Statistically speaking, the Seahawks featured one of the NFL's worst passing defenses in 2021. They finished the year 31st in passing yards allowed per game (265.5), 27th in opponent completion percentage (67.3 percent) and 20th in opponent passer rating (93.5). Their league-high average time played per game (34:44) inflated some of the more lamentable numbers against them, of course, which have overshadowed the fact that the unit featured one of the game's top cornerbacks.
D.J. Reed was one of just three corners Seattle carried over from the previous season. By Week 6, when 2018 fifth-round draft choice Tre Flowers was released, Reed became the second-longest tenured player in the position group behind nickel/safety hybrid Ugo Amadi. This was just his first full season in the Pacific Northwest, having made his Seahawks debut in Week 8 of the 2020 campaign after starting the year on the non-football injury list.
Working his way back from a torn pectoral muscle that his previous team, the 49ers, were unwilling to await his return from, Reed essentially broke the mold of how the cornerback position is viewed in Seattle. Listed by the team at 5-foot-9, 193 pounds, he's the polar opposite of the long, lanky outside corners head coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks had exclusively coveted. But while his size didn't match that of those who came before him, his aggressive and physical play style certainly did.
With injuries in the secondary, Reed got his shot to start a week after his team debut and never let go of his new role. Slotting in on the right side opposite the since-departed Shaquill Griffin, he limited opponents to a meager passer rating of 76.2, nabbing a pair of interceptions while allowing a modest 63.2 completion percentage for 414 yards and one touchdown on 408 coverage snaps.
Heads started to turn when he squared off with renowned Washington receiver Terry McLaurin in a 20-15 win for the Seahawks. Targeted five times in the matchup, McLaurin reeled in just two passes for an underwhelming seven yards, with one of the attempts resulting in a pass breakup for Reed. By that point, if they didn't know it before, Carroll and company understood they had something special in the Kansas State product.
More or less guaranteed to retain his starting job heading into 2021, Reed found himself in a much different-looking cornerback room than the one he had grown accustomed to. Griffin was now in Jacksonville after signing a three-year, $44.5 million contract with the Jaguars in March; Quinton Dunbar, coming off a season-ending knee injury, drew very little interest on the open market and eventually landed with the Lions. In response, the Seahawks signed veterans Ahkello Witherspoon and Pierre Desir, and selected Tre Brown out of Oklahoma in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Three lackluster preseason games later—all of which Reed missed with a groin injury—more change came down from general manager John Schneider. Witherspoon was shipped off to the Steelers for a 2023 fifth-round draft pick, and Desir was let go. Additionally, the rookie Brown was forced to start the season on injured reserve with a knee injury, further leading Schneider to acquire Sidney Jones, John Reid, Bless Austin and Nigel Warrior.
Reed was able to overcome his ailment in time for the team's Week 1 bout with the Colts. But with Griffin out of the picture, and Flowers better suited at right cornerback, his role had changed and he was now starting on the left side. By his and his coach's admission, the position switch lacked comfort for him; and that all came to a head in a disastrous loss to the Vikings in Week 3.
Reed allowed a trio of catches on six targets for 29 yards and a touchdown apiece to Minnesota's star receiving duo of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. The Seahawks fell by a score of 30-17—torched by quarterback Kirk Cousins for 323 yards and three touchdowns, with the Vikings converting nine of 14 third-down situations. Through the first three weeks of the season, the defense as a whole had given up a league-worst average of 440.3 yards per game. As such, frustrations boiled over to the point of another shakeup at cornerback, resulting in Flowers' benching and subsequent exiling, as well as a return to the right side for Reed.
In the end, those first three weeks don't tell the story of Reed's 2021 season; they were an outlier—a distant memory to be easily forgiven and forgotten. From Week 4 onward, he was the only cornerback in the NFL with over 400 coverage snaps to not allow a single touchdown. Among those with comparable snap counts during that stretch, he ranked second to Falcons cornerback and second-team All-Pro selection A.J. Terrell in completion percentage (48.1) and opponent passer rating (48.7).
Concurrently, the Seahawks fared better defensively—albeit with some glaring bumps in the road—and ranked seventh in the league in points allowed per drive (1.78) over that same timeframe. Once the season came to an end, Reed reflected on what led to the unit's turnaround and pointed towards its transition to more two-high safety looks and man coverage.
