Asides from pass rush, nickel cornerback is the Seahawks’ biggest defensive need as they head into the 2020 NFL Draft.
Ugo Amadi was drafted to be a free safety. In his rookie year, the fourth-round pick out of Oregon struggled with the press technique Seattle teaches and his transitions downfield were impacted by poor agility. There’s a reason why the Seahawks opted to start 2019 with the disappointing play of budget veteran Jamar Taylor.
Of course, last season was a year in which Seattle decided to zig with the rest of the league zagging. The league-average rate of nickel personnel was over 60 percent in 2018; base defense was 25 percent. (Football Outsiders) This has been a rising trend in recent NFL years. Yet the Seahawks put five defensive backs on the field just 27 percent of the time, instead opting to run 4-3 as their base personnel, putting three linebackers on the field for 67 percent of their defensive snaps (per Sports Info Solutions). This was a grand defiance of convention. It did not work.
Seahawks general manager John Schneider all but confirmed the need at slot cornerback - the fifth defensive back - at the NFL Combine earlier in the year.
“We didn’t play a ton of nickel last year,” he told reporters in Indianapolis. “You’ve got to look at the nickel position like a starter, right? Detroit got Coleman, gave him a nice contract, he did a great job for them again - but we need to keep preparing along the way.”
While nickel most definitely was not base in 2019, we can expect it to feature more prominently in the future. The terrible previous defensive campaign was impacted by Seattle never being able to even hope to disguise their zone or man intentions. Yes, Mychal Kendricks runs a 4.40 40. But no, Kendricks cannot be trusted to cover a receiver in man-to-man.
The Seahawks were left relying on their various safety starters to do this. Returning to the present, Mychal Kendricks is a free agent and the arms race in the NFC West has only intensified with the Cardinals adding DeAndre Hopkins. This is a fantastic draft for receiving talent too. Gulp.
Finding a nickel that the Seahawks trust to play over 65 percent of snaps would be huge. So what is it that Seattle looks for at the position? Certain numbers are important to the front office, yet that net-shrinking process was made more difficult because few pro days took place due to COVID-19. Furthermore, the placing of the NFL Combine in prime time impacted the testing, with numbers as a whole much worse than previous years.
So, how did I narrow the talent pool before shrinking down the nickel candidate focus to just five names? I looked at previous Seahawks nickel starters and placed strict limits on each threshold.
This Jim Nagy tweet from 2018 revealed that the oft-repeated 32-inch arm length threshold isn’t absolute on the conscious of Seattle’s talent evaluators. Indeed, the Seahawks have regularly been willing to dip under 32-inch arms at nickel.
That said, let’s say they don’t dip under 30 1/4-inches - as you can see from the above spreadsheet, they haven’t had a nickel with arms shorter than 30 3/4 inches and Taylor didn’t exactly work out. This arm threshold removes: Alabama’s Shyheim Carter (29 5/8 inches), Arizona’s Jace Whittaker (29 inches), FSU’s Levonta Taylor (29 1/2 inches), Michigan State’s Josiah Scott (29 3/8 inches, Penn State’s John Reid (30 1/8 inches), UCLA’s Darnay Holmes (29 1/2 inches), and Utah’s Terrell Burgess (29 1/2 inches).
Short area quickness at the position is the biggest differentiator from those corners drafted to play outside and defensive backs selected for their safety play - keep this in mind when looking at Jeremy Lane and Ugo Amadi. So, let’s aim for a 3 cone time quicker than 7.05 seconds. This eliminates: Auburn’s Noah Igbinogheue (7.1 seconds), Georgia Southern’s Kindle Vildor (7.14 seconds), Pittsburgh’s Dane Jackson (7.07 seconds), and TCU’s Jeff Gladney (7.26 seconds).
Weight-wise, the corner being lighter than 200 pounds makes sense. Seattle has a low-key need for depth at safety, but they are well set for big nickel options given Quandre Diggs, Bradley McDougald, and Marquise Blair can all match-up with certain types. An under 200 pound threshold excludes Clemson’s K’Von Wallace (206 pounds).
