Every day between now and the start of Seahawks training camp, Seahawks.com will take a look at some of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2017 season. Today, we focus on the competition at right cornerback. The list continues Thursday with a look at what should be a very competitive backfield.
While Richard Sherman has been a constant at left cornerback since taking over the starting job midway through his rookie season, change has been the norm on the opposite side of the Seahawks defense. When Sherman joined the starting lineup, Brandon Browner was the starter at right corner, and eventually Browner was replaced by Byron Maxwell. Following Maxwell's departure in free agency, the Seahawks tried a free-agent signing at that spot, and when things didn't work out with Cary Williams, two in-house options, Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead split time there during the rest of the 2015 season. Last year, Shead beat out Lane for the starting job, with Lane still playing regularly as the nickel corner.
But while Shead is still on the roster heading into 2017, in all likelihood the Seahawks will, once again, open the season with a new starter at right cornerback because Shead is still recovering from a serious knee injury and unlikely to be ready for the start of the season according to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
Lane, who has significant experience as an outside corner and in the slot, is one of the leading candidates to take over the starting job, but he's hardly a lock to open the season in that role. Neiko Thorpe, a standout on special teams last year, is also in the mix, as is second-year corner DeAndre Elliott, both of whom saw playing time at corner at various points last season due to injury. And perhaps the most intriguing name in that competition will be rookie Shaquill Griffin, who as a third-round pick is the highest-drafted cornerback of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era. Being a relatively high draft pick guarantees nothing for Griffin or any other rookie, but it is a reflection of how highly the Seahawks think of him considering that in the previous seven drafts under Carroll and Schneider, they never picked a cornerback before the fourth round (Walter Thurmond in 2010).
"The obvious move is Jeremy Lane becomes the starter," Carroll said in March. "He has done that in the past for us, so Jeremy has been a good, solid player for us for a number of years. And then the competition is wide open as it always is, so we'll see what happens. There will be some guys— Neiko Thorpe is a guy who impressed us; he had a very good season for us last year. He's big and strong and fast, he proved that he's an all-around football player. He did play well when he played. DeAndre Elliott did a nice job when he stepped in. So there's going to be a really good competition. Pierre Desir is a guy we are excited about, he's played in the league before. He didn't get a chance last year much, but he's done well in practice, so those guys are really going to go for it and we'll see what happens. I'll be excited to see how it turns out."
Carroll said that before the team acquired Griffin, so that could certainly change things, but by the end of offseason workouts, Lane was again the first player he mentioned when discussing what figures to be one of the team's most competitive camp battles for a starting job.
"Jeremy has really applied himself," Carroll said last month. "He sees the opportunity. He's really going for it. 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. He's physically as fit as he's been in a long time. Remember, he had a really difficult offseason a couple years back 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."
Regardless of who wins the job at right corner, there are essentially two starting spots up for grabs given the amount of nickel defense the Seahawks play. If Lane wins the starting job in the base defense, he could slide into the nickel role in passing situations with someone like Griffin, Thorpe or Elliott coming in to play on the outside. And if someone other than Lane is the starter at right corner, Lane would be the heavy favorite to keep the nickel job.
And when it comes to Griffin, he'll have to show that in addition to having what it takes to play in the NFL from a physical standpoint, that he's also ready for what the Seahawks demand from their cornerbacks in terms of scheme and technique. Playing cornerback in Carroll's defense takes a lot of discipline and very specific technique, which is why almost every cornerback to play for Carroll, including Lane, Maxwell and Shead, has taken time to move into a starting role—even Sherman was a backup for half of his rookie season until a pair of injuries forced him into action. Griffin still has a long way to go to prove he's ready for the mental side of the game, but he has made a very strong early impression in offseason workouts.
"He's got probably one of the best corner minds that we've had for a young guy around here," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "That's just in regards to leverage, positioning, the understanding of our coverages and where we need him to be. He has picked it up fairly quickly. 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, 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."
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