If recent history holds, it’s going to happen.
And it’s going to matter to the Seahawks’ season.
Seattle is going to need a safety to step up and play a key role in the center of its defense if Kam Chancellor or Earl Thomas get hurt again.
Thomas is coming off a broken tibia that ended his 2016 season a month plus two playoff games early. Though the three-time All-Pro free safety wowed everyone including coach Pete Carroll with his full participation in organized team activities and the minicamp that ended the offseason practices this past week, Thomas is coming off the first major injury of his career.
Chancellor, 29, has not played a season without missing multiple games due to injury since 2013. The five-time Pro Bowl strong safety had surgery on both ankles and was in a wheelchair for nine days in April. That was after he missed four games last season with a strained groin.
So in the event it happens yet again and either Chancellor or Thomas go down in 2017, who is coming in for him?
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Bradley McDougald.
“Obviously he is learning both free safety and strong safety, and in the event that something happens to either Kam or Earl, we’re looking for him to be the first safety going into the football game,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “He has done a fantastic job for us. We’re very happy to have him here.”
The Seahawks signed McDougald, 26, in March as a free agent to a one-year contract worth $1.8 million with $750,000 guaranteed. He started 31 of a possible 32 games the past two seasons for the Buccaneers. That includes last November’s home win for Tampa Bay, when he intercepted Seattle’s Russell Wilson on a late desperation heave.
What attracted the Seahawks to McDougald is his versatility and strong tackling skills, the prerequisites for a solid strong safety. He played both safety positions as a Buccaneer.
During OTAs and minicamp, McDougald played free safety when Thomas rested. Rookie third-round draft choice Delano Hill was Chancellor’s replacement at strong safety when Seattle had its second unit on the field.
When Thomas broke his tibia Dec. 4, and missed the first game of his career the week before that, the Seahawks’ loss at McDougald’s Buccaneers, veteran special-teams specialist Steven Terrell made his first starts of his career at free safety.
Seattle had 10 interceptions and were 8-2-1 in the 11 games in which Thomas played in 2016. The Seahawks had one interception and were 3-4 in the seven games Thomas missed, including both playoff games.
But McDougald may be more than insurance for Seattle. His 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame could tempt the Seahawks to play him as a big nickel back, a fifth defensive back to match up against bigger slot receivers.
It’s a role Seattle sought for Brandon Browner this time last year, before concluding early in training camp that Browner at age 32 had nothing left in his second go-around with the team. Browner didn’t play for anyone last season and remains out of the league.
Not that anyone including the Seahawks could tell during OTAs and minicamp how suited McDougald may or may not be for that big-nickel role. NFL rules prohibit defensive backs from one-on-one drills with wide receivers and from challenging them and making plays on the ball in offseason workouts, to minimize if not eliminate contact.
“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,” said coach Pete Carroll, who got fined by the league while the NFL took away four OTA practices last fall for too much Seahawks contact in previous offseasons. “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.
“I think we had our most compliant OTA season, and really proud of that. Finally,” Carroll added, his tongue firmly in his cheek. “Old dog, new tricks, man.
“It was hard, but we finally figured it out.”
Though McDougald wasn’t permitted to match up on bigger wide receivers, he likely will in training camp. And when the games get real, beginning Sept. 10 at Green Bay. Because the Seahawks have been in nickel about 60 percent of the time the last couple seasons, McDougald’s role could be much more important than his acquisition appeared this spring.
“Absolutely, there’s no doubt about it,” Richard said. “We’ve got some things in mind for Bradley.”
The coordinator and former Seahawks defensive-backs coach didn’t elaborate.
He didn’t have to.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle