The state of the Seahawks’ secondary: Is DB a bigger need than DE?
The Seahawks returned to half of their championship formula last season with a 1,000-yard rushing performance from Chris Carson, who became the first Seahawk to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season since Seattle’s last trip to a Super Bowl.
Will Seattle take a step forward on the other side of the ball this season?
Pete Carroll’s coaching philosophy has always prided a fast, hard-hitting secondary. And while it’s a lot to ask of any defense to be as good as the Seahawks’ historic unit from 2012-15 – a group that allowed the fewest points of any defense for four straight seasons – expectations will be higher for a secondary that will have four returning starters from 2018.
Let’s look at that group.
With the expected departure of soon-to-be free agent safety Earl Thomas next month, the Seahawks will officially have a complete turnover from the team’s famed Legion of Boom secondary.
Thomas was the sole remaining member of that group heading into the 2018 season, rejoining the team after a months-long holdout, only to land on the injured reserve in Week 4. Last year’s offseason also saw the end to the Seahawks careers of cornerback Richard Sherman, now with the San Francisco 49ers, and safety Kam Chancellor, who was forced into retirement due to injury.
Strong safety Bradley McDougald, 28, was the most consistent performer in the 2018 unit and will be the top returning starter. His three interceptions were a career-high, and he was able to start all 16 regular season games despite playing through patellar tendinitis. He also racked up three forced fumbles, nine passes defensed and 78 tackles.
If there was one benefit to Thomas’ holdout, it was in the form of increased reps for free safety Tedric Thompson. Thompson, 24, didn’t match Thomas’ production – who would expect that of a second-year defensive back? – but did grade out as one of the top defensive performers from Weeks 4-7 on Pro Football Focus. He finished the year with a 67.2 “above average” grade. In 10 starts, Thompson recorded one interception, three passes defensed and 57 tackles.
Assuming Thomas signs elsewhere in free agency, Thompson will continue to be Seattle’s starting free safety entering training camp – unless, that is, the team sees more from strong safety Delano Hill.
Hill, 23, was drafted along with Thompson in Seattle’s 2017 class. His primary role last season was on special teams as a backup for McDougald. But when Thompson landed on the injury report late in the season, Hill stepped up into a starting role, with McDougald – who can start at both spots – taking over at free safety. A fractured hip brought Hill’s season to a premature close, but he did enough to make an impact at the position.
“The hope is for him coming back next time around and being a big factor for all the playing time and to compete and all that – it’s there,” Carroll said in January. “He was playing his best game. He had played really well – hits, running, tackling, all kinds of good stuff, pressuring. Very, very bright future for him.”
Third-year pro Shaquill Griffin, 23, will return to his second season in the starting left cornerback spot – Sherman’s old role. He had two interceptions, eight passes defensed and 61 tackles last season, and was praised by Carroll at the end of year.
“I thought he was very consistent throughout the year. I thought he was really solid. We counted on him to be the guy – we’re not even concerned about him, he’s going to be alright because he had all of that experience of one year,” Carroll said. “I think he had a good, solid season. I understand that there’s some talk about his game (in the playoffs against the Cowboys). He missed a tackle and got caught on a fade route and he was all over the guy, he just couldn’t get the ball played. I thought he played really good throughout this season. He’s tough and he’s physical and he’s consistent. His approach is great, his competitiveness is absolutely rock solid. I think we’re really lucky to have him playing. He’s just going to continue to get better. There’s no question that he’ll continue to improve.”
Also returning will be cornerback Tre Flowers, a 2018 draft pick and former safety who was suddenly pressed into a starting role at right corner after injuries to both Byron Maxwell and Dontae Johnson in the days before Seattle’s regular season opener. Flowers ended up starting 15 games and finished with six passes defensed and 67 tackles.
Flowers’ ability to attack the ball was one of the more interesting parts of his game – he had three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. When Carroll was asked how Flowers compared to Sherman and Griffin, the head coach highlighted that ability as something that instead set Flowers apart.
“What Tre has done kind of independently from when you look at Sherm and you look at Shaq last year in his first year. He has been more effective attacking the football. He’s been really good at getting the ball out from guys and he’s got a chance to be really unique that way if it keeps happening – the focus is there. It’s kind of his toughness about being a safety and being a hitter and all that coming up that he’s carried it over to the physical side of the game and he’s been very disruptive at the football. It’s a special part.”
Also worth mentioning is Justin Coleman, who played 67 percent of defensive snaps last year, primarily at nickel corner, and 50 percent of special teams snaps. The 25-year-old Coleman was originally acquired by the Seahawks as part of a September 2017 trade with the New England Patriots. Since coming to Seattle, Coleman has posted the two most productive seasons of his career, with a combined three interceptions, three touchdowns, 19 passes defensed, two sacks, four quarterback hits and 90 tackles.
Coleman is one of 13 Seahawks hitting free agency in March, and Seattle’s ability to re-sign Coleman got a bit more interesting this week after ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Ravens’ Tavon Young became the league’s highest-paid nickel back by signing a three-year, $25.8 million extension with Baltimore.
But is that enough?
The biggest area of need for the Seahawks is arguably at pass rusher, but former Washington State receiver and current Seahawks pre- and post-game analyst Michael Bumpus says secondary shouldn’t be overlooked this offseason. Joining 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave and Moore for an interview on Feb. 15, Bumpus said the secondary would be his top priority.
“We have a decent secondary,” Bumpus said. “(But) we’re young, I think a couple guys took a step back, and I think that’s how teams are going to attack us next year. I think you lock up the secondary and maybe get (another) guy there.”
Bumpus counted Griffin among the players who took a step back.
“I saw a really confident (Griffin) in the beginning of the season with no expectations really,” Bumpus said. “So now you start playing well, and now you’re getting into meetings and your D-coordinator is looking in your eye saying, ‘Hey, we’re depending on you this week,’ and that changes a player’s mentality in his game. So I think he stopped playing as free and as loose. I didn’t see him smiling as much, I didn’t see him jumping around, having a good time as much, because he felt that pressure of ‘I need to make this play.’
“If he can get into that zone to where his mind is free and he’s out there playing ball again, I think he can be good. Football, man, it’s 80 percent mental. If you’re doubting yourself, it’s going to show up in your play, and that’s what I saw toward the end of the season.”
Check 710Sports.com throughout this Seahawks offseason as Stacy Rost looks at one of the 10 biggest questions facing Seattle in 2019.
Previously in the series:
• What is the Seahawks’ biggest position of need in 2019?
• Seahawks’ potential 2019 free agency departures
• Will the Seahawks move forward with — or without — K.J. Wright?
• How much would it cost the Seahawks to keep Frank Clark?
• Is there any way Earl Thomas returns to Seattle in 2019?