The Seahawks entered the offseason needing a new starting cornerback.
They will enter training camp at the end of this month still needing one -- but with a better idea of how they will fill that key need.
Offseason practices that ended last month showed the job remains wide open to replace DeShawn Shead.
It also showed rookie Shaquill Griffin very much looks the part.
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Shead, last season’s right cornerback, is continuing his recovery from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee he got in mid-January’s playoff loss at Atlanta. He may not be back until well into the season that begins Sept. 10, if then. In March the Seahawks re-signed Shead, who turned 28 last week, on a one-year deal. Then the former decathlete and Seattle’s undrafted free agent from 2012 watched offseason practices as he continued his long rehabilitation.
The Seahawks almost exclusively worked the offseason’s non-contract drills in nickel defense, with five defensive backs. Veteran Jeremy Lane was in his usual nickel back place inside against slot receivers. Griffin, the rookie third-round draft choice, and special-teams veteran Neiko Thorpe were outside as the nickel corner. Griffin had all the first-team snaps in organized team activities, then split them with Thorpe in the minicamp.
Coach Pete Carroll assessed the situation opposite three-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman at the close of minicamp on June 15. The coach began by discussing the base defense, which Seattle rarely played in the six offseason practices open to the media -- and may or may not play the majority of time in games this season depending on the foe.
“Jeremy has really applied himself. He sees the opportunity. He’s really going for it,” Carroll said of Lane.
He is entering the second year of his four-year, $23 million contract extension he signed before his subpar 2016 season. The Seahawks are guaranteeing Lane $4 million in base pay for 2017.
“Across the board, everybody’s evaluation of Jeremy across the entire program is that he’s really focused, he’s really tuned in, he’s really ready to go for it,” Carroll said. “He’s physically as fit as he’s been in a long time. Remember, he had a really difficult offseason a couple years back (after breaking his arm and shredding his knee on an interception return early in Super Bowl 49 in February 2015).
“And it’s taken him almost a couple years to overcome all of that. And he’s back to full form. But more than that, his focus is really on it to seize this opportunity. We feel really good about that and then there’s guys nipping at his heels but that’s probably the obvious statement there.”
The biggest nipper is Griffin.
He looked the part of a Seahawks cornerback during OTAs and minicamp. He is long and fast, with quick cuts and turns. The former Central Florida corner is 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds. That’s an inch taller, eight pounds heavier than Lane. At 21, Griffin is five years younger and 10 times cheaper, too.
Defensive coordinator Kris Richard glowed about Griffin last month.
“He’s got probably one of the best corner minds that we’ve had for a young guy around here,” Richard, the team’s previous defensive backs coach, said. “That’s just in regards to leverage, positioning, the understanding of our coverages and where we need him to be.”
NFL rules against contact in the offseason include a prohibition against any one-on-one challenges by defensive backs against receivers on balls in the air. Yet Griffin was in all the right places looking all the right ways during OTAs and minicamp. Now Richard, Carroll and the rookie’s new Seahawks teammates are looking forward to seeing in training camp that begins July 30 how aggressively and effectively Griffin jams receivers at the line, how he attacks passes as they arrive.
“We’re going to be really excited to see him strap it up and get out there and actually be able to compete for the football while it’s in the air. That’s going to be the next phase,” Richard said. “But his technique has been improving day after day, and he has real strength. He has strength in his hands, you can tell he’s a powerful guy, and obviously his speed is there.”
The Seahawks have played nickel defense 60 percent of the time and more for much of the last two seasons. Offenses continue to try to spread out Seattle’s run defense and cover guys with extra receivers then challenge them with rub routes and crosses, including with multiple tight ends that have succeeded against the Seahawks recently.
So while Carroll says Lane has the lead on Shead’s right cornerback job while in base defense, the nickel this defense worked on so much of in OTAs and minicamp may end up being the more important and applicable alignment. That includes in the opener against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay.
And from what I’ve seen so far, what could essentially be a starting job -- nickel cornerback -- may be Griffin’s to lose.
Put another way: The Seahawks didn’t draft a 6-1, 200-pound cornerback in the third round to sit around.
“He looks good. He looks really good,” Carroll said of Griffin.
“He’s really diligent. He’s real fast. Technique-wise, it’s not hard for him to make it look right. Camp will be huge for him. None of the DBs were able to compete at the ball throughout this whole offseason, so we don’t see any of that. We have no evaluation of those guys. They can’t make a play on the ball unless it’s thrown right to them. So they have a lot to show still when they come back. The one-on-one work when they get back. The seven on seven against our best guys and all of that will show us a lot more. So it’s hard to make a full evaluation.”
And, after all, it’s only July.