With Earl Thomas sidelined the past two games, Bradley McDougald stepped in and helped the Seahawks maintain a high level of play, even without their All-Pro free safety on the field. Now, with Thomas coming back for Monday's game against Atlanta, the Seahawks unfortunately could be without their other starting safety, Kam Chancellor, who is dealing with a neck injury that has his status in question. And if Chancellor isn't able to make it back, McDougald will again be in the starting lineup for the third straight game, just at a different position.
"We're very fortunate to have Bradley," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He has played great. The whole time he has been trained, he has been trained at both spots. It's no big deal at all for him to play strong safety versus free safety, so he'll jump right in there."
When McDougald, a two-year starter in Tampa Bay, was available as a free agent last March, the Seahawks were thrilled to be able to sign him despite already having two of the best safeties in the league on their roster. One reason the Seahawks liked McDougald was the ability to use him in special sub packages along with Thomas and Chancellor, as the Seahawks have done this year, another was his ability to make big plays on special teams, but one of the biggest reasons for adding McDougald was that the Seahawks knew they would be able to plug a starting-caliber player in at either safety spot should Chancellor or Thomas be unavailable at any point.
"It was exactly what we had hoped for," Carroll said of McDougald's ability to fill in for either starting safety. "We had seen great versatility in him and playmaking and leadership and all that kind of cool stuff that you hope to see, and when he got here, he just proved it. So he has been able to play nickel, he has played the big nickel, and he has just been able to do everything on special teams and be a leader and all of that. So he has been a fantastic addition and a little bit of an unsung hero at this time for this season, that he has been able to be so versatile and be so successful at what he is doing."
McDougald, who had four tackles and a fourth-down pass breakup in the end zone during last week's win in Arizona, doesn't think switching positions this week will be too difficult because throughout offseason workouts and training camp he regularly went back and forth between free and strong safety.
"It'd be tough if it was that short of notice for me, but I've been going back and forth since OTAs," he said. "I've gotten a good bit of reps in each package being strong and being free, so I think I'm ready at either position… That was definitely the first thing we spoke of, that I'd come and learn both positions, so in case either guy did go down, I'd be able to play both positions."
And as well as McDougald played at free safety, he actually prefers playing strong safety, which is what he played more of in Tampa Bay.
"I actually like being down in the box a little bit more," he said. "The strong safety position, I feel like there's a lot more action, just sitting in the middle of the field, you actually get to get in the run fits, play a lot more man-to-man, you're just a lot more in the mix."
And while no player wants opportunity to come via injury, McDougald knew that if he put in the work and performed in practice, opportunities would eventually come one way or another.
"One thing Pete talked to me about when I first got here was, 'We're going to play good players. If you come in and we feel like you can make an impact on this team, we're going to get you on the field,'" McDougald said. "I never wanted it to be through injuries, but that's a part of the game. That's why I'm here, come in and play to the best of my ability and have no letup for the defense."
McDougald's teammates are equally confident he'll be up to the task filling in for Chancellor if that ends up being necessary.
"He's really smart," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "To be able to play both safety positions, you have to be really smart. He's not afraid to get down there and get dirty. He's a very, very good tackler, and he's able to read the ball in the air when it goes up, just like the fourth down play at the end of the game last week. So we're very confident in him if he has to go, and he's going to do a good job."
In McDougald, the Seahawks felt like they got a bargain on a starting-caliber player who for various reasons the free-agent market undervalued. While general manager John Schneider and his staff are best known for putting together some of the best draft classes in team history, and while he has never been hesitant to pull the trigger on big moves, such as this year's trades for Duane Brown and Sheldon Richardson, or past deals for Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham, one of Schneider's more underrated talents lies in the way he has been able to land quality players who might be undervalued by other teams. That can manifest itself in a lot of different ways, from starters who don't have big markets at the start of free agency—most notably Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in 2013 and McDougald this year—to players other teams release during roster cuts, such as special teams ace Neiko Thorpe, to players who become available via trade just before the roster deadline such as nickel corner Justin Coleman or tackle Matt Tobin, who could be in line to start this week if Brown doesn't make it back from an ankle injury.
"Over the years, we have had numerous examples of guys that have been able to come in from other teams based on our evaluations that we thought they could fit us, maybe more so than other coaches saw it, and guys just come in and found a role and really complemented what we had," Carroll said. "You have some really good examples right now this year, with these guys, and I'm really fired up that again, we are able to do that and you got a good one in Matt. Look what Dion (Jordan) is doing right now. He is already jumping back to help us. Bradley (McDougald), (Michael) Wilhoite, Terence Garvin, Marcus (Smith), all of those guys have found a place to help us out. You go back to Neiko Thorpe and there is all kinds of guys that have been able to do that, and I think it is a tribute to the way that (the personnel department) goes about it and the way that they assess guys and how we work together on that."