style, the Seahawks have placed themselves on a more contemporary stage. In an NFL theater predicated on attacking skill sets and match-ups, Seattle has broadened their repertoire. It’s the Seahawks’ new outside cornerback mold.