Seattle Seahawks Offseason – Who Will Step Up At Cornerback Besides Shaquille Griffin?

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JANUARY 05: Shaquill Griffin #26 of the Seattle Seahawks reacts against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 05, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

No other position has defined Pete Carroll’s tenure in Seattle more than cornerback. Before Carroll came to town, conventional opinion believed that to properly cover wide receivers, a cornerback had to be small and shifty in order to follow their marks stride for stride. But Carroll and GM John Schneider decided to buck the trend and target long, tall and athletic players. They believed that the superior size would mirror the trend that offense was going, where Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski were terrorizing the league with their abilities. Richard Sherman became their ideal player. Stronger than almost anyone he lined up across, he would win battles 1-on-1 at the line of scrimmage and manipulated his receiver’s route to his advantage. He combined that with an inhuman ability to close on the receiver late in the route, so even when someone thought they broke free of Sherman, they in fact were playing into his hands as the cornerback would appear out of thin air to snag an interception. Sherman is gone now though, as is Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead. Carroll and Schneider have been forced to find a new crop of cornerbacks to patrol the secondary.

The group that those two are bringing into the 2020 season is promising but the cornerback room as a whole is riddled with question marks. Which is a concern, considering Seattle ranked 26th in pass defense in 2019 according to FootballOutsiders. While Seattle has one pro bowl quality corner in Shaquill Griffin, the Seattle wants to play defense mano a mano. If you play left cornerback, then you play left cornerback and are not asked to shadow other team’s receivers if they move across the formation. That means Seattle’s depth will be tested, as other teams will force our lower quality defensive backs to cover their best players. Seattle did not have top quality players at right cornerback or in the slot and were vulnerable all season because of it. We will go through each player on the Seattle depth chart to see if the outlook for 2020 looks any better.

Players on Roster:

Shaquill Griffin

Tre Flowers

Quinton Dunbar

Neiko Thorpe

Linden Stephens

Kemah Siverand

Debione Renfro

Ryan Neal

Gavin Heslop

Brian Allen

Just looking at Shaquill Griffin, you would think Seattle did everything they could to duplicate Richard Sherman. He’s big (6 ft, 198 lbs), fast (4.33 sec 40 time) and has dreadlocks covering the name on his jersey. If you took the last couple years of Seattle football off, you would be forgiven for thinking Sherman is still on the team. Manning the same left-cornerback spot, Griffin is the undisputed number one corner. While he looks very similar, he plays slightly different than Sherman though. Griffin battles on the line of scrimmage (it’s expected of any Seattle corner) but it’s not his true strength. He instead relies more on his speed coming out of his drop-step in order to keep track of his man. It’s the reason why he’s not penalized often, only recording one pass interference all season, as he is not reliant on maintaining contact to keep up with his mark. He also has not yet shown the ceiling of Sherman, though he is getting there after Pro Football Focus ranked him 10th in their cornerback rankings. While he was good in coverage (allowing a 57.1% completion rate) he did not record any turnovers in 2019. His efforts earned him a trip to the pro bowl, but for him to elevate another level he needs to become more of a ball hawk.

This coming season, Seattle had a dream. A dream of two top-tier cornerbacks locking down each side of the field, forcing teams to pass into the clogged middle of Seattle’s zone. It may have been enough to even counter the piss poor pass rush the Seahawk’s are expecting to roll out in 2020. But that changed when Quinton Dunbar, a highly rated cornerback that Seattle looked like had stolen from Washington for a lowly 5th round pick, had an arrest warrant issued for him in the state of Florida. He was accused of armed robbery, which kicked off a strange series of events where public perception seemed to flip-flop about if he had actually committed the crime or not. The final chapter of this saga has seen Dunbar firing his lawyer for allegedly paying for fraudulent affidavits. While he has not been officially declared guilty, nor has he been suspended by the league, it is safe to say the Seattle fans won’t be seeing Dunbar in a Seattle jersey this coming season.

That is where the spotlight turns back to Tre Flowers, a starter for the last two seasons on the outside across from Shaquill Griffin. He cuts a physically imposing figure, standing at 6’3, 203 lbs. A college safety, Seattle converted Flowers into a cornerback in his rookie season. It was a transition that looked seemed to be a natural fit for him, as he looked the part of a capable corner in his rookie season. But 2019 was a huge regression for him, as Pro Football Focus had him ranked 103rd out of all qualifying cornerbacks. There seemed to be two major reasons for this. The first is the failure of Seattle’s pass rush, as it forced Flowers to stay in coverage for far longer than he had to in 2018. The bulk he carries makes it hard for him to keep pace with receivers for extended periods of time, allowing him to be exploited in deep coverage. It also led to a worrying amount of penalties (9 total, 7 pass interference calls), as Flowers was forced to grab or interfere with receivers to prevent them from burning him down the field. 

The second issue Flowers was forced to deal with was an increased number of targets and being forced to cover a higher caliber of receiver. Griffin’s emergence as a top tier cornerback means quarterbacks looked away from him, instead passing at an increased volume to the other corners in coverage. He was targeted on 101 pass attempts, a 10% increase from the previous season. Add in the fact that Seattle plays a rigid defense where Griffin only covers the right side of the field, opposing coordinators would often trot their best wideout against Flowers to take advantage of Seattle’s weaker corner. While Tre was forced to play against adversity, his youth (third year pro) and relative inexperience at the position makes a jump in skill level possible as he spends more time in the league. With Dunbar a non-factor, they better hope he improves. Seattle’s defensive line once again does not look promising and teams won’t shy away from throwing Flowers’ direction anytime soon.

