Analysis: Who Wins Seahawks Nickel Cornerback Spot?
Countering league-wide trends, the Seahawks played more than 50 percent of their defensive snaps in their base 4-3 defense in 2019, keeping three linebackers on the field at expense of an extra defensive back far more than any other team in the NFL.
Heading into a new season, coach Pete Carroll has remained non-committal about how much base defense Seattle will use in 2020. But after finishing 22nd in scoring defense and 26th in passing defense, there's a strong chance the team will employ more nickel packages than last season with a fifth defensive back checking in to help slow down opposing offenses in the vaunted NFC West.
When it comes to the nickel cornerback role, which player holds the edge with training camp set to kick off next month?
The Case for Ugo Amadi
Over the team's final five games, including two playoff contests, a "blossoming" Amadi logged 80 defensive snaps, producing eight combined tackles and a pass defensed. Per Pro Football Reference, he didn't miss a single tackle and in coverage, the former Oregon standout was targeted 11 times, giving up nine completions for 83 yards and allowing opposing quarterbacks to post a 98.1 passer rating. That's a very small sample size and if he could have reeled in a pick-six versus the Panthers in Week 15, these stats would look significantly different. After starring on special teams as a rookie, the Seahawks could look to use him more as a blitzer this year and additional reps should help him become more comfortable in coverage. Without signing any proven veterans to compete against him, after showing promise in limited playing time as a rookie, Amadi should be the heavy favorite to win and maintain the slot cornerback role.
The Case for Linden Stephens
If there's a surprise player on the roster who could give Amadi a run for his money, it could be Stephens, who general manager John Schneider and Carroll name dropped as a potential slot option following the 2020 NFL Draft. Undrafted out of Cincinnati in 2018, he has bounced around with five different organizations over the past two years, including spending the bulk of the 2019 season on Seattle's practice squad. In December, he finally got a chance to suit up for three regular season games after Miami signed him to the active roster and played 25 defensive snaps, producing three tackles. He allowed all four passes attempted against him to be completed, but again, this is a very small sample size to evaluate. Possessing sub-4.4 speed, he may offer a bit more than Amadi from an athleticism standpoint, so he's a wild card worth watching.
The Case for By-Committee Approach
While Carroll has spoken highly of Amadi this offseason, he also told reporters earlier this month that safety Marquise Blair could see snaps out of the nickel spot and Quinton Dunbar has played some snaps there previously as well. This opens up the possibility the Seahawks will instead employ a by-committee approach with multiple players seeing the field in the slot depending on the situation and opponent. Against teams with elite tight ends, Blair, Dunbar, or even Tre Flowers could be used as "big" nickels in coverage against them, much how the team used Akeem King late in the 2018 season. Due to his lack of height, Amadi wouldn't be ideal in such situations, but he could play the majority of the snaps matched up against smaller, shiftier slot receivers, giving defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. ample flexibility in five or six-defensive back packages.
Before the offseason kicked off in March, it seemed inevitable Seattle would either sign a veteran or take a flier on a potential nickel cornerback late in the draft. But with the exception of claiming Stephens off waivers, neither of those happened, suggesting the organization has plenty of confidence in Amadi taking a significant step forward in his second season.
As Carroll noted, the Seahawks do have a plan in place to get Blair on the field more in 2020 and he will likely see some snaps functioning as a big nickel back. It's also not out of the question Dunbar could see some action there, especially against up-tempo, no-huddle offenses such as the Cardinals where it's difficult to substitute defenders into the game.
Based on the lack of true slot-types on the roster, however, this definitely feels like Amadi's job to lose. Barring injury or a late veteran signing to push him, he should be in line for the bulk of snaps when the Seahawks shift into nickel looks next season.