Not that it was at all a surprise, but word from Seahawks general manager John Schneider that DeShawn Shead likely won’t be ready for the start of next season invites a closer look at Seattle’s options at cornerback.
Had Shead not torn his ACL in Seattle’s divisional-round playoff loss at Atlanta, he’d be the favorite to start again at right cornerback opposite Richard Sherman, with Jeremy Lane in the slot. He could regain the job whenever he returns, but Shead’s expected absence for the start of the season will force someone else into that spot, at least in the meantime. Seattle could move Lane outside, but that would leave a void at nickelback, which the Seahawks used on more than 70 percent of their defensive snaps last season.
So either way, they’ll need another starting cornerback.
Neiko Thorpe, Perrish Cox and DeAndre Elliott are the likeliest of the options already on Seattle’s roster.
Thorpe is in a different situation as the other two as he’s schedules to become an unrestricted free agent. Schneider said the team is hoping to re-sign him. Given Seattle’s situation at cornerback, it wouldn’t be surprising if that happens before the start of free agency on March 9.
Thorpe, 27, joined Seattle in early September after being cut by Oakland and played 97 defensive snaps for the Seahawks, most of them coming in Weeks 11 and 12 while Shead was out with a hamstring injury. He spent one of his seasons with the Raiders under defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the former Seahawks linebackers coach who brought with him to Oakland the step-kick technique that Seattle teaches its cornerbacks (more on that later).
Cox, 30, was briefly with Seattle in 2013 in between stints with the 49ers. The Seahawks signed him in January, which they were able to do since he was released in November by Tennessee and therefore didn’t have to wait until the start of free agency to find his next team. He was in the second season of a three-year, $15 million contract with the Titans. Before he was released, he had three interceptions and 11 pass breakups while starting nine of 11 games. One of those interceptions came in Week 2 against Detroit in a performance that caught Schneider’s eye.
“We were watching a cut-up on Golden Tate and he had a real nice game against Detroit,” Schneider told John Clayton on Wednesday. “He’s been with us. … He’s been in our system, he’s got great ball skills, really just kind of adding to the depth at that position.”
Coach Pete Carroll said Cox has experience in the slot but has mostly played outside.
“He’s going to fit right into the competition,” Carroll said. “We know a lot about him. He’s been with us and we’ve played against him. He’s always been a play-maker and a very versatile player and has a real nice style. Add him into the competition and see where he goes.”
The Seahawks are high on Elliott, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last season and mostly played special teams, with his most extensive action at cornerback coming in the Atlanta playoff game after Shead went down.
Another cornerback Schneider mentioned with Clayton was Pierre Desir, a fourth-year player whom Seattle signed to its practice squad last season. The Seahawks list him as a free safety and 6 feet 2, 198 pounds.
Two dark-horse candidates: Mohammed Seisay and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Seisay, a restricted free agent, was acquired in a 2015 preseason trade and has spent the last two years on Injured Reserve. Jean-Baptiste, signed to Seattle’s practice squad in 2015, was on IR all of last year.
With the exception of Brandon Browner, the Seahawks haven’t had much success with free-agent cornerbacks under Carroll and Schneider. Cary Williams didn’t even last a full season after signing a big contract. Antoine Winfield couldn’t make the team out of training camp. Will Blackmon didn’t stick in either of his two offseason stints with the Seahawks.
That may be just as much if not more of a product of Seattle’s defense as opposed to poor evaluation or bad luck. More specifically, it may be because of the time it takes for veteran players to master Seattle’s step-kick technique at cornerback – which isn’t widely used around the NFL – in time to contribute right away.
In talking last year about the difficulty in picking up the technique, Williams said it wasn’t until the final preseason game that he finally began to feel comfortable with it. Carroll acknowledged as much once Williams was released, saying: “It was a short amount of time to try to catch up with all of the real specifics of our technique.” “Possibly” was Carroll’s answer when asked if that’s something the Seahawks would need to be aware of with free-agent cornerbacks in the future.
That history suggests it’s more likely that Seattle continues to try to build at that position through the draft.
ESPN’s Todd McShay, among others, said the group of cornerbacks in this draft is as good as good as any other in recent years. John Clayton’s latest column lists four that could be of interest to the Seahawks: Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor from Florida, Washington’s Sidney Jones and Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey.
Those four players are among the top prospects at the position, which means that if the Seahawks were to draft any of them, it could be something of a first for Seattle. Of the seven cornerbacks the Seahawks have drafted under Carroll and Schneider, none have been in the first three rounds. They got Richard Sherman in the fifth round and Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell in the sixth, for instance. Walter Thurmond (fourth) was the highest-drafted among them.
Cornerback is a position that figures to be high on Seattle’s wishlist in this draft, perhaps in one of the earlier rounds given the need for someone to step in right away.