Patience was all he needed from others. After shredding his knee as a high school senior, Clemson was patient with him, redshirting his freshman year to give time to rehabilitate. Then he went to Seattle, a team that was patient as he stretched to touch his toes while battling through injuries before eventually beating up on foes. Now he’s the starting right cornerback for the Seahawks.
Meet Byron Maxwell, a 6’1″, 207-pound 25-year-old who All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman once wrote is the reason the Seahawks will be going to New York next week.
When Maxwell was at Clemson, he didn’t play a significant number of snaps until his senior year. That’s when he became a part-timer, starting seven games of a possible 12 before being slowed by a turf toe injury. Despite showing playmaking ability and obvious physical talent, his irregular snaps made some question what kind of player he would be at the next level. Some didn’t believe he’d be where he is today. Others didn’t believe he’d be a cornerback — they suggested safety. The Seahawks took him in the sixth round anyway, selecting him one round after Sherman, with a plan to patiently develop him as a long-term player.
When he came into Seattle’s training camp in 2011, he was a better player than Sherman was. He was ahead of him on the depth chart, but when injuries and an illness struck, he fell behind and short of playing a full slate of games, limited to nine. Then in 2012, more injuries struck and he played only nine games again. Injuries more commonly derailing superbly talented players than some may think. They can entirely derail a player’s career, and it could have nearly taken away Maxwell’s talent.
He kept stretching, however, taking yoga lessons at home and on the road. That stretched his muscles and kept his injuries to a minimum in 2013, when he played the Seahawks’ full schedule. Impressively, he started five games in place of a suspended Brandon Browner, his first coming against the high-powered New Orleans Saints offense in Week 13.
“I take everything the same as I’ve been doing,” an unfazed, prepared Maxwell said to Seahawks.com before the game. “So this is a little bigger deal to everybody else than it is to me. I prepared like a starter, even when I wasn’t. So it’s cool.”
Against the Saints, Maxwell played 59 of 62 possible snaps and was thrown at twice, neither resulting in completions, according to Pro Football Focus. One of the targets came against arguably the most difficult matchup in the NFL, Jimmy Graham, a 6’7″ aerial threat unlike any other. Maxwell, who’s six inches shorter by comparison, held his own, breaking up a throw on a wheel route.
The game was well in hand for the Seahawks — they were up 27 points. But with more than a quarter-and-half to go, they had to keep the competitive spirit against an unlikely, but still possible comeback by the Saints. So with the ball on the 45-yard line, the Saints had a 1st-and-10 in their own territory. They lined up with two backs and two tight ends, forming 22 personnel. It usually suggested a running play for other teams, but not the Saints. They’d used it plenty of times before, running Graham on some form of vertical route. This time, they called for a wheel route when he motioned from the formation’s right end to the left slot.
To the left side was also Maxwell. He was in press coverage on the single receiver lined up just outside the numbers and inside the 45-yard line. He opened his hips up as soon as the play began and shaded the receiver outside in tight off-coverage. The receiver ran a skinny post attacking the single-high safety between the hashes. Assigned with deep third responsibility in the Seahawks’ Cover 3, Maxwell released the receiver off to the safety and focused on Graham’s route.
Graham, who released straight ahead without any disruption at the line, was in the Seahawks’ territory by then and appeared to be open. He’d left two underneath defenders in the dust, and was turning up the field and down the sideline. He was open in between the 30 and 40-yard lines. Then Maxwell aggressively attacked the route, coming downhill and jumping in front of Graham as the tight end seemed to have caught it. He ripped it out of the tight end’s hands, forcing an incompletion.
As the weeks went on, Maxwell continued to hold his own, giving up only one touchdown and a 46.8 quarterback rating. The interception came on a pass in Week 17 by St. Louis Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens, who forced a downfield throw under pressure on play action only to see Maxwell jump in front of the intended target. His performance overall got the attention of his teammates, who voted him the season’s final quarter most valuable player.
“Byron plays with so much confidence and he’s such a good player,” teammate and safety Chris Maragos told Seahawks.com. “He’s got the prototypical body you want in a corner (6’1″, 207 pounds). He tackles well. He covers well. He runs well. He’s really playing really, really well.”
As good as he’d been in the regular season, his real test came in the playoffs, with the first game against a familiar opponent in the Divisional Round — the Saints. In their last meeting, they’d only targeted him twice despite being a newcomer to an experienced secondary. This time, they doubled that but still found it difficult to complete passes, with only one going into a receiver’s hands after a late scramble by the quarterback, and reroute by the receiver. Overall, Maxwell held the Saints to a 44.8 quarterback rating when throwing in his direction, only slightly more than the previous 39.6 one he posted, according to Pro Football Focus.
Against the arch rival San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship, Maxwell had his work cut out for him once again, as he was responsible for covering not only Michael Crabtree, but Anquan Boldin too. They tested him four times and only had one completion to show for it. The most impressive of the two pass deflections he went on to make came in the fourth quarter in a tight game.
The Seahawks were leading by a field goal when the 49ers lined up on their own 10-yard line with a beefy package. It included a running back and three tight ends, and the football positioned on the left hash. Outside to the far right and the numbers was Boldin. He was the go-to guy, expected to excel in a coveted one-on-one matchup against the inexperienced Maxwell, who spread his feet shoulder width distance in press-coverage. This was Maxwell’s space and he would be needling Boldin in this third of the field throughout the play.
When Colin Kaepernick went into a five-step drop, he immediately looked to Boldin. It was his only read, a surefire sign that he was going to test Maxwell’s mettle. It wasn’t the first time this game, but it would be the biggest.
As the play unfolded, Boldin won on an outside release, first jab stepping to his right to shift Maxwell — who missed his right-handed punch after failing to move his feet — then redirecting outside. Boldin ran down the sideline, and Maxwell was suddenly playing catch up, but he remained poised, running down the sideline and soon catching up to the veteran. More than 10 yards downfield, Boldin looked back for the ball in-flight, but Maxwell didn’t. He made a wise decision, trusting his technique and staying shoulder-t0-shoulder with Boldin. He watched Boldin’s eyes, waiting for the right moment to stop and get his hand on the football. Nearly 17 yards downfield, Boldin stopped and jumped, looking to catch the ball. Maxwell raised his left arm up and next to Boldin’s. He knocked his right arm into Boldin’s left, preventing the receiver from getting both hands on the ball. It sailed out of bounds and onto the 49ers’ sideline.
It was the kind of play that big players step up and make when it’s their time to star. It was the kind of play that allowed Sherman to not seek to cover Boldin as frequently as the receiver lined up to his side like in the previous meeting. It was the kind of play that required patience, which Maxwell had in spades and so did his coaches after they drafted him in 2011.
After years of stretching and hard work, the world is ready to meet Byron Maxwell. He is the Seahawks’ starting Super Bowl cornerback.