RENTON, WA - The days of the "Legion of Boom" are long gone and many who follow the Seahawks will be quick to tell you that. But the legacy remains and so do the people who orchestrated it behind the scenes, giving the city of Seattle a glimmer of hope that one day, in the near future, it will play host to another formidable secondary.
Some of the pieces are already in place, including two of the NFL's best safeties—Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs—roaming the middle of the field. Extensions for both Pro Bowl talents are still expected to come, solidifying that part of Seattle's defensive backfield for years to come. But what about the cornerbacks?
Suffering the losses of both Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar in free agency, the Seahawks have practically rebuilt their cornerback group from scratch this offseason. Only half of the 10 players they have listed at the position finished the 2020 season on their 53-man roster or practice squad.
The group they've put forth has been severely criticized by fans and pundits alike, many of whom have considered it to be the team's worst unit on paper.
Specifically addressing Griffin's departure with little resources—the biggest moves being a one-year, $4 million contract for Ahkello Witherspoon and a fourth-round pick spent on Tre Brown—won't inspire a ton of confidence, of course. However, the Seahawks' coaching staff love what they've seen from several players at the position in training camp thus far, namely Witherspoon.
“He’s physically right," coach Pete Carroll assessed of Witherspoon last Saturday. "He’s fast enough. He’s athletic enough. He’s fluid. He’s tall and long and has great reach. His feet move like a smaller guy. He’s got all the things we’re looking for, and I’ve seen him play enough."
Coming over in free agency after four years with the 49ers, Witherspoon's inconsistency with both his health and his play makes him a tough player to truly evaluate. But the Seahawks have long coveted him since his days at the University of Colorado and have been able to keep a close eye on him as a member of the NFC West since 2017.
"I’ve booked out all things that he’s ever done since being in the league," Carroll continued. "There’s enough of a reservoir of playmaking and play learning that gives you the thought that he could step right in and take this job. But the hard part is there are other guys he’s got to get through, there are other guys too. We feel very comfortable, that’s why we went after him when we did and did a really in-depth research job on him. He hasn’t really had the support, and consistency of the starting position to really know how he’ll handle it. He’s just had spurts. In my mind if he can earn the job, it’ll be like a first-time starter to me. We’ll build on him. I’ve been sitting with him in a meeting room, just trying to make sure that he knows where we’re coming from, and what’s going on. He’s off to a good start, but it’s competitive now.”
As Carroll alluded to, Witherspoon's currently locked into a four-man battle for the starting left cornerback job with the rookie Brown, Pierre Desir and Damarious Randall. While each player has earned their own deal of praise from their head coach since camp began on July 28, Witherspoon has made it difficult for the Seahawks to favor anyone but him at this time.
Nevertheless, it's still very early in the process, and the Seahawks are making no commitments to anyone just yet.
“I think you let it play out," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said of the competition on Tuesday. "There’s a lot of football left. We have a mock game, then another mock game, then three preseason games, so we have some time to really let their play and the competition to play it out.”
That said, with several great plays made through the first week of camp, Witherspoon has set himself up nicely to start alongside right-side cornerback D.J. Reed. His 6-foot 3 stature and 33-inch arms offer a massively different matchup than the 5-foot-9 Reed, theoretically giving the Seahawks a better counter to the wide range of tall receivers they'll face this fall.
“D.J.’s size kind of throws you off," Norton explained when asked to compare Reed and Witherspoon. "He’s pretty strong. He’s a good tackler, he’s explosive, he’s really smart and he’s a battler. He really has a lot of confidence; he thinks he’s the best player on the field. Ahkello is a guy that has a big body, he wants to pressure you, he’s really confident and he uses his hands well. He’s really smart, he might not be as explosive as D.J. is because he is just full of juice but at the same time, he’s learning our system where D.J. already knows our system. He has a year on him, so the big difference is Witherspoon is learning at an angle more than D.J. at this point.”
The Seahawks, of course, are never complacent and have kept their ear to the ground when it comes to the free agent market, particularly with All-Pro Richard Sherman. But football may not be at the forefront of Sherman's mind at the moment, making choices outside of the organization limited. Plus, Randall, Desir and Brown have all caught the attention of their coaches as well, providing plenty of in-house options for the team to first comb through if Witherspoon regresses over the next month.
“You can always add," Carroll said. "But right now I’m looking at the guys we have and I think with Tre [Flowers] battling over on the other side with D.J. and with Pierre [Desir] and Tre Brown, he’s just getting going. Tre Brown has not done anything to discourage us right now from being in the competition as well. It’s going to take us weeks, and we’ve got weeks. We got games; we’ve got time to figure this out. We will not hurry this decision up, there’s no reason to. I think the competition is really good. A variety of styles, sizes and shapes, and we’ll tailor our stuff to them. We’re not going to try to make them be something that they’re not. Right now, it’s gathering information on the guys, that’s all. I have got my own study going, that I’ll keep on going throughout camp so I can stay abreast with how they’re developing. It’s really one of the things I have the most fun with.”
As the Seahawks conducted their first practice in pads on Tuesday, they finally got to see their corners in a more physical setting. Beforehand, they were more or less forced to concede to the offense in drills and focus solely on their footwork and technique. Now, Norton expects his defensive backs to steal the spotlight more often.
“It was close to real football," Norton expressed. "We got a chance to put on the shoulder pads on everybody and it was a lot more physical. ... Before we put the pads on, we weren’t able to play the ball. We had to let the ball go to the offense but now we can make plays on the ball. You’ll see a lot more interceptions, pass breakups and things like that."
As the players settle into a more competitive atmosphere, the battle at left cornerback could change rapidly. With mock games and three preseason bouts right around the corner, this is where someone like Witherspoon could separate himself from the rest of the pack. But if his inconsistency woes arise once more, the gap between him and the trio of Brown, Desir and Randall will close in a hurry; frankly, the gap isn't all too big right now.
That isn't for a lack of effort or productivity, however. The competition itself is stiff in nature because each player continues to impress in their own right. For the Seahawks, it's a great problem to have, especially given the skepticism the group has endured over the past few months.