RENTON, Wash.—The Seattle defense, the best in the league over the last two seasons, has significantly been defined by the "Legion of Boom" secondary, and to no surprise, the defensive backs were among the biggest stars at the Seahawks scrimmage on Aug. 8. However, the names of the players running with the first and second teams were not the ones we're used to seeing.
Of the five primary defensive backs in Seattle's Super Bowl XLIX loss to the Patriots in February, Richard Sherman was the only one who was on the field Saturday. Cornerback Byron Maxwell moved on to Philadelphia, where he is the recipient of a six-year, $63 million deal with $25 million guaranteed in the offseason. Maxwell has been replaced in Seattle by Cary Williams, who played in the Eagles' porous secondary last season. Cornerbacks Tharold Simon and Jeremy Lane have been dealing with injuries—Simon should be back soon from a shoulder injury, but Lane, who suffered a broken arm and a torn ACL in the first quarter of the Super Bowl, isn't guaranteed to be back at any particular time this season.
Meanwhile at the safety position, Earl Thomas was just activated from the preseason PUP list after having off-season surgery on a torn labrum, an injury that was an issue through the 2014 postseason. Kam Chancellor, who played through the Super Bowl with a torn MCL, isn't even at camp—he's holding out because he's dissatisfied with the five-year, $29.323 million contract is signed in 2013.
Most coaches would be worried by this situation, but Pete Carroll has seen this before with the Seattle secondary; all he can do now is teach his intriguing group of no-names. Nine-year veteran Will Blackmon, who played with Seattle in 2013, has looked fluid with the first team in the slot and outside. Marcus Burley, who had a few regular-season reps last season, is getting a bigger and better look now. DeShawn Shead has been the Swiss Army knife of the team's unheralded units, playing nearly every possible position during his time with the Seahawks. Now, he's Chancellor's main replacement at strong safety. At free safety, Dion Bailey and Triston Wade have occasionally turned heads at times, and Wade should be credited for recovering from his first NFL experience when he was torched in red zone drills by Jimmy Graham in Graham's first team practice in June.
It's not an ideal situation for a team that will go as far as its starting secondary takes it, but Carroll and defensive coordinator Kris Richard are trying to look at the bright side: The preseason hasn't even started, and all but Lane are expected to be ready for the season opener in St. Louis. In the meantime, there are far more opportunities to see what they have on the second and third teams.
"In regards to that 'Next Man Up' standard we have, it's actually a blessing in disguise," Richard said. "Because the guys who don't usually get the opportunities now have them. There's tons of experience for them, so now, all the situational football they may not be able to get... you can talk to them until you're blue in the face, but until they get out there in the field, but when they get that experience, it's a different story. So now, they have the opportunity to get out there and do it, they'll improve even faster."
“It’s hugely important," Carroll said, agreeing with Richard. "We’re coaching these guys like they are going to play, that’s the way we’re going about it. Steven Terrell’s been getting a lot of work back there, [DeShawn] Shead’s been getting a bunch of work, and the young guys are getting in there too. If you’ve been watching practice, Dion Bailey is showing up a lot. He’s been very, very active and so this is a great opportunity for those guys. We coach them like they’re starting and talk to them, and expectations are held to just like they’re starting. We have to push them as far as we can because we don’t know what’s going to happen, so that’s the only way we know how to do it.”
Scrimmages are hardly the best arbiters of total performance, but in this one, the secondary showed up—the first- and second-team defensive backs came away with four picks. Blackmon returned his own pick 100 yards for a phantom touchdown, and cornerback Mohammed Seisay, recently acquired from the Lions via trade, cut the route on a long pass to Graham and came away with an interception, which impressed the tight end.
"We haven’t even repped that play in practice—we just kind of threw it in," Graham said. "I thought he’d play more [aggressively] and bite on the double-move, but he made a great play and really didn’t bite. Throughout my career I’ve had about ten different guys bite on that so that’s a heads up play by him. And really just staying deep and reacting to the throw.”
"The most impressive thing about [Seisay] is his intelligence and humility," Richard said. "The first day he comes in, he's locked in and he cares about knowing, he cares about learning. He's a good person. That's first and foremost. All the other ball stuff is gonna come. He's been showing us nothing but improvement, day in and day out. There was a spark from him on tape, and the main thing that showed up was his length and his ability to put himself in position. So, he's got a chance."
Another person of interest is Tye Smith, the fifth-round pick out of Towson who showed up when he had to deal with West Virginia's Kevin White last season. Now, the Seahawks have the 6'0", 195-pounder, who some believed to be the best small-school cornerback in this draft class, playing the slot. It's an important space to fill, because Lane played it so well last season, and Tom Brady started killing the Seahawks on Maxwell's side after lane was hurt in the Super Bowl.
"The kid's got some suddenness, and he's got natural savvy, and those are always good things with regard to playing inside in the nickel," Richard said of Smith. You've got to go ahead and allow yourself to use your God-given abilities—that natural instinct, which he has with anticipation. And his suddenness is there—for a long, tall guy, he can get in and out of breaks really well."
This short-term dearth of first-team talent will also give Carroll and Richard the opportunity to see who can fill the most spots well. The coaches have reinforced it to the players like never before—if you want a chance to make this secondary on a long-term basis, you'll never have a better opportunity. Carroll understands how this can happen, because he watched Sherman, a former Stanford receiver and fifth-round draft pick, turn himself into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. There's another former receiver among this secondary group—Douglas McNeil III, formerly of Bowie State and the Portland Thunder of the Arena League, has looked pretty rough in his first defensive back sessions, but now is the time get creative.
“He was doing fine at receiver, but he’s 6’3", he’s really long, he’s really fast and he’s got a real motor about him," Carroll said of McNeil. "He’s a real aggressive kid, so I asked him to go ahead and take a look and see if we can put him on that side of the ball and see what would happen. He’s a little bit taller than Sherm, he’s a little bit longer than Sherm, he’s about the same speed. Sherm is taking him under his wing and trying to help him as fast as he can to bring him along.”
Carroll is anxious to see them all. Because now, it's about finding the next diamond in the rough.