It's Tuesday, February 25. John Schneider walks up to a podium at the 2020 NFL Combine. The Seahawks general manager has ditched his usual Indianapolis attire - Gingham shirts — for a grey sports jacket and white dress shirt. The media appearance went as expected with reporters asking questions and Schneider answering in his usual way, often adding a joke or wry smile.
Then Schneider lied.
Okay... “lied” is strong. I’m writing with bitterness. Schneider’s answer regarding the nickel position fooled me into writing a 2,500-word, five-video preview of the available slot cornerbacks in the 2020 Draft. Perhaps, one day, I’ll let it go. Writing this is free-therapy.
“We didn’t play a ton of nickel last year,” began Schneider. “You’ve got to look at the nickel position like a starter, right? Detroit got Coleman, gave him a nice contract, he did a great job for them again - but we need to keep preparing along the way.”
Schneider’s response about his slot cornerback strategy suggested Seattle had a more aggressive nickel plan. "Preparing along the way." Surely, surely the Seahawks wouldn’t run 4-3 base at a similar rate to their astonishing 2019 numbers. Yet, fast forward to the draft, and Seattle ended up not taking a nickel corner. They didn’t even add one as a priority undrafted free agent signing. How misleading.
Two recent events have simultaneously made the nickel picture clearer and cloudier at the same time. Candidates have been removed. New names have emerged.
The July 27 placement of Quinton Dunbar on the commissioner's exempt list, while subject to appeal, added clarity. Some suggested Dunbar could play a bit of nickel corner, allowing Tre Flowers to see more action at right cornerback.
However, Shaquill Griffin was the obvious fit inside. He did this in his rookie year, but a better argument for the occasional Griffin slot matchup was his agility testing. A 6.87 second 3-cone and 4.14 second short-shuttle was looking slotty. More importantly, the 3-cone was quicker than Dunbar’s 7.1 seconds - a time occasionally visible on tape against the nifty receivers most commonly encountered in the slot.
Now though? Dunbar’s felony charges for armed robbery are unresolved and he is unable to play. Griffin will spend all of 2020 at left cornerback, while Flowers will be the right corner. Like the end of the 2019 season, Ugo Amadi is the projected nickel. The "Griffin in the slot" dream is dead.
Just when slot corner was looking obvious though, Schneider pulled off a typically blockbuster move. On July 26, Schneider traded for Jamal Adams. Nickel has become a little murkier once more. Adams has some exciting matchup capabilities and benefits from 33 3/4-inch arms. Yet, the All-Pro will mainly be a box safety in Seattle - even if his strong safety role will put him in a few one-on-ones with tight ends.
Along with the eye-watering value of picks, the Jets got Bradley McDougald. Seattle’s safety room lost a dependable veteran. Still, with Adams, one of Quandre Diggs or Marquise Blair won’t start for the Seahawks, instead sitting on the bench. Unless...
Diggs has slot cornerback play in his NFL history, filling that role on the Lions. Glimpses arrived in Seattle, especially when Diggs has executed slot-matches as part of 3-deep, 3-under fire zone coverage.
On the other hand, Diggs’ testing really doesn’t look like a slot cornerback or Seattle’s previous nickel starters. The Seahawks are willing to dip under their outside corner 32-inch or longer arm measurement, but not by much. Being short-armed (29 5/8), not fast (4.56 second 40-yard dash) and not agile (7.22 second 3-cone) isn’t great.
Furthermore, why would the Seahawks remove their play-making, ball-hawking veteran from the vital free safety spot? Diggs’ play in the post was near-faultless last season after his arrival for a meager fifth round pick. It provided hope in a world without Earl Thomas. Diggs’ issue was health-related, sustaining a high ankle sprain in Week 15.
That leaves Blair, a second-year defender who still needs to establish a role on this defense in 2020. The addition of Adams only increases the importance of this. Blair has all of the talent Seattle could want. Tellingly, the 23-year old also has the speed to the football that the Seahawks have strongly emphasized in their efforts to build a NFC West-defeating defense.
Blair was initially tried at strong safety in the preseason but got sucked into fakes down at the line of scrimmage, vacating his coverage assignment. In Week 3 of exhibition football, Pete Carroll was seen telling passing game coordinator Andre Curtis to keep Blair high.
