Special Teams an Underrated Aspect of Seahawks' 2021 Draft Strategy

Entering the 2021 NFL Draft, two of the Seahawks' biggest needs were receiver and cornerback. They addressed both with D'Wayne Eskridge and Tre Brown, but not just for what they offer at their respective positions.
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Take a step back and look at the 2020 Seahawks as a whole. What do you see? Likely a tale of two halves, with the Russell Wilson-led offense dominating through the first half while the defense struggled at a historic rate. Then, a reversal of roles, with the defense suddenly turning things around as the offense spiralled down in a blaze of dysfunction in the second half. 

Successes on both ends of the ball, but at two separate periods in time. One essentially picking up the proverbial slack of the other, but neither able to meet in the middle when it mattered most. However, there would be one constant for the team: its special teams unit.

Special teams isn't talked about enough when looking back on 2020, and probably for good reason; it was never a problem area for the Seahawks. Despite losing their coordinator Brian Schneider, who took an indefinite leave for personal reasons in September, the Seahawks finished third in special teams DVOA with Larry Izzo at the helm, per Football Outsiders. It would be their best finish since 2015, in which they also came in third. In the four years following that season, they placed no higher than 15th and as low as 24th in the league. 

So what worked for them this past season? Well, pretty much everything. Whether it be kicker Jason Myers's perfect 24-for-24 field goal rate, punter Michael Dickson's second-highest yards-per-punt average of 49.6, or fullback Nick Bellore and long snapper Tyler Ott's Pro Bowl-worthy seasons, they were incredibly strong across the board. And now Izzo has the full-time gig with Schneider joining Urban Meyer's coaching staff in Jacksonville.

If there's something to nitpick here, perhaps it's their punt and kick coverage, which was still pretty darn good more times than not. Statistically, however, they were more so middle of the pack, finishing 17th and 21st in opponent punt and kick return yardage respectively. They also didn't get a ton of production out of their own returners, coming in at 20th and 22nd in yardage gained on punts and kicks. 

A major contributing factor to this was their lack of a true return specialist for most of the season. They found some success in D.J. Reed, who put up 219 yards on seven kick returns and 104 yards on 12 punt returns, but that didn't come until late in the year. David Moore, who served as the team's primary punt returner in 2020, is now in Carolina and simply didn't offer the speed and agility combination necessary to provide much upside out of the spot for Seattle.

The Seahawks seemingly rectified some of these issues through the 2021 NFL Draft, specifically with their first two selections of Western Michigan receiver D'Wayne Eskridge and Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown. 

Starting with Eskridge, while he's in line to be the team's tertiary receiving option behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, he appears to be the top candidate to take on return duties—on kicks, at least. The former track star never returned a single punt in college and only started doing so on kickoffs in 2020, putting up 467 yards and a touchdown on 17 returns. With his sub-4.4 speed, he gives the Seahawks something in the return game they haven't seen since Lockett's arrival in 2015. 

But it doesn't stop there for Eskridge. Seattle also sees him as a potential gunner on put coverages, with head coach Pete Carroll citing his physicality and temporary switch to cornerback in 2019 during the team's post-day two press conference. In the same presser, general manager John Schneider talked about a massive hit Eskridge doled out in a game against Central Michigan that really stood out to them.

If Eskridge is going to have any competition on returns or punt and kick coverage, it may be from his draft-mate Brown. At Oklahoma, the 5-foot-9 cornerback served as the primary kick returner in 2018 and 2019. He put up 1,207 yards on 55 returns in his career, exhibiting above-average speed he believes is better than his 4.42 40-yard dash time shows. So much so that he's confident enough to state he's faster than Metcalf, who took the league by storm with his 40-yard mark of 4.33 seconds in the 2019 NFL combine, as well as his chase down of Cardinals safety Budda Baker that clocked in at a top speed of 22.64 miles per hour, according to Next Gen Stats. 

“Am I faster than him?" Brown told reporters at his pro day. "If we add it up, definitely. You can tell him right there, if you’re close to DK Metcalf, tell him we can line that up, definitely.”

When looking at Next Gen Stats, however, you won't find Metcalf atop the leaderboard in top speed. Instead, it's Brown who reigns supreme amongst all collegiate and NFL players for his efforts on a play in the 2019 Big 12 championship. Catching up to Baylor receiver Chris Platt on a near touchdown in the fourth quarter of that game, Brown topped out at an extraordinary 23.3 MPH, slightly edging out Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill at 23.24 MPH.

"He’s a one-speed guy," Carroll spoke of Brown following the conclusion of the draft. "He goes all out, and he really does throw his body around, and it shows up on special teams when he gets his [opportunities]."

Pair that with the physical and vicious nature Brown puts forth on defense and he appears to be the ideal special teamer for Carroll's crew. 

With Brown and Eskridge in tow, the Seahawks feel good about the depth they now have in several crucial special teams roles. And that doesn't even account for what undrafted free agents Cade Johnson and Connor Wedington may also be able to provide on that front.

What was arguably their biggest strength in 2020 has become even stronger, adding an extra dimension to an already high-powered football team with Super Bowl aspirations.