Finally, ruling out anyone shorter than 5-foot-9 seems a safe bet. Say goodbye to the pair of 5-foot-8 options: Auburn prospect Javaris Davis and Minnesota baller Antoine Winfield (who should have gone in the first round anyway).
With the tape plugged in and a better idea of what Seattle was looking for, I was able to cut two men from the list after watching their film. Wake Forest’s Essang Bassey massively lacked play strength and press ability. Too often he got bullied, plus he has tiny hands. Michigan’s Lavert Hill has no testing numbers, but his tape is more like a short outside corner, with Hill lacking agility and long speed. I’d be uncomfortable with him in man coverage in the two-way go of the slot.
Here are my five prospects in the 2020 draft who could become the next Seahawks nickel.
1. Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech
Weight 183 pounds
Arm Length: 30 1/4 inches
Okay, okay. He’s shorter than 5-foot-9 and I’m making a fool of my first threshold. What’s the point of these self-imposed rules if even I can’t stick to them? Fear not, despite drinking far too much coffee, my sanity remains somewhat intact. We know that Seattle has interest in the corner thanks to Rob Staton’s recent interview with Robertson, where the Louisiana Tech product revealed he had a video conference with the Seahawks.
In addition to the shortness, the arm length of Roberton would be a clear departure from what the Seahawks have looked for at the nickel position. His frenetic, scrappy playing style sure is fun though, endearing him to many draft experts and fans.
The nickel Twitter darling has good twitch and agility coming out of his pedal on routes like slants. His transitions are fluid and controlled, with effortless lower gear-access comfortably carrying him through the early phases.
His zone spacing is solid and benefits from awareness. In fact, there were visible efforts from Robertson to maintain his leverage. Furthermore, in man coverage he dipped past rub routes and navigated around them well.
In press coverage, he has a strong and physical quick-jam. Overall, though, Robertson needs refinement in this area. He occasionally trips over himself when trying to soft shoe forward or kick-slide outside in press. His style of mirroring the receiver belies a lack of punch. It was impressive how patient Robertson was before fully opening the gate or losing control of his movements. However, not only is this mirroring the total opposite of what Seattle teaches, it also re-sets the line of scrimmage easily. NFL release plans will exploit this and Robertson’s quickness will be the only hope of compensation.
Robertson is capable of locating and playing the football in the air from a variety of techniques. His ball skills are just slightly limited by a lack of length at the catch point and the absence of top-end speed.
As a tackler, Robertson also lacks play strength. When facing the ball carrier, it is very much an ‘all or nothing’ situation where Robertson flies forward, not coming to balance and bulleting forward. He is forced to run around or past blockers.
Most of Robertson’s nickel reps came as a blitzer, where his quickness troubled tackles and running backs. He had a knack for forcing fumbles and also flashed a fun quick swim move. Spending time at nickel as a blitzer only makes a proposed NFL career at nickel a projection.
He's a highlight player, so:
2. L'Jarius Sneed, Lousiana Tech
Weight 192 pounds
Arm Length: 31 3/8 inches
4.37 second 40-Yard Dash
41-inch Vertical Jump
131-inch Broad Jump
The entire evaluation process being conducted over apps like Zoom or FaceTime means that there is no limit to the number of interviews - unlike the more traditional Top 30 stuff. So maybe Seattle was seeing what the energetic Robertson was like, while also asking him for information on his teammate L’Jarius Sneed.
Sneed plays with less mirror technique, although is still more of a soft-shoe corner - there was some step-kick. He played outside for the first three years of his career before moving to a safety role that gave him Tampa 2, and crucially, slot coverage assignments.
Per PFF, when lined up as an outside cornerback, Sneed allowed an opposing passer rating of 61.8 on 153 targets and held opponents to a 50 percent completion percentage. Sneed looks like a Seattle corner and plays like one too, bullying opponents and battering them at the line of scrimmage in press. Timing is disrupted. Routes are flattened. He loves to hit.
Most importantly, he showed the fluidity and change of direction skills to be able to survive in slot coverage - he was still able to flatten routes when aligned inside. As a result, Sneed would bring a nasty play style to the slot corner position that screams Seattle.