In the regular season, after Tedric Thompson ran out of chances, Blair himself admitted that he was messing up the “buzz," outside-underneath role against the Falcons. The rookie still managed to show back-end play-making unseen since the "Legion of Boom."
At free safety versus the Ravens, Blair looked promising. He made big improvements from "sushi-raw" college reps. However, he missed some defensive checks and played with the caution you’d expect from an unsure rookie. Soon Diggs arrived. It was revealing that the Seahawks chose to play the mediocre Lano Hill over the mercurial Blair after Diggs got hurt.
It seems a great shame, a gross waste, for Blair not to see the field in 2020. Prior to the Adams trade, Blair not getting more play in 2020 should have been regarded as a failure of the coaching staff. The college scouting staff would rightly be annoyed. Doesn’t grasp the scheme? Who cares! Find a way to get this level of ability on the field. Post-Adams arrival and Blair is presumably first safety in reserve.
Every year the wish for more three-safety looks in Seattle borders on fetishism. We all know deep down that Pete Carroll is likely to get the personnel on the field for like five snaps a game. We still allow ourselves to get hurt! Nonetheless, if there’s any year that big nickel should be a more regular exploit, it’s got to be 2020. This could be Blair’s role - the fast thumper’s path to playing time.
And, oh boy, look how he tested at the 2019 and Utah’s Pro Day. Even if we avoid giddy excitement by exercising caution regarding pro day number inflation, Blair still looks similar to the rest of Seattle’s nickels. His 4.49 second short-shuttle is poor - maybe he slipped - and his arms are shorter than expected at 30 3/4 inches. Still, the rest of the numbers tick the boxes - including an exciting 6.84 second 3-cone.
The transition to slot would lean on stuff Blair has already learned from his safety roles. The Seahawks nickel either plays a “buzz” underneath zone or man-to-man. That’s a concentration of assignments, a simplification from free safety or strong safety. The main difference would be playing receivers and not tight ends. Blair would also need to learn Seattle’s jam technique. He did well facing tight end Mark Andrews:
The reason this nickel stuff is still a discussion is because Amadi ain’t it. It’s unfair to judge a player entering his second season in the pros - three seasons is a fair time frame for working out what someone is. I’m going to judge anyway.
Three strikes and you’re out. Strike 1? Amadi was drafted as a free safety. Strike 2? Amadi lost his positional battle to budget veteran Jamar Taylor, who was terrible. Strike 3? Amadi struggled massively in the limited action he saw, including being a liability in Week 1 against the Bengals and in the Divisional Round loss against the Packers.
Look how Amadi got along at the combine too. That 7.21 second 3-cone makes it no surprise when his fluid hips are let down by waddling feet well-suited to a former Oregon Duck. His transitions are visibly impacted. He’s long, especially for his short stature, and the short-shuttle was better. Refining his press technique and instincts will have been on his offseason to-do list.
Overall, though, nickel cornerback in the NFL was never the original expectation of Amadi. Instead, his eventual role in Seattle is likely to be a high-character, special teams star who can play safety or nickel in a pinch.
Except that’s not how John Schneider’s roster is constructed. Amadi is the starting nickel. Perhaps he’s waiting for cut downs and the chance to poach another veteran slot cornerback - how COVID-19 impacts this remains to be seen. Currently, the actual nickel corner depth backing up Amadi is Linden Stephens, claimed off waivers in April 2020.
"He did play nickel for us last camp a little bit," Carroll revealed earlier this offseason. The 25-year old Stephens did horribly in agility drills.
Ultimately, it’s troubling Seattle has failed to add noteworthy nickel competition to an ill-suited Amadi. What happened to agility, short-area quickness, and long speed at the position? This is the concrete evidence, along with 2020 first-round Jordyn Brooks, that Carroll’s defense is going to play 4-3 base personnel and only get into nickel in very precise situations.
Despite plentiful statistical evidence showing that 4-3 was more effective than nickel for the Seahawks in 2019, I’ll explain the issues with this thinking in a future article. 4-3 will be fine but better nickel is needed in 2020 and I’m not sure we are going to get it. The position should have been a higher priority.
2017 fifth-round pick Brian Allen is blessed with a supreme athletic profile. He projects to outside cornerback, and played there during his injury-impacted time in Pittsburgh, but it was fun discovering his true athletic ability. Shame there is no preseason for him to truly compete.