Seahawks Face 'Good' Problem at Nickel Cornerback Spot

After missing most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL, Seattle will welcome back a healthy Marquise Blair in time for the start of training camp, which could set up for a fascinating competition against Ugo Amadi for the slot cornerback role.
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Though the Seahawks were in the midst of preparing for an NFL season unlike any other amid a pandemic, not much looked out of the ordinary on the practice field during training camp last August.

Taking snaps from a new center in Ethan Pocic, Russell Wilson still flung spirals all over the field to each and every one of his receivers. DK Metcalf towered over his teammates reeling in jump balls during drill work and scrimmages. K.J. Wright snuffed out screens left and right, seemingly always around the football.

Much as there seems to be every year, a breakout star also emerged over the course of Seattle's abbreviated four-week camp in the form of Marquise Blair. Despite the addition of Jamal Adams leaving him as a backup at safety, coach Pete Carroll and his staff wanted to find a way to get the 2019 second-round pick out of Utah on the field somehow. They opted to transition him to slot cornerback, where he would compete with Ugo Amadi for the job.

Looking as if he was born to play the position, Blair quickly became acclimated to the nickel role. Though Wilson exploited him a few times in coverage during the early stages of camp, he would enact his revenge on numerous occasions, finding his way into the backfield as a blitzer and getting his hands on multiple pass deflections and interceptions. While they came against backup quarterbacks, he picked off a pair of passes in one of the Seahawks mock scrimmages, all but cementing his standing as the team's starting slot for Week 1.

If there was a training camp MVP, there's no question Blair would have taken home the honor. He was consistently the best player on the field, wreaking havoc in a variety of ways alongside Adams and Quandre Diggs. Carroll couldn't wait to see what that trio could do together in the regular season, providing incredible flexibility to Seattle's defense.

"We were really looking forward to it, even more so once we acquired Jamal [Adams] and we saw what Marquise could do and we had those guys on both sides of the nickel package," Carroll told reporters following the 2021 NFL Draft. "With great excitement, we went into the season and unfortunately, Marquise got hurt."

Much to Carroll's dismay, the Seahawks weren't given much of an opportunity to what Blair could do in his new role in the regular season. Early in the second quarter of a Week 2 win over the Patriots, he was the victim of "friendly fire" while making a tackle, as Wright hit him with a shoulder below his right knee and the corner's leg buckled. He had to be helped off the field and tests confirmed the team's worst fears as he was diagnosed with a season-ending torn ACL.

With Blair set to undergo reconstructive knee surgery and sidelined for the rest of the year, Seattle turned back to Amadi, a 2019 fourth-round pick out of Oregon who got his feet wet with extensive snaps in the slot late in his rookie season. Performing admirably, the feisty 5-foot-9, 210-pound defender produced 54 tackles and seven passes defensed while logging a career-high 551 defensive snaps in 14 games.

While Amadi 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.

Given how well Amadi responded to his latest chance to play, the Seahawks now have a fascinating situation on their hands at the slot cornerback position heading into their offseason program.

According to Carroll, now more than eight months out from surgery, Blair has made "great" progress attacking his rehabilitation program. Several videos of him working out have found their way onto Instagram in recent months, including footage of him backpedaling with a weighted sled less than two weeks ago.

When asked about Blair's recovery and where he would be expected to play, Carroll indicated the third-year defender would be competing in the slot once again while also receiving reps as a safety behind Adams and Diggs.

"He’s ready to get back to working," Carroll said. "He should be in great shape, ready to compete... We started the season with him and we were really with great anticipation on what we could do with him there in terms of the pressure he could bring off the edge, the tackles he can make as well as the disruptive type of coverage style. He has a unique coverage style that he plays on the slot there when he does. We’re wide open with whatever he brings."

As Carroll noted, Blair's hard-hitting, aggressive style brings a different look to the table when he's lined up in the slot compared to Amadi. He's more physical at the point of attack, he flies downhill as a run defender looking to deliver bone-jarring strikes, and at 6-foot-1, he matches up better against bigger receivers and tight ends in coverage from a size standpoint.

But Amadi brings his own set of strengths to Seattle's defense. While Blair has battled issues with missed assignments since breaking into the league, the former Oregon standout has proven to be more disciplined and technically proficient. He's improved sticking with quick, speedy receivers in man coverage and has the awareness and alertness to jump routes on zone drops as well.

"He has a totally different way of playing the game," Carroll elaborated. "He has his own flair and playmaking ability and can take a shot. Kind of like as D.J. [Reed] does in that kind of mold that we’re creating here. That gives us really great flexibility because you can see Ugo play in the back end at safety, both spots, as well."

What does this mean for the looming rematch that awaits Blair and Amadi a few months from now? If the former picks up where he left off prior to suffering his severe knee injury, he may still have the inside track to regaining his job. If not, the latter may be in the driver's seat.

But the truth to the matter is, Seattle may not need to name a starter at the position. Depending on the opponent and situation, Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. should be able to mix and match both players as they see fit. In some instances, Amadi and Blair could even be on the field together in dime looks with six defensive backs on the field.

Considering the Seahawks face plenty of long-term questions at the outside cornerback positions with only two players under contract beyond 2021, it's certainly not a bad problem to have two starter-caliber talents in the slot. Their differing skill sets and unique playing styles complement one another and deploying them in a platoon arrangement should create immense adaptability for the team defensively.