When free agency officially opened back in mid-March, the Seahawks held out hope they would be able to re-sign veteran cornerback Shaquill Griffin. But all along, general manager John Schneider and the front office knew the chances of that happening were slim due to their limited cap flexibility and expected interest in the former Pro Bowler from other teams.
As expected, while Seattle tried to stay in the mix to re-sign him, Griffin's price point ultimately exceeded what the team could pay to retain him and he signed a multi-year deal with Jacksonville. Wasting little time after his reported departure, Schneider worked swiftly to sign ex-49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to a one-year, $4 million deal as a possible replacement in the secondary.
At the time, the move seemed like a gamble, as Witherspoon had not been able to hold onto a starting job in San Francisco due to inconsistent play and injuries. But aside from signing fellow veteran Pierre Desir and drafting Tre Brown in the fourth round, Seattle didn't make any other notable additions to address the position, instead moving forward with incumbents Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed competing against Witherspoon, Damarious Randall, and Brown for starting roles.
Sometimes, NFL teams can get by covering up holes with Band Aids. But much as the case was last season when the Seahawks didn't re-sign Jadeveon Clowney and only made cheap one-year investments on pass rushing alternatives, that strategy at cornerback has proven to be nothing but an unmitigated disaster at this point.
First, Witherspoon failed to meet expectations and plunged down the depth chart during training camp, eventually playing his way off the roster completely when the Seahawks traded him to the Steelers in late August for a future fifth-round pick. The team ate a chunk of his salary without him playing in a single regular season game.
Desir didn't fare any better, receiving a pink slip before Seattle's final preseason game. Meanwhile, Reed and Randall both missed extensive time in camp with injuries and Brown suffered a sprained knee in the second exhibition contest, leading to an injured reverse designation to open the regular season.
With those injuries and Witherspoon's underwhelming performance leading to him being shipped out of town, the Seahawks needed to overhaul the group at the last minute. In response, Schneider dealt a conditional seventh-round pick to the Texans for John Reid, shipped a sixth-round pick to the Jaguars for Sidney Jones, and claimed Bless Austin and Nigel Warrior off waivers from the Jets and Ravens respectfully.
With all of the moves happening less than three weeks before the season opener and Warrior promptly landing on injured reserve with his own knee injury, Seattle opened the season with Flowers and Reed as the starters and a trio of players behind them who needed time to get acclimated to a new system. As a result of the incredible turnover, the team only had two corners left on the active roster or practice squad who were with the organization on August 16, far from an ideal development going in Week 1.
Not surprisingly, the group has struggled throughout the first five weeks, playing a central role in the Seahawks persistent issues stopping opponents. The team currently ranks 30th in pass defense, allowing quarterbacks to throw for north of 300 yards per game. They also rank 28th in net yards per attempt allowed (7.5).
Individually, though he gave up two touchdowns in a Week 3 loss to the Vikings, Reed has shown improvements over the past two games since transitioning back to the right side. Per Pro Football Focus, he's surrendered 15 receptions on 28 targets for 162 yards and quarterbacks are posting a 94.6 rating targeting him in coverage.
But after receiving immense praise from Carroll during training camp, Flowers held onto his starting job for only three games before being supplanted by Jones in Week 4. Continuing to struggle with consistency and making plays on the football, he allowed 14 completions for 208 yards and a touchdown on 136 coverage snaps, with quarterbacks toasting him for a 139.6 passer rating.
Further demonstrating the failures of Seattle's offseason plan at cornerback, after winning a starting gig in camp by default to an extent because of injuries around him, Flowers reportedly requested his release after being demoted from the lineup with hopes of latching on elsewhere. The team officially obliged to his request on Wednesday, allowing him to hit the waiver wire and creating a roster spot.
"It was time for a change," Carroll told reporters on Wednesday, disputing the claim that Flowers requested his release. "He did a lot of good stuff. He was a really good technician, but you have to finish the plays, make the plays, and come back when you don’t. You have to find successful plays to build on, so it was just his time to go on, that’s enough to say.”
As things stand with Flowers now on the way out of town, only Reed remains on the 53-man roster from the group of corners that were with Seattle on August 16. Brown could be activated this week after returning to practice a week ago, while Gavin Heslop remains on the practice squad. But the rest of the group consists of players who still have barely been with the team for over a month.
This includes Jones, who hasn't exactly proven himself to be an upgrade over Flowers through his first two starts for the Seahawks. Hampered by assignment-related miscues, including a busted coverage that allowed 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel to score a 76-yard touchdown in Week 4, Pro Football Focus has charged him with 11 receptions for 270 yards, two touchdowns, and a startling 24.5 yards allowed per reception in coverage so far.
If Jones can't turn things around, Austin may be next in line for a crack to start. Brown could also be in the mix, as the rookie out of Oklahoma was climbing up the depth chart before injuring his knee. Either way, Carroll, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and the rest of the coaching staff will be forced to continue doing what they've done for the past two months and keep throwing different combinations at the wall hoping something sticks.
Unfortunately, such a dilemma could have been predicted way back in March when Griffin fled the nest for the Jaguars and the team didn't have a better backup plan in place than banking on an unproven player like Witherspoon to fill the void. At the time, it seemed like negligence by the organization and the way things have unfolded since training camp kicked off have only confirmed those prior thoughts.
With 12 games left to play, the Seahawks may still have that right combination emerge. But with the cornerbacks having played a key factor in a historically bad start on defense, and adding a Russell Wilson injury on top of that ineptitude, it may be too little, too late in the rugged NFC West and the front office and coaching staff only have themselves to blame for the team being in such a predicament.