Cornerback Competition Doesn't Yield Fruit For Pete Carroll, Seahawks

After Seattle lost Shaquill Griffin in free agency in March, cornerback stood out as one of the team's biggest question marks. Now heading into Week 1, after a positional battle that failed to meet expectations, the situation is arguably worse.
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Back in June, speaking with reporters after the conclusion of one of the Seahawks three mandatory minicamp practices, the ever-so-enthusiastic Pete Carroll couldn't have been more giddy about the team's impending cornerback competition.

Even after losing starters Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar in free agency, while uncertainty loomed over the position, Carroll appeared to have legitimate reasons for optimism at the time. After a strong second half in his first season in Seattle, D.J. Reed returned as the favorite to retain his starting right cornerback job and Tre Flowers offered nearly 40 games of starting experience heading into the final year of his rookie contract.

Away from Reed and Flowers as the incumbents, free agent signee Ahkello Witherspoon had been on the Seahawks radar since coming out of Colorado in 2017 and fit the size/skill set boxes the team normally looks for on the outside. He was expected to enter camp as the favorite to win the left cornerback spot. Fellow veterans Pierre Desir and Damarious Randall as well as fourth-round pick Tre Brown were also expected to be in the hunt for playing time.

With the six aforementioned players of differing skill sets battling for playing time throughout camp and a few other youngsters such as Gavin Heslop lying in the weeds as potential dark horses, Carroll expected the competition to unearth two quality starters.

"The cornerback position is going to be really competitive," Carroll said. "We've got a good structure of guys, we've got different style of guys who can play. We've got some long guys, some big guys, we've got some quickness, we've got a whole mixture of guys who can play. The competition is going to be wide open; it's going to take us all of camp to figure it out."

Zooming forward nearly three months later to the present with the season opener in Indianapolis now six days away, it's safe to say the Seahawks didn't "figure it out" in training camp. As of the time of this writing, only Reed, Flowers, and Brown remain on the 53-man roster after Desir and Randall were released and Witherspoon was traded to the Steelers for a 2023 fifth-round pick.

Instead of those three players occupying roster spots, over the past two weeks, Seattle has continued to play musical chairs at the position, throwing things at a wall hoping for something, anything to stick.

First, general manager John Schneider traded a conditional seventh-round pick to Houston for second-year cornerback John Reid. He practiced three times and played in the preseason finale before being waived last week and now finds himself on the practice squad. The good news is that unless he appears in six games in 2021, the team won't have to forfeit a draft choice.

Last Monday, Schneider orchestrated another trade with Jacksonville, bringing former Washington Husky star Sidney Jones back to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for a sixth-round draft choice. He practiced for the first time last Friday and Carroll indicated he will compete at both cornerback spots right away.

Then, working the waiver wire, the Seahawks were awarded former Tennessee standout Nigel Warrior, who was cut by the Ravens despite turning in a stellar preseason. In addition, they reportedly will sign Bless Austin, who the Jets surprisingly cut last week when he was expected to be a starter in 2021. Both players will likely be on the 53-man roster when the team travels to face the Colts next weekend.

Going into training camp, uncertainty at cornerback was centered largely around the team not having a "sure fire" long-term starting option on the roster. But even if there wasn't a Pro Bowler in the group, there was ample experience, as Flowers, Desir, Witherspoon, and Randall each had more than 30 NFL starts under their belts.

Now? After an underwhelming competition ended with Reed and Flowers basically winning their starting jobs by default, the Seahawks have traded in most of that experience for unproven youngsters who weren't able to make the roster for their previous employers last month.

If you're looking for silver linings, Carroll and Schneider should be given some credit for realizing things weren't working out as planned with Witherspoon and getting something in return for him. It's possible Reed, Flowers, or eventually Brown could play well enough for Seattle to get by just fine without him.

Thinking big picture, Jones, Warrior, Reid, or Bless could be better fits in Seattle's system at a fraction of the cost while also offering special teams value.

For Jones in particular, the former second-round pick has always possessed starter-worthy talent when healthy. Coming back to his old college stomping grounds after the best year of his NFL career with the Jaguars, if he can avoid injuries that have dogged him to this point - a big if, he could quickly vault into the lineup and give the Seahawks a boost.

As for the other three players, Bless did start 16 games in two seasons with the Jets and offers good size (6-foot-1, 32 1/2-inch arms) for playing on the outside in Carroll's Cover 3-laden scheme. Warrior has yet to dress for an NFL game, but he performed well with limited opportunities in a crowded Baltimore defensive backfield and may be ready to play on Sundays for a team with inferior depth. Reid played in a handful of games for the Texans as a rookie and can play outside and in the slot.

When asked about the state of the cornerback room after Monday's practice, Carroll remained upbeat about the group and believes newcomers will have a chance to make a significant impact.

“We have really good guys and we’re competitive. We have fast guys and guys with experience," Carroll said. "We’re excited to see these guys go out and battle and fight for those spots.” 

Still, even with Carroll and his staff coaching them up, with Jones maybe being an exception, those aren't necessarily the type of additions that will inspire a fan base. Arguably Seattle's biggest question mark when the new league year opened in March, nothing has changed over the past six months aside from the names and numbers on the practice jerseys. It's hard to refute the idea the group is actually worse now than it was entering camp.

In March, with Griffin fleeing to the Jaguars and out of their price range, the Seahawks tried to use $4 million duct tape in the form of Witherspoon to seal a leaky pipe and sure enough, it didn't work. Such negligence could now lead to a full blown defensive catastrophe if other cheap remedies don't prove to be any more effective.