The slot corner position is an interesting position for the Seahawks because they utilized the position less than any other team in the NFL. Seattle stayed in base defense (three linebackers, two cornerbacks) on 68.8% of all defensive snaps. This indicated both the strength of Seattle’s linebackers last season and the weakness of depth at cornerback. While the Seahawks weren’t killed because of this, it certainly contributed to their overall weakness in defending the pass. With Mychal Kendricks not returning this season, the slot corner should be a position Seattle utilizes more.

Seattle only has two players one could call veterans at this position. Both are primarily special team aces and one is listed this season at safety. That person is Ugo Amadi, but even if his position listing leaves his status questionable, I believe that he will factor into this mix. This is mainly due to the fact he is the only one to actually play this position for the Seahawks, recording 93 snaps in the slot during 2019. While saying he was “good” is probably a bit too strong, he certainly wasn’t a disaster. That counts as a positive for a 4thround rookie, especially when we take into account offenses gave the former Duck a lot to handle in his limited time. He played the vast majority of his snaps during the last three weeks of the season as well as both playoff games. His most prominent moment was his worst, when the Green Bay Packers singled out Amadi on a crucial 3rd down play that sealed their divisional round victory. Packers receiver Davante Adams (one of the NFL’s best) lined up in the slot and was able to breeze past the young corner for an easy reception from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While one hopes Amadi can learn from this, it is also an example of Seahawks dedication to their preferred style of defense. This was Seattle’s biggest defensive snap of the season and everyone in the world knew Rodger’s would look to his most trusted playmaker, Adams, to make a play. Instead of putting their best corner on him, Seattle chose to leave Amadi on an island. Seattle will continue to do this to any corner in this specific role. Regardless of experience level, these players are going to be put into some tough spots.

Which brings us to Neiko Thorpe, the longest tenured cornerback on the team. Why some might be confused about this fact is that Thorpe has hardly played any snaps at his listed position. He’s only been in the defensive backfield for the Seahawks 170 times, more than half of which came during his first season in rave green and blue four years ago. He’s not really a cornerback, but rather a special teams coverage specialist. Which he’s very good at, so much so he was named special teams captain the last two years. That is his main contribution as a Seahawk, if he had anything to give on defense Seattle would’ve already found it. Which tells you how short Seattle is on depth, considering he is going to be fourth in the pecking order heading into the coming preseason.

Which takes us to the quickfire round, as the rest of the players are either undrafted free agents or players that have barely touched the field during an NFL regular season game. Linden Stephens is the most experienced of the bunch, playing a whole 30 snaps for the Miami Dolphins last season. An undrafted free agent out of the University of Cincinnati, Stephens has the size and length that Seattle looks for in its cornerbacks. Kemiah Siverand has a similar build but was mostly a special teamer at Oklahoma State. Debione Renfro is a more promising prospect in that he was actually a regular contributor to his defense last season. He also was somewhat touted by Pro Football Focus heading into his junior season, ranking him their third best defensive player. Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to that promise, but he has talent that could be tapped into. Ryan Neal was signed to Seattle’s practice squad last season from Atlanta, appearing in one game against the Arizona Cardinals and was active for two more. Gavin Heslop was picked up this offseason as an undrafted free agent from Stony Brook, having finished third team all-conference. While a playmaker for the Seawolves, he was playing in a lower tier D-I conference and would have to make quite the jump to hang in the NFL. Lastly there is Brian Allen, who was selected in 2017 by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 5th round. He played sparingly over the next two years and landed on injured reserve during the 2019 season. While there is not a lot of accolades for the lot of them, they all share a similar trait. Size. They all stand over six feet tall and weigh around 200 lbs. While none of them have accomplished much, don’t be surprised if Pete Carroll coaches one of these players up to be Seattle’s next diamond in the rough.

In March, Seattle thought they had swung a bargain for the insanely talented Quinton Dunbar to match with their stud corner, Shaquille Griffin. Everything had seemingly lined up. Tre Flowers would get some of the pressure moved off of him as he transitioned into a third corner role and Ugo Amadi and Neiko Thorpe would make up the depth on the roster while contributing to special teams. Any other corner in camp that Seattle liked could be kept on the roster to be coached up in case of emergencies. The outlook was peachy. Then Dunbar’s arrest happened and that plan got thrown out the window. Now the Seahawks are staring at Flowers to once again start with a bunch of question marks after him regarding who is going to play the nickel. Amadi seems like the strongest bet, but don’t be surprised if Seattle picks up another corner once other team’s start doing roster cut downs. Barring a surprise from one of the players that represent the bottom of Seattle’s depth chart, Seattle will once again be looking at holes in its secondary.

Starters on Opening Day:

LCB: Shaquille Griffin

RCB: Tre Flowers

Slot Corner: Ugo Amadi

Also on Roster: Neiko Thorpe, Linden Stephens, Debione Renfrow

Practice Squad: Gavin Heslop, Ryan Neal

Cut: Brian Allen, Kemiah Sutherland

Suspended: Quinton Dunbar

About Evan Peper 58 Articles
Seattle born and raised. I wear my fandom on my sleeve, as I bleed Seahawks blue and green and am Sounders’ Til I Die. To fill the basketball-shaped hole in my heart from when the Sonics were taken away from the city of Seattle, I have adopted the Portland Trail Blazers and rep Rip City. I aim to bring an analytical view on the sports world and hope to impart a deeper understanding of the game to my readers.