Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows defensive back play as well as just about anyone in football. A former safety himself, Carroll came up through the coaching ranks as a defensive backs coach before becoming an NFL defensive coordinator, then later a head coach. Since the Associated Press started giving out first and second-team All-Pro honors in 1972, four teams have produced three All-Pro defensive backs in one season—the 1995 San Francisco 49ers, with Carroll as defensive coordinator, the 2002 Philadelphia Eagles and Carroll's 2013 and 2014 Seahawks.
This is all a lengthy way of saying that Carroll really knows his stuff when it comes to secondaries.
Yet in the case of DeShawn Shead, Carroll has to admit that Seahawks general manager John Schneider was the visionary, not the head coach who oversaw a 2013 defense that was one of the best in NFL history, particularly against the passing game.
When the Seahawks signed Shead as an undrafted rookie in 2012, then later added him to their practice squad, Schneider saw a player who could possibly fit the mold of a big, physical, long-limbed cornerback. Carroll, on the other hand, initially saw a safety with the versatility to play all over in the secondary. That versatility and the ability to make big contributions on special teams helped Shead stick around on the practice squad, then eventually the active roster, but midway through last season, and now this year, Shead has emerged as a starting cornerback.
"To tell you the truth, John had seen him play corner in college and really thought that was his best position," Carroll said. "We did that with him, but just his size and all that, I thought he'd be able to play safety, and as we did it we just tried to figure out what was best for him. Whenever he was playing safety, he'd go back and play some one-on-ones, and he'd always make plays. Really just after a while, he just has a better knack for playing outside and a better feel for it. He's very productive there. I'm giving John credit; he knew that all along and he had to kind of talk me into it. He was right."
Shead, like fellow 2012 undrafted rookie Jermaine Kearse, is the perfect illustration what can happen when hard work, tenacity and patience merging with a franchise willing to provide the opportunity for every player to compete for a jobs. Shead spent the better part of two seasons in relative anonymity on Seattle's practice squad before a late-season call-up in 2013. He hung around primarily as a special teams player the following season, then in 2015 his versatility allowed Shead to get on the field in multiple roles. After spending part of camp in 2015 at free safety with Earl Thomas recovering from shoulder surgery, Shead moved to strong safety, earning a start in Week 2. Shead would start five more games and see extensive playing time at right cornerback and nickel corner late in the season after Cary Williams was released, then this year he won the starting job at right cornerback, where he played every defensive snap last week.
"Those are great stories," Carroll said. "I love raising guys up in the program. Getting to know them really well and understanding, and if they stay with us, it's because they're the right kind of guys. So you know you have a feeling for the guy because he's made it through the draft picks and the other guys with maybe more acclaim coming in. Those kinds of guys are the guys we're always looking for. So as he got better and improved, you could just see it coming. I didn't know that he would be able to play front-line, first-team cornerback and go out there and play really well four or five years ago—he just proved it to us."
And not only does a practice-squad-to-starter story mean good things for Shead and the Seahawks, it can serve as inspiration for other young players battling to find their way in the NFL.
"It's great because he also is a great story for all of our other young players," Carroll said. "He talks to them like that. He lets them know, 'I was in your chair, sitting there wondering if I was going to make the team and hoping I can make the practice squad.' He shares those scars with other guys and it makes him just that much more valuable to our team."
Shead, who went undrafted out of Portland State, where he also competed in track and field as a decathlete, always believed he could be where he is today, not just starting in the NFL, but starting for one of the league's best defenses. But believing it can happen and having it become reality are two different things, which is why Shead is so appreciative of how far he has come.
"It definitely means a lot to me," said Shead, who this year was voted a special teams captain along with punter Jon Ryan. "I'm in a big believer in hard work paying off, and that's all I did. I've just been working hard, grinding, being patient and just waiting for my opportunity. My opportunity is now and I'm just trying to take full advantage of it.
"That was definitely my goal (to be a starter). From Day 1, I prepared as a starter. That was my mindset, so it was just a matter of time and patience."
That Shead mentions patience multiple times is hardly a coincidence. He had to test his patience, as well as his faith in the Seahawks, back in 2013 when other NFL teams were offering a spot on the 53 man roster while he was still on Seattle's practice squad. The Seahawks told Shead his chance was coming, he decided to stay, and the payoff came late that season when Shead was part of the first Super Bowl win in franchise history, including a few snaps on defense when Kam Chancellor briefly came out of the game.
"I did have a couple of offers to get moved up onto another team's active roster," Shead said. "I looked into it in detail, and I felt it was best for me to stay here to perfect my game with the best secondary possibly ever to play the game. Best strong safety, free safety, corner, so just to be in that atmosphere here, that was the opportunity I chose to stay here.
"It was definitely a tough choice, because I wanted to play, I wanted to get on the field. But the situation was better for me to be here and wait for my opportunity here. They said I would have an opportunity to come up and play, and eventually I got it. I came up and played, I played in the Super Bowl when Kam Chancellor went down. I'm definitely blessed to have the opportunity that I've had. Now today it was a great decision, I'm sitting here as a starter on the best defense in this league. I won't take it for granted."
While Shead appreciates that his versatility helped him stay on an NFL roster before he was a starter, he also admits he is much more comfortable now that he can focus on one position, the one he played for three of his four seasons at Portland State. And Shead's coaches and teammates have seen growth as well, particularly since Shead shifted his focus to one position last season.
Richard Sherman says the key to Shead's success is a "robotic consistency. He's been incredibly consistent over the years. Whatever they ask him to do right, wrong or indifferent, he going to do it. I think that's something the coaches admire and respect. They understand that they're going to get consistent play out of him for whatever they ask him to do. If they ask him to stay over the top he's going to stay over the top. If they ask him to play the run he's going to play the run. If they ask him to be in the B gap on this play he's going to be in the B gap. Now if you made a mistake and told him to be in the B gap and he had to be in the C gap, he's going to still be in the B gap because that's where you told him to be. I think that type of discipline has allowed him to rise up the depth chart and play as well as he's played.
"He's consistent. He's dependable, he's always available, he's always in the right place at the right time. He's a selfless player, he does whatever is asked of him. He'd probably be the first player to play in a game where you'd play safety, nickel, and corner. The first game he played nickel he had never played nickel before in his life. They just threw him out there and they had tremendous confidence that he'd be able to do his job and he did. I think that's why our team is so incredible and so versatile. You can depend on guys like that to step right in and get the job done."
To defensive coordinator Kris Richard, the biggest growth in Shead has been the result of improved eye discipline. As Richard explains it, "There's a difference between getting back there and staring, and having vision. If you have vision, we're seeing what we're supposed to see. If you're back there staring, you're looking at the quarterback."
Shead's vision helped him, as well as nickel corner Jeremy Lane and Sherman, shine in Seattle's opener. ProFootballFocus.com went so far as to name Shead their highest-rated cornerback in Week 1.
Shead's career could have gone a lot of ways in those early years when he was on the practice squad. He could have signed elsewhere, perhaps becoming a starter sooner, or perhaps not. He could have continued to play as a utility defensive back and never got his shot at corner, or like so many other players on the fringe early in their careers, he could have quietly faded out of the league. Instead, Shead stuck with it, worked his way up with the Seahawks, and now he's starting in a secondary full of All-Pros.
"I'm a big believer in hard work paying off one way or another," he said. "I didn't know if it would be as a starter on this team or not, but that was definitely one of my goals, and here I go now."