Coming off an uneven rookie season in which he started a trio of games, numerous roadblocks stood in the way as obstacles preventing Marquise Blair from earning more consistent playing time for the Seahawks defensively.
Heading towards training camp, Seattle already had two proven starters in Quandre Diggs and Bradley McDougald under contract at the safety position. Then, general manager John Schneider pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade to acquire All-Pro talent Jamal Adams from the New York Jets for two first-round picks and a third-round selection in late July.
With Adams in the fold and Diggs still having two years left on his contract, Blair was the odd man out on the depth chart. But coach Pete Carroll was determined to find a path to get the 2019 second-round pick onto the field and after hinting at a possible position change on multiple occasions during the offseason, Seattle slid him to nickel cornerback at the start of camp.
Despite having no prior background at the position, Blair remained confident his skill set would translate to the slot effectively. Coverage rules generally staying the same helped ease his transition from safety as well.
While Blair made his share of mistakes adjusting to a new position on the fly during the first few practice sessions, he quickly emerged as one of the biggest stars in an abbreviated Seahawks training camp. He consistently got his hands on the football in coverage, including picking off two passes in the team's mock scrimmages, and found his way to Russell Wilson and Geno Smith as a blitzer from the slot.
By the time camp wrapped up, the hard-hitting Blair had beaten out Ugo Amadi for the starting nickel cornerback role and looked poised for a breakout second season. Playing alongside Adams and Diggs in nickel and dime packages, Carroll expected the versatile trio to be a disruptive force and help Seattle's defense return to the ranks of the NFL's elite.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks weren't able to see what the group could accomplish together, as Blair's season came to an abrupt end in a Week 2 win over the Patriots. While finishing a tackle, K.J. Wright inadvertently hit his helmet against the young defender's knee, causing his leg to buckle. He had to be helped off the field and only a few days later, after registering eight tackles and a forced fumble in the first two games, he was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Nearly seven months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, Blair is on schedule to be 100 percent healthy for the start of camp in August. In a video of a recent workout, he looked quick and explosive running through agility hurdles and transitioning in and out of his backpedal, a positive sign for his recovery process.
Just like last offseason, the Seahawks will have to figure out where Blair fits into the team's defensive plans in 2021 and beyond.
At safety, Adams and Diggs are both entering the final year of their respective contracts and all signs point to Seattle extending both players at some point. Meanwhile, at the nickel corner spot, Amadi performed well in Blair's absence, earning a respectable 67.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus while producing 45 tackles and six pass breakups on 552 defensive snaps.
Considering how well Blair performed out of the slot during training camp, it would seem safe to assume he will remain at that position and once again compete against Amadi for the starting role. But as a coach who has never been afraid to experiment in the secondary, Carroll may have one other option to at least consider.
While the Seahawks have been able to fortify their defensive line during free agency, the team lost starting cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar, leaving the team with significant question marks at the position. Former 49ers starter Ahkello Witherspoon was signed to a one-year contract, while D.J. Reed and Tre Flowers will return with one year remaining on their current deals.
It's possible Seattle will be content with this group of corners as constructed, particularly considering how well Reed played in the second half last season, but could Blair potentially be thrown into the mix?
Known for his physicality and toughness, Blair already proved he could adapt to Seattle's kick-step technique and handle press coverage duties in the slot last summer. While quicker receivers may have been problematic for him working inside, he would have the added benefit of the sideline functioning as an extra "defender" to help him in coverage on the outside.
Though Blair has only 30 3/4-inch arms, which falls below Seattle's typical threshold of 32 inches, his 40-yard dash (4.48), 3-cone drill (6.84), and vertical jump (35 inches) all meet the team's testing requirements at the position. Coupled with his size and aggressive play style, these numbers suggest he has more than enough athleticism to play on the outside.
However, there are several reasons why such a position switch may not be near as successful for Blair as last time around. Aside from playing deep zone, he has spent the vast majority of his time at the college and NFL level playing in the box. Lining up on an island on the outside with more one-on-one matchups may be too far outside of his comfort zone and there would be additional technique hurdles he would need to overcome to be effective.
It's also debatable whether playing outside cornerback would truly maximize Blair's biggest strengths. He'd rarely be used as a blitzer, wouldn't be as involved defending the run, and would not draw as many matchups against big tight ends, which is an area he could certainly be utilized given his size and physical presence.
Ultimately, Blair has most of the physical and athletic tools Seattle looks for at outside cornerback, but he doesn't have the background. Shifting outside would be a far trickier move than sliding from safety to slot cornerback as he did a year ago. That much upheaval can also severely stunt a player's development.
With that said, if there is a coach who could transform Blair into a viable outside corner and do so quickly, it is Carroll, who has rightfully earned his reputation as a defensive back guru. Most likely, he will stay in the slot where he thrived last summer, but the intrigue of seeing Blair press receivers into submission on the outside may be worth careful consideration.