Training Camp Preview: Cornerbacks

If there's a major question mark on Seattle's defense heading into the 2021 season, the team has two starting spots open replacing Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar at cornerback. With camp set to open this week, which players are best-positioned to fill those roles?
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Following a long offseason - okay, compared to the nightmare that was 2020, the past several months have been a breeze - the Seahawks will officially usher in the 2021 season by reporting to training camp on July 27.

Continuing our camp preview series, here's a close look at the state of the cornerback position, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.

2020 In Review

Seattle opened the 2020 campaign with much optimism at cornerback with Shaquill Griffin coming off a Pro Bowl season, Quinton Dunbar arriving as a perceived upgrade at the other outside starting spot, and Marquise Blair surfacing as an intriguing slot option. However, injuries immediately became a problem for the group, as Dunbar dealt with chronic knee issues and only played in six games, while Blair tore his ACL in Week 2 and missed the remainder of the season. Even Griffin missed four games with a hamstring injury, leaving Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed as the starters on the outside. Luckily for Seattle, Reed turned in a stellar second half and after Flowers returned from a quick injured reserve stint, he remained in the lineup with Griffin for the rest of the regular season into the playoffs as part of a rejuvenated defense.

What's New?

The Seahawks wanted to re-sign Griffin and negotiations went to the final hour, but ultimately, the Jaguars were able to offer more money on a multi-year deal and he departed for his home state in free agency. Dunbar also left to sign with Detroit, ensuring Seattle would enter the season without both of its Week 1 starters from last season. To help fill the void, the team promptly signed former 49ers starter Ahkello Witherspoon and seasoned veteran Pierre Desir to one-year contracts. Then in April's draft, general manager John Schneider bucked past trends and used a fourth-round pick on feisty 5-foot-10 Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown.

Depth Chart

Starters: D.J. Reed, Ahkello Witherspoon, Marquise Blair

Last July, the 5-foot-9 Reed suffered a torn pectoral muscle during an offseason workout and the 49ers attempted to slip him onto injured reserve through waivers. But the Seahawks had other plans and claimed him off waivers, stealing the young defender from their bitter NFC West rivals. The move ended up being a shrewd one, as Reed healed faster than expected and made his debut in Week 8, intercepting a pass in a victory over his former team. From there, he eventually made his way into the starting lineup at right cornerback, producing 62 tackles, two interceptions, and seven passes defensed in 10 games. After playing so well down the stretch, he should be viewed as the favorite to retain his starting job and proven himself to be a philosophy changer in Seattle.

Back in 2017, the Seahawks had Witherspoon on their radar coming out of Colorado, enticed by his size (6-foot-3), length, athleticism, and ball skills. He ended up in San Francisco early in the third round of the draft and his first four NFL seasons, he missed nearly a dozen games due to injury and lost his starting job on multiple occasions due to inconsistent performance. But he did flash at times for the 49ers, including finishing the 2020 season on a strong note. Playing in a defensive scheme catered well to his strengths, Seattle took a chance on him with a one-year "prove it" deal to see if he can put everything together and he will enter camp with the best chance to replace Griffin on the left side.

Converting to slot cornerback before training camp, Blair hit the ground running at his new position and impressed throughout the month of August. On the practice field, he seemed to create at least one turnover in every session and drew raving reviews from coaches and teammates alike. He also picked off a pair of passes in a mock scrimmage, further solidifying his hold on the starting spot. The Seahawks were eager to see what the former second-round pick out of Utah could accomplish playing alongside safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs, but that never came to fruition due to a torn ACL. Now back healthy, the team hopes the versatile chess piece can stay healthy and create chaos from the slot.

Reserves: Tre Flowers, Pierre Desir, Ugo Amadi, Tre Brown, Damarious Randall, Saivion Smith, Jordan Miller, Will Sunderland, Gavin Heslop, Bryan Mills

Like Witherspoon, Flowers has played well in spurts since entering the league as a fifth-round pick in 2018. But he hasn't been able to put it all together and his inability to take the next step in his development led to the trade for Dunbar before last season. He finds himself in a somewhat similar situation going into the final year of his rookie contract and will have his back against the wall battling for a roster spot. But given his size, starting experience, and familiarity with Seattle's scheme, if he turns in a strong camp and preseason, he shouldn't be counted out for reclaiming his starting spot.

Now a grizzled veteran with seven NFL seasons under his belt, Desir returns to the Seahawks hoping for a different outcome than his first stint with the franchise. Back in 2017, despite playing well during preseason games, he failed to make the 53-man roster out of camp. He eventually landed with the Colts off waivers and became a full-time starter, producing 119 tackles and five interceptions over the next three seasons. Though he struggled playing for the Jets and Ravens last year, he still offers quality size and starting experience, which should give him an outside chance to push Witherspoon and Reed for snaps.

On the heels of Reed's surprise ascent, Schneider and coach Pete Carroll clearly had their eyes opened to the possibility of smaller cornerbacks excelling in Seattle's scheme. Nothing made this more apparent than the decision to draft Brown, who became the first cornerback drafted by the regime with sub-32-inch arms. The Seahawks have never been against rookies competing for playing time right away and though he's small in stature, the former Oklahoma standout plays a physical, aggressive brand of football, loves to tackle, and knows how to get his hands on the football. He should be in the mix for snaps immediately on defense and special teams.

Taking over for an injured Blair, Amadi stepped in and performed at a high level, amassing 54 tackles and seven passes defensed. While he did allow a 73 percent completion percentage against him in coverage, he limited receivers to under eight yards per reception, held opposing quarterbacks to a respectable 86.8 passer rating, and didn't allow a single touchdown. He also remained a reliable tackler, missing only four tackles all season and generating one forced fumble, while still seeing a fair number of special teams snaps. Blair will be the likely favorite to regain his starting spot, but a true jack of all trades such as Amadi will be in the hunt for playing time.

Key Question

Do the Seahawks have two starter-quality outside cornerbacks on the current roster? And if not, is there still a chance the team could re-consider signing a certain veteran?

In terms of experience, the Seahawks have a plethora of cornerbacks who have played significant snaps at the NFL level. Since being drafted in 2018, Flowers has started 37 games in three seasons. Desir has 44 starts to his name while spending time with four different teams, while Randall started 30 games for the Packers in his first two seasons coming out of Arizona State. Even bouncing in and out of the lineup for various reasons, Witherspoon started 33 games for the 49ers over the past four years.

Unfortunately, even with two of those players being drafted in the first three rounds, none of those four players has been able to hold a starting job long-term. They have combined for zero Pro Bowl selections and all of them have been benched at least once during their respective careers. Based on that information alone, it's understandable why some fans are skeptical about the cornerback group minus Griffin and view it as a potential weakness on a defense featuring a much-improved defensive line, a pair of star safeties, and a Hall of Fame linebacker.

With that said, Carroll hasn't been quiet about his excitement about this unit and he has a well-deserved reputation for being able to coach up the position. It's not unrealistic at all to believe Witherspoon could be a Pro Bowl-caliber player with adequate coaching and better injury luck. Reed played exceptionally well over the final two months of last season and the organization has great confidence in him maintaining that level of play for a full season. Even Flowers remains a player with plenty of untapped potential at 26 years of age and if the light switch comes on, he could play himself right back into the lineup.

After recently being arrested for trying to break into the home of his in-laws and driving under the influence, playing football isn't Richard Sherman's top priority right now. Though many fans would be thrilled to see him finish his career where it started, such a reunion likely won't happen unless the current group underwhelms in camp and/or deals with injuries. Even then, the odds may be slim considering circumstances.

Bold Prediction

Rebounding from an injury-shortened season, Blair will emerge as one of the NFL's best nickel cornerbacks and lead the Seahawks with five interceptions.

While there are obvious question marks on the outside that will need to be addressed in camp, the Seahawks have every reason to be fired up about Blair's return and his potential impact on the defense as a whole. Known for laying vicious hits at Utah, he provides a physical presence the team hasn't had at nickel cornerback, but he's far more than simply a big hitter. When healthy, he offers enough size to matchup with tight ends in coverage, he is a highly effective blitzer from the slot, and as he demonstrated last summer, he has underrated ball skills. He picked off Russell Wilson numerous times during camp and got his hands on several other passes for deflections, showing off his well-rounded game. Given the talent around him, he should have plenty of chances with quarterbacks testing him in coverage and if he can capitalize on his opportunities, he's a dark horse to rack up picks in bunches.