The Seahawks have an issue at defensive back.
And for the first time in months, it doesn’t involve Richard Sherman.
Three-fourths of their starting secondary are either seriously injured, has a contract now expired or, in the case of Kam Chancellor, uncertain going into the final year of his deal. Sherman is the lone exception.
DeShawn Shead’s torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in last weekend’s season-ending playoff loss at Atlanta is why the Seahawks are reportedly going to sign 30-year-old veteran Perrish Cox for 2017.
Cox started 22 games the past two seasons for Tennessee before the Titans released him in November. He played in two games for Seattle in the 2013 season, then signed with San Francisco and played for the 49ers through 2014.
When he signs, he will be insurance as a possible fill-in for Shead.
The most obvious issue in the Seahawks’ secondary was and still is Earl Thomas’s injury. The three-time All-Pro free safety is in the early stages of what coach Pete Carroll has called “a serious recovery” from breaking his tibia colliding with Chancellor on Dec. 4 against Carolina. Before that, he missed the loss at Tampa Bay Nov. 27 with a strained hamstring.
“I don’t think you are going to replace Earl Thomas,” Carroll predicted, correctly, in early December. “Very unique player.”
In their final eight games beginning with that loss to the Buccaneers Thomas missed, the Seahawks went 4-4. With Steven Terrell making his first career starts at free safety, Seattle’s pass defense allowed 149 completions in 239 attempts (a completion rate 62.3 percent), 1,857 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating against of 101.8.
In the eight games before Thomas got hurt, Seattle went 6-1-1. Its pass defense allowed 193 completions in 308 attempts (62.7 percent), 2,145 yards, eight touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating against of 79.8.
Carroll said Monday Thomas is on track to be ready for the start of the 2017 season. But will he immediately be the same player? That is, the best in the sport at his position?
Shead, the starter at cornerback opposite Sherman, tore the anterior cruciate ligament and has other, unspecified damage in his left knee to heal. He crumbled to the turf at the Georgia Dome on Saturday trying to make an outside cut while in coverage during the second half of Seattle’s season-ending playoff loss at Atlanta.
"It was a significant knee. There's some other stuff, some other things that did go on but I can't tell you the specifics of it,” Carroll said. “It was a significant ACL injury with some of the other things that normally happen.”
Shead can become a restricted free agent this spring. The Seahawks have a choice upcoming whether to tender him a contract offer for 2017. If they do not, he would be free to sign with any team. If they do, any other team that would sign him would owe Seattle draft-choice compensation.
"Yeah, that's a significant injury, you know. For a guy out there on the edge, you know, to have your legs...you've got to have them,” Carroll said this week. “It's going to be all the way until next season before he really gets to start seeing how far along he is and if he can come back.
“So we have to think like we got to pull from the ranks of the guys and see how they do.”
Those ranks are thin. Hence, the apparent arrival of Cox.
Jeremy Lane had a poor season in tackling and coverage, his first one since signing a four-year, $23 million extension. The Seahawks will guarantee all $4 million of his 2017 salary if he is on the roster past Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5. The news of Cox’s upcoming signing gives Seattle options if it doesn’t want to guarantee Lane. If the Seahawks release him they would save only $1.5 million against their salary cap in 2017.
Carroll was noticeably tepid in his evaluation of Lane’s season.
“Jeremy, he played a lot of football this year. He was in the middle of a lot. I thought he battled,” Carroll said.
Those who interview Carroll four days a week during the season for years have come to know “he battled” is a Carroll euphemism for “I don’t have anything else good to say.”
“I would always want him to tackle better,” the coach said. “I thought he missed some chances in his tackling but he competed his tail off. He was in a lot of hot spots throughout the year, and when he had to jump outside, he did a nice job for us.”
The Falcons picked on undrafted rookie DeAndre Elliott, who was obviously not ready to defend the NFL’s highest-scoring offense while having to fill in for Shead at the end of Saturday’s game. Neiko Thorpe was also a backup who appeared in five games this season at cornerback. His one-year, $675,000 contract with the Seahawks ended with the loss at Atlanta.
“I thought DeAndre Elliott did a nice job in the bits that he played. Neiko did some nice stuff for us, too,” Carroll said. “There's a couple other guys there on the roster that have looked good and looked competitive, but we're going to have to do a really good job of coaching in the case that DeShawn doesn't make it back ready to go. I thought he had a very, very good year. He was challenged a ton. Being on the other side of Sherman can wear anybody out and he hung in there tough throughout the season, made a considerable amount of plays and all that. He's a terrific team guy so if he is not available, we're going to really miss him but we've got to go for it with the other guys. Obviously, there will be a chance to address that in the draft, too.
“There will be plenty of chances, but right now we're excited about some of the guys coming up."
That’s the first indication that offensive line isn’t the only issue the Seahawks may address in this spring’s draft.
Chancellor, the strong safety since 2011, missed five games with a strained groin this season. Because of assorted injuries he hasn’t played a complete regular season since 2013 -- the season Seattle won its only Super Bowl.
The four-time Pro Bowl strong safety turns 29 in April. He holds the franchise record by playing in his 14th postseason game on Saturday. He has one year left on his contract that is currently scheduled to have a charge against Seattle’s 2017 salary cap of $8,125,008.
That’s a lot for a player whose thumping style has resulted him not playing an entire season without missing games because of injury since 2013.
What does he believe his future is with the Seahawks, the only team he’s known since they drafted him in 2010?
"I ain’t thinking about it," Chancellor told me in the hallway leading out of the visiting locker room at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
"Day to day."
When I asked him if he expects to still be a Seahawk, Chancellor smiled and said, "day to day." Then he walked out the door to the team bus.
He asked – then demanded – the Seahawks renegotiate or extend his four-year, $28 million before the 2015 season. When they didn’t, citing precedent of not re-doing deals with more than one year on them, he held out. He stayed away more than 50 days, until after Seattle lost the first two games of the 2015 season.
Then he watched teammate Michael Bennett, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end 2½ years older than he, get a four-year extension with $17.5 million guaranteed last month. Bennett’s previous, four-year, $28.5 million deal was also going to expire after the 2017 season.
The Seahawks this offseason could ask Chancellor to extend, but at a renegotiated rate that would lower his cap number in 2017.
“I think every case is an individual case and we’re on it,” Carroll said Monday. “We love Kam and he’s a significant part of everything that goes on around here. I was so proud of him when we were done the other night for all the leadership that he had brought us in such a magnificent way. Coming out of whatever happened last year and to turn things around and really be all in and just be the epitome of what leadership is all about. But we consider it the same. We know what is going on and we’re involved with all that stuff.
“He played really good football. Very few plays got away from him during the course of the year. He had a lot of good stuff happen. Really physical throughout. He had his health -- he had his one little setback in there -- but had his health for the most part, finished really strong. Played terrific for us.”
The Seahawks need a few more “played terrific” guys in their secondary before next season begins.