"I think we started calling plays according to, like, personnel out on the field," Reed illustrated in his final press conference of the year. "Just with guys that could press, play man-to-man like myself, Tre Brown. Started calling much more man—that's why things started getting stickier. ... Things just got more stickier instead of playing loose zone type of schemes. But we started playing man in more situations and being more aggressive and going for it."
Evidently, according to TruMedia, Seattle's 44.6 percent Cover 3 call rate in the first half of the season (Weeks 1-8), which ranked second in the NFL, dropped to 36.2 percent in the second half (Weeks 10-18). Meanwhile, its usage of Cover 2 jumped from 13.6 percent to the league's third-highest mark of 19.6 percent.
The team also got better production out of Reed's counterpart, whether that be Brown or Jones. Brown appeared in five games and started three before suffering a season-ending patellar tendon injury. This threw Jones, who had been supplanted by Brown in Week 8, back into the starting lineup for the rest of the year. Over the final 11 weeks of the season, Brown and Jones combined to allow 20 receptions on 37 targets (54 percent completion rate) for 166 yards and just one touchdown.
Unfortunately, Jones, nor Reed, were able to make every single one of their starts down the stretch. Reed missed a Week 11 loss to the Cardinals after re-aggravating his lingering groin issue, then a positive COVID-19 diagnosis forced him to sit out back-to-back games in Weeks 15 and 16—both of which resulted in defeats for the Seahawks as well. Jones, the team's lone unvaccinated player, also contracted the virus amidst the league's late-season outbreak and failed to suit up for a Week 17 victory over the Lions as a result.
Further driving the point of Reed's value to the team: Seahawks cornerbacks were tagged for 29 completions on 41 targets for 346 yards and two touchdowns in the three games without him. As mentioned, they went 0-3 with two of the losses coming against backup quarterbacks Colt McCoy and Nick Foles.
Thankfully, Reed's absences were short lived and the nature of them should ultimately have little-to-no impact on his upcoming contract negotiations. Entering unrestricted free agency for the first time, the dependable cornerback has missed just the three aforementioned games since returning from his pectoral injury in 2020. That, paired with his top-of-the-league play, should land him a hefty payday from Seattle or another corner-needy franchise.
Reed has indicated he wants to remain in Seattle, but the "price has to be right." That said, he's not necessarily looking to cash out on a career year. Wherever his NFL future takes him, it all has to fit—financially, schematically, organizationally and so forth.
One thing that may cause a hang-up in negotiations between Reed and the Seahawks is the team's reported decision to move on from defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and, perhaps most importantly, defensive pass game coordinator Andre Curtis. Reed has attributed a lot of his personal success on the field to Curtis, who joined the organization in 2015 as an assistant secondary coach.
"Since I've been here, Andre Curtis has been a great mentor and coach for me," Reed told reporters at the end of the year. "Just as far as not really teaching me, because I already knew how to play corner, but just giving me a foundation of what they want here and making it very clear what they want out of their corners as far as technique and everything. He did a great job for me personally, and I feel like for the other guys as well."
From the perspective of Seattle and other potential suitors, what may keep Reed from joining the upper echelon of top-paid cornerbacks is his lack of track record and turnovers. His starting experience is roughly condensed down to his year-and-a-half with the Seahawks, which adds up to a fairly small sample size of 23 games; and when it comes to accolades and negotiations for defensive backs, interceptions—as arbitrary as they may be—typically reign supreme.
For example, here's a look at the four corners who earned All-Pro honors in 2021. Bear in mind Reed didn't gain a single nod from the voting committee.
|PLAYER||TEAM||ALL-PRO||COVERAGE SNAPS||INTERCEPTIONS||COMPLETION %||OPP. PASSER RATING||TOUCHDOWNS|
Firstly, Terrell should have been a first-team All-Pro selection. Second of all, despite picking off fewer passes than the four All-Pros, Reed held opponents to a lower completion percentage than three of the four, a lower passer rating than two of the four and fewer touchdowns than all four of them.
The fact he'll walk away from this year without All-Pro or Pro Bowl recognition—even as an alternate—is a discredit to his efforts. Going by the numbers, he should be regarded as one of the game's elite cornerbacks for the 2021 season. He was that good.
At the end of the day, it's hard to imagine Reed will step into his fifth season without a contract that pays him an annual salary of eight figures. The Seahawks, projected by Over the Cap to have $51.5 million in available funds this offseason, will have no issues meeting that demand.