As has been the case so often in recent years, one of the players who stood out on defense Thursday night for the Seattle Seahawks was their strong safety.
Only it wasn't Kam Chancellor making plays against the Minnesota Vikings in Seattle's 18-11 preseason loss; the Pro Bowler is still recovering from a groin injury. Instead, Kelcie McCray has started the last two preseason games in Chancellor's place, and just as he did last year when he started three games late in the season in place of an injured Chancellor, McCray is showing that the Seahawks are in good shape even when one of the stars in their secondary is unavailable.
"Kelcie had a lot of good plays today," free safety Earl Thomas said. "He was close to two big plays. I felt comfortable out there, we're getting to know each other, we played a lot together last season. The communication was on point, so I felt really comfortable with him out there."
The almost big plays Thomas mentioned included a near diving interception that was still an impressive pass breakup, one of two for McCray in the first half Thursday. McCray also had three solo tackles, the second most in the game for Seattle behind middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. While McCray isn't as big as Chancellor, he also showed the ability to be physical when he blew up a block, then assisted on a tackle to limit a Vikings bubble screen to a short gain.
"Right now Kam's hurt, so I'm getting a lot more opportunity to play with the 1s," McCray said. "I'm getting a lot more acclimated to the defense. It's definitely a good experience for me right now. I've got to go out there and make plays and just try not to skip a beat filling in for Kam. He's the best in the league, so that's definitely huge shoes to fill. I'm just trying to go out there and not have too much of a drop-off."
McCray had value all of last season for the Seahawk as one of their best special teams players, but the more chances he gets on defense, the more he shows why the Seahawks were willing to send a fifth-round pick to Kansas City before the start of last season for a player who made zero starts in his first three seasons in the league. When the Seahawks are at full strength, McCray is stuck behind two of the NFL's best safeties on the depth chart, but as he showed late last season, and is showing again this preseason, there isn't much of a drop-off if one of Seattle's All-Pro safeties leaves the game.
"He's essential, he's a huge part (of our defense)," cornerback Richard Sherman said earlier this week. "He's a core member of our team. I think for what he gives us in terms of versatility in the back end, but also his intensity and his range on special teams—he's a special teams ace—I think he's going to be incredible. Him just having a camp with us, seeing how we really do things, he came in and caught on fast. For him to have a full camp under his belt, he's going to be tough to deal with."
McCray hadn't heard those comments from Sherman before being told about it Thursday, and seemed both touched and a little embarrassed to have that kind of praise heaped upon him less than a year into his Seahawks tenure.
"That's nice," McCray said. "That means a lot coming from one of the leaders of this team, one of the best in the league. It means a lot coming from him. I didn't know he said that, but I'm happy he did."
As Sherman mentioned, McCray is showing more versatility than ever in camp this year. Prior to Chancellor's injury, McCray worked mostly as the second-team free safety behind Thomas with Brandon Browner playing as the No. 2 strong safety. Now that Chancellor is unavailable, McCray is back in that strong safety role where he played last year, and he's not missing a beat despite a mid-camp position change.
"Very impressed," Carroll said of McCray's play Thursday. "He's got tremendous value for our football team. Strong safety, free safety, he's a core guy on our special teams, and we know he has the ability to start. He was able to start for us last year with just a little bit of time of training and being in our system and he did a really good job for us. He's another guy, year two in our system, he understands what we need from him a little bit better, and he's another guy who was able to pick it up, communicate more, and play faster."
Check out some photos from Preseason Week 2: Seattle Seahawks vs. Minnesota Vikings at CenturyLink Field.