When I drew the 2011 NFL Draft to talk about the greatest Draft steal, I was immediately ready to stan for J.J. Watt. Watt's play for the Houston Texans between 2012 and 2015 was the best stretch of football I'd ever seen played by a defensive lineman in my lifetime. The only time it's been paralleled is by what we're currently seeing with Aaron Donald.
Do y'all have any perspective on how dominant J.J. Watt was for the Texans between 2012 and 2015? Four seasons, four Pro Bowls, four All-Pro designations, three AP Defensive Player of the Year awards, 69.0 sacks (nice), 119 tackles for loss, 190 quarterback hits, 15 forced fumbles, 41 passes defensed and 10 fumble recoveries.
THE MAN WAS IN A WHOLE DIFFERENT DIMENSION.
And the Texans managed to draft this player after 10 other players were picked in the 2011 NFL Draft. It seemed like a slam dunk choice for steal of the year, decade, century and millennium. But still, I scrolled through the 2011 NFL Draft results -- you know, just to be sure.
And sure enough, for as good as J.J. Watt has been (he low-key is fully back, by the way...what with this 16 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 7 forced fumbles last year), there's a more appropriate pick to be designated as the steal of the draft.
With the 154th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Seattle Seahawks select...Richard Sherman. Cornerback, Stanford University.
Sherman was the swag that gelled the Legion of Boom into such a terrifying force. The upstart corner entered the NFL and within his first four seasons he'd logged 24 interceptions, 65 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles and 2 defensive touchdowns -- not to mention three All-Pro designations and one legendary, all-time quip.
The Seahawks would win the Super Bowl in 2014, thanks in large part to the presence of Sherman and the rest of the Legion of Boom in the secondary anchoring the defense.
But how does something like this happen? How does Richard Sherman go from being a former college wide receiver to a 5th-round draft selection to an NFL All-Pro cornerback and league leader in interceptions...all in span of four years (Sherman played wide receiver until 2009 and by 2013 had 8 interceptions and was named All-Pro)?
It serves as a perfect example of the scouting process and how scheme fit, player traits and football intelligence are all ingredients that need to mix well. Let's break it all down.
The Seahawks really kickstarted the mold of having "big corners" at the NFL level be the new normal. Seattle didn't reinvent the wheel with their defensive coverages. They ran a lot of Cover 3 and used Earl Thomas in the middle to use his elite range to roam the backend. What does that leave the corners to do? Play physical at the line of scrimmage at times, control your deep third of coverage and have awareness for hi-lo opportunities and key the quarterback. And the Seahawks, more often than many other Cover-3 variations, banked on the physical play at the line of scrimmage -- hence why the big corners make so much sense. Don't concede free releases, filter your route release as coverage dictates, carry vertically and keep eyes in the backfield.
A full breakdown of Richard Sherman's physical tools as measured at the 2011 NFL Combine give you a clear picture of where you could use him. Sherman's full athletic profile:
Weight: 195 pounds
Arm length: 32"
40-Yard Dash: 4.54s (28th percentile)
Vertical Jump: 38.00"
Broad Jump: 10'05"
3-Cone Drill: 6.82s
20-Yard Shuttle: 4.33s (11th percentile)
Sherman's two worst traits were long speed and lateral quickness in space. So logically it makes sense that Sherman's upside is best utilized in space where he'll be encouraged to stay leveraged over top of receivers in zone coverage and not ask him to play out on an island. The Seahawks, with their physical Cover-3 coverages, didn't ask him to do the latter -- they asked him to do the former.
It is easy to presume that because Sherman only played 2 years of cornerback at the college level that he was going to be a raw, developmental player. But consider Sherman's play at Stanford -- and his commitment to his craft. Sherman's self-awareness of who he was as an athlete and what he needed to do to be the best allowed him to master the mental side of the game, despite spending 60% of his college eligibility on the opposite side of the ball.
"The tape is like my second hobby because it makes the game easier. The film is on your iPad so I sit there in my bed and go through film all day. You can't be out partying and think you're going to be the best," said Sherman in an interview with NFL Turning Point from his early years in Seattle. "It takes discipline on and off the field. You might play well, you might make some plays. But you're not making all the plays you could make. I feel like I'm a decent athlete but my tape study and my meticulous attention to detail are make me a good ball player."
Sherman spoke in the same interview about how formations in certain game situations and areas of the field dictate the game. Watch the above video and within the first three minutes and it's clear how much Sherman grasps spacing, route concepts and combinations. It's the game within the game and the part of Sherman's game that the league clearly undersold.
But it's the physical ability (and limitations), the football intelligence and the school of thought in the Seattle secondary that combined to make Richard Sherman the greatest steal of the 2011 NFL Draft.