Throughout coach Pete Carroll's tenure as coach, the Seahawks have excelled at finding affordable, talented slot cornerbacks. From Walter Thurmond to Marcus Burley to Jeremy Lane to Justin Coleman, the organization hasn't had much difficulty acquiring and developing reliable players at the position.
After losing Coleman in free agency prior to the 2019 season, however, calling Seattle's efforts to fill the void in the secondary a struggle would be an understatement.
Initially, Carroll awarded Ugo Amadi the nickel role out of training camp, but his time atop the depth chart only lasted one week. Once his salary no longer was guaranteed, the Seahawks quickly brought back veteran Jamar Taylor, who struggled while playing 194 snaps in nine games before being released again and finishing the season with the Falcons.
Through it all, Seattle relied heavily on its base defense, playing more than 50 percent of defensive snaps in a 4-3 look. As Carroll again stated earlier this month, much of that had to do with personnel, as he wanted to keep Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Mychal Kendricks on the field together as much as possible.
But there's no denying the Seahawks weren't thrilled with their options at nickel cornerback last season either. And after not signing or drafting viable competition for Amadi this offseason, questions still remain.
Considering Quinton Dunbar's current legal woes and the lack of depth in the slot, these circumstances could open the door for third-year cornerback Linden Stephens to sneak onto Seattle's roster.
While Carroll indicated at the NFL Scouting Combine that the slot cornerback job will be Amadi's "to lose," the team hasn't been shy about indicating he will have to earn the spot. Having spent time on Seattle's practice squad last season, he and general manager John Schneider name-dropped Stephens as a potential candidate to compete at the position after April's draft.
"He did play nickel for us last camp a little bit," Carroll commented.
Since entering the league undrafted out of Cincinnati in 2018, the 25-year old Stephens has bounced around during his first two seasons in the NFL. After spending his first training camp with the Saints, he spent time on the Broncos and Rams practice squads as a rookie.
Failing to make Denver's roster out of camp last year, Stephens eventually latched on with Seattle's practice squad in late September. Miami signed him to its active roster in early December and the Ohio native played in three games for the Dolphins, registering three tackles while playing 30 defensive snaps and 25 special teams snaps.
With sub-30-inch arms, Stephens comes up way short of the desired length Seattle prefers to play cornerback on the outside. Additionally, he has some athletic limitations compared to most of the slot cornerbacks who have found success in Seattle, including running a pedestrian 4.34-second short shuttle at Cincinnati's pro day.
But on the other hand, Stephens offers a few intriguing athletic traits, as he ran a 4.44 40-yard dash. He also posted a quicker time in the 3-cone drill (7.20 seconds) and a better vertical jump (34 inches) than Amadi did at the 2019 NFL Combine, showing enough explosion and change of direction skills to warrant a look in the slot.
Aside from trading a fifth round pick to Washington for Dunbar in March, Seattle hasn't done much to address the secondary this offseason. Schneider didn't use a single draft pick on a cornerback and chose not to sign a veteran slot to push Amadi either.
From Stephens' perspective, the fact he played in three NFL games last year and spent extensive time with the Seahawks will work to his advantage against undrafted rookies such as Gavin Heslop and Debione Renfro.
Still, assuming Dunbar is cleared of armed robbery charges and doesn't face a suspension from the league, Stephens will have a tough time sticking out of camp with veteran Neiko Thorpe and Amadi as his prime competition for a roster spot. He would have to surprise everyone and outperform Amadi in the slot while also starring on special teams to have a realistic shot.
But if Seattle's prized acquisition gets banned for a few games - or worse, Dunbar gets released before ever playing in a game - it could be Stephens best opportunity yet and he's a name to monitor closely heading towards camp.