One of the Seahawks’ most competitive position battles is no closer to being settled after the team’s offseason program.
That isn’t because Jeremy Lane, Shaquill Griffin and Neiko Thorpe failed to distinguish themselves while vying for the starting cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman. The way Seattle practiced during organized team activities and minicamp pretty much made that impossible.
After running afoul of the NFL’s rules that prohibit excessive offseason contact for the third time last year, the Seahawks knew they were under the league’s microscope and that another violation could result in penalties even stiffer than what they received in September – the forfeiture of a fifth-round pick as well as three docked OTAs and more fines. So they went out of their way to minimize contact during offseason practices this year, at times seemingly trying to avoid it altogether.
Carroll had some fun while calling it Seattle’s “most compliant” offseason. But the altered approach meant a stricter adherence to what he referred to as “OTA football, not real football.” No position group seemed to be affected by that more than the cornerbacks. They weren’t jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, jostling for position with them or contesting balls in the air.
That left Seattle’s coaching staff with less to evaluate, something Carroll mentioned as a qualifier while giving a glowing assessment of Griffin. The third-round pick from Central Florida has a chance to win the starting job at right cornerback that’s been held for the last season and a half by DeShawn Shead, who’s coming off knee surgery and likely won’t be ready by Week 1.
“He’s been really diligent. He’s real fast,” Carroll said of Griffin. “Technique-wise, it’s not hard for him to make it look right. Camp will be huge for him. None of the DBs were able to compete at the ball throughout this whole offseason, so we don’t see any of that. We have no evaluation on those guys. They can’t make a play on the ball unless it’s thrown right to them. So they have a lot to show still when they come back. The one-on-one work they get, the seven-on-seven against our best guys and all of that will show us a lot more. So it’s hard to make a full evaluation, but we’re looking at movement skills, guys learning, and their sense about their comfort and all.
“He’s tuned in. He can be a big factor for us.”
Lane has been Seattle’s nickelback for the past three seasons and figures to fill that role again in 2017. The question is whether he’ll also be the starter at right cornerback in Seattle’s base defense and then slide inside in passing situations. His experience in Seattle’s system would seem to give him the leg up over Griffin and Thorpe.
Carroll had a fairly tepid end-of-season review of they way Lane played in 2016, when he was on the field for more than 70 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps but didn’t make many impact plays. Carroll likes what he’s seen from Lane this offseason.
“Jeremy has really applied himself. He sees the opportunity. He’s really going for it,” Carroll said. “Across the board, everybody’s evaluation of Jeremy across the entire program is that he’s really focused, he’s really tuned in, he’s really ready to go for it. He’s physically as fit as he’s been in a long time. Remember, he had a really difficult offseason a couple years back and it’s taken him almost a couple years to overcome all of that (the broken wrist and torn ACL in Super Bowl XLIX) and he’s back to full form. But more than that, his focus is really on it to seize this opportunity.
“We feel really good about that, and then there’s guys nipping at his heels.”
That includes Thorpe. Signed early last season after being released by Oakland, he was one of Seattle’s top special teams players in 2017 and also saw some time on defense while Shead was hurt. Thorpe has made two career starts since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
He and Griffin took their turns at right cornerback with Seattle’s No. 1 defense during OTAs and minicamp. The Seahawks were in nickel for most of the team drills during those practices, with Lane playing inside.
For Griffin, how quickly he sees the field will depend largely on how quickly he picks up the Seahawks’ step-kick technique, which has tended to take some time for young cornerbacks. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard said he’s off to a strong start.
“He’s got probably one of the best corner minds that we’ve had for a young guy around here,” Richard said. “That’s just in regards to leverage, positioning, the understanding of our coverages and where we need him to be. He has picked it up fairly quickly. We’re going to be really excited to see him strap it up and get out there and actually be able to compete for the football while it’s in the air. That’s going to be the next phase, but his technique has been improving day after day, and he has real strength. He has strength in his hands, you can tell he’s a powerful guy, and obviously his speed is there.”
Griffin or Thorpe could still fill a significant role as the third cornerback if Lane wins the starting job. That would entail coming in when Seattle’s defense is in nickel and Lane moves inside. Considering the Seahawks were in nickel for more than two-thirds of their defensive snaps last season, that third corner is essentially another starter.
DeAndre Elliott, Pierre Desir and rookie Mike Tyson are three sleepers who could factor into the mix.
“The competition is wide open,” Richard said. “These guys understand that.”