The first time Benson Mayowa took the field at the VMAC, he was an undrafted rookie taking part in rookie minicamp without a contract, one of the several tryout players helping fill out the minicamp roster.
Mayowa did enough on that May weekend to get the attention of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who noted that "the kid from Idaho looked pretty good," then Mayowa went on to make the team in 2013, though he struggled to see the field on a loaded defensive line.
From that relatively obscure start, Mayowa has carved out a very nice NFL career for himself, playing seven seasons with the Seahawks, Raiders, Cowboys, Cardinals and Raiders again, recording 20 career sacks, including a career-best seven last season in Oakland. And now after seven seasons away, Mayowa is back where his career began having signed with the Seahawks in the offseason, only this time he's far from an unknown "kid from Idaho," but instead he's an established veteran who right now is the front-runner for the starting "Leo" defensive end job.
"He's been a real, real nice surprise," Carroll said. "He's really a pass rusher, you can see it in his mode of play, his get off at the line of scrimmage. He was an outside 'backer mixing kind of in and out before when we had him, but he's learned a lot over the years, and he comes to us really fitting the position well. So he's off to a good start. He had some really good highlight rushes yesterday."
As someone who had to show up to a rookie minicamp as a tryout player, Mayowa knows nothing will be given to him without earning it, but he appreciates that after all these years, he's opening training camp with a real shot at winning a starting job after starting only 15 games in his first seven seasons.
"I'm happy to have the opportunity to be the guy in front," he said. "That's something I never had coming into camp. That's what I appreciate the most… I've never had that opportunity to step up and be the guy; I was always the rotational guy, the second guy. Whether I was better than the guy who was in front or not, that was always my role. It just feels being good being a guy that's stepping on the front line, that's what I appreciate the most."
Mayowa is just part of what will be a revamped pass-rush group for Seattle in 2020. The Seahawks also signed Bruce Irvin, a strongside linebacker and pass-rusher who began his career in Seattle as a 2012 first-round pick, and they drafted defensive ends Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson. Unless Seattle re-signs Jadeveon Clowney, who remains a free agent, the Seahawks won't necessarily have a lot of star-power when it comes to their D-line, but that doesn't mean that group won't be successful, Mayowa says.
"You don't always need the big name-guys—it's always good to have a big-name guy, but just need whoever's active working together to get to the quarterback, that's what you need," he said. "That's pass rush, you working your ass off to get there. Chris Clemons, he had 11 sacks three years in a row, y'all didn't know him before that. It's not always about a big-name guy, it's about how bad you want to get to the quarterback."
The Clemmons comparison isn't a bad one for Mayowa. Like Mayowa, Clemons went undrafted, and like Mayowa, he had to wait for his chance to be a starter, starting just three games in his first five seasons before the Seahawks acquired him a 2010 trade. Clemons went on to record 33.5 sacks in his first three years with Seattle while starting all 16 games each season.
And while it's still early in camp, Carroll likes what he's seen from his new pass-rushers, and from Mayowa and Irvin in particular.
"They're both excited about the roles that they have, the Sam and Leo spots," Carroll said. "It's a race to the quarterback, they got a little (competition) going on already, they want to try to outdo each other which is a perfect mentality. I think the focus for Benson over the years to be more of a rusher has really helped him, and where he was a 'backer he was playing the Sam 'backer spot for a while and then mixing both, he needed to really zero in to become an adept pass rusher. He's got good stuff he's got good get off. Good changeup stuff, good up and unders. He's just is much more accomplished football player, as is Bruce too in the pass rush, and it shows. In the first couple days, you can just feel the constant of the edge, which is so important for us we all this is what we, we came back to this camp to find. And I will say that the first couple days, Alton Robinson's had a couple of good days too, a couple of good rushes so that's really exciting for us as well. Put Darrell (Taylor) into the mix and it should be a good mix. So there's a real good juice about those guys for sure."
But even if Mayowa does indeed win the starting job out of camp, he won't approach this season any differently than he did that rookie minicamp seven years ago.
"I just always had that chip on my shoulder," he said. "It never left. Once you get comfortable, that's when you get out. I've never been comfortable. I'm still not comfortable, eight years later. As long as I keep that chip on my shoulder and I stay hungry, I feel like I can play this game as long as I want to."
Photos from the 5th practice of Seahawks 2020 Training Camp, held on Monday, August 17 at Renton's Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Seahawks Training Camp is presented by Safeway.