The former Bulldog is a tad late at the catch point when coming downhill. He also mistimes his jumps when playing the ball. Like most corners coming out of college, there are things that need tweaking. But Sneed’s nasty press is what leaves a lasting positive impression.
3. Javelin Guidry, Utah
Weight 191 pounds
Arm Length: 31 1/4 inches
4.29 second 40-Yard Dash
Seattle likes defenders coming out of Utah’s defense, because it’s “NFL-like” compared to a lot of college schemes.
However, Guidy is very raw in coverage. In press, he opens the gate too early, relying on athleticism to recover. He stands up in his backpedal, resulting in balance issues when trying to change direction and lag when breaking. He lacks awareness in zone coverage and his play making isn’t quite there because he thinks too much. When trailing receivers, he is too grabby at the top of routes to get into position. Playing the ball, he has real issues tracking and adjusting to it mid-flight. He struggles contesting the ball.
Positives in man include navigating around traffic well from press and moving to cut off aggressively, in efforts to undercut and flatten. His 40 is likely to mean he goes far higher than the point in which Seattle would be willing to take a chance on him as a nickel project. It’s exactly the kind of time that some team will reach on.
4. Troy Pride Jr., Notre Dame
Weight 193 pounds
Arm Length: 30 5/8 inches
4.4 second 40-Yard Dash
6.94 second 3-cone
4.26 second Short Shuttle
35.5-inch Vertical Jump
119-inch Broad Jump
Pride was the best cornerback at the Senior Bowl, one of the few to actually cover people in practices as opposed to resembling a traffic cone. After his performance, I wrote:
“Pride Jr. showed patience at the line of scrimmage and a step-kick technique that saw him maintain a strong post foot. However, against the bigger targets, he was out-muscled in this approach. In these scenarios, Pride Jr coped better trying to soft-shoe mirror, where his quickness and agility won.”
This matched his Notre Dame tape, where he received experience to the boundary and to the field. He has a way of funneling routes that will lend itself to nickel success. He is fantastic at getting into the hip pocket of receivers while visioning quarterback, placing himself in sound position to contest footballs. In off coverage, he takes optimal paths to the ball.
Versus the bigger targets, he occasionally over steps in press. Perhaps he is conscious of his lack of size. He is therefore susceptible to inside step releases versus go balls and struggles to get his head around on fade routes. He can arrive early to the catch point too because he’s conscious of getting boxed out. His ball skills are a weak point in any trail position versus vertical routes. Finally, there is a lack of wrap and poor aiming points when trying to tackle.
5. Michael Ojemudia, Iowa
Weight 200 pounds
Arm Length: 32 1/4 inches
4.45 second 40-Yard Dash
6.87 second 3-cone
4.21 second Short Shuttle
36-inch Vertical Jump
122-inch Broad Jump
Another Mobile invitee, Ojemudia “played like a Cover 2 cornerback way outside of his comfort zone in one-on-ones.” He could not cover. At Iowa, he was protected by his deep quarter zone scheme and sideline. But he is the only man who’s testing ticks every single box of Seattle, including the arm length of 32-plus inches. For that reason alone, I had to include him. It’s possible they consider him coachable enough inside - or maybe even outside.
So when might Seattle take one of these nickels? The most likely scenario is day three. Until last year, Schneider proved capable of finding starting nickel talent for cheap. It’s possible that Kalan Reed was the plan last season until he suffered a career-ending neck injury.
If not in the draft, Schneider could dip into the trade market pre-cut downs. The current free agency options have dried up with Nickell Robey-Coleman (visited with Seattle) and Damarious Randall (heavily rumored) both signing elsewhere.
The final alternative is that the signing of Quinton Dunbar may result in him, Tre Flowers, and Shaquill Griffin all playing at the same time. Out of the trio, Griffin is the most slot-like - his 6.87 second 3-cone is noticeable. Furthermore, Griffin did see some slot work in his rookie year. Dunbar can also play inside, but he did lack the agility against quicker types.
Be it the draft or something else, the Seahawks need a slot cornerback. Something must be done. After making a surprising first round pick, look for them to address the need in the next couple of days.