When asked about his role heading into the 2021 season, D.J. Reed discussed focusing on outside cornerback—he has the versatility to play just about anywhere in the secondary—and said for now he's mostly working at right cornerback.
Then, Reed casually added, "Whether I'm traveling or not, we haven't really spoken to that in particular, with No. 1 receivers, so right now I'm just at right cornerback."
That's quite a statement from somebody who has started 10 games over a three-year NFL career, and who, while a very strong candidate for a starting spot this season, will still have to earn it in camp. After all, the Seahawks have rarely had even their best cornerbacks shadow top receivers rather than stick to one side. Richard Sherman did it from time to time, but mostly stuck to left cornerback, and Shaquill Griffin did it on a couple of occasions. But far more often than not under Pete Carroll, cornerbacks have stuck to one side of the field regardless of opposing receivers.
But if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making bold statements that on the surface might seem a bit unreasonable, it's Reed, a scrappy, undersized cornerback who has been beating the odds throughout his football life.
Coming out of Independence High School in Bakersfield, Reed had to walk on at Fresno State when he had no Division I offers. When he realized his opportunity to play there wasn't going to come, he went the junior college route, transferring to Cerritos College where, as detailed in this in-depth feature on Go Long with Tyler Dunne, he shared a small, filthy apartment with eight other players, as well as some cockroaches, sometimes sleeping on the floor, sometimes on an old futon. From there, Reed went to Kansas State where he became an All-Big-12 defensive back as well as a standout returner, which led to him being selected in the fifth round of the 2018 draft.
But making it to the NFL didn't stop the cycle of teams undervaluing Reed, as was evident when the 49ers waived him with a non-football injury designation last summer due to a torn pec. The 49ers figured nobody would claim Reed, which would have allowed them to keep him on injured reserve for the season and control his rights in 2021, but instead Seahawks GM John Schneider pounced at the opportunity to grab a player he liked coming out of K-State. By midseason, Reed was healthy and made his Seahawks debut against his former team, first getting his shot at the nickel corner spot. He would later start for Griffin at left corner, then took over the right corner spot with Tre Flowers and Quinton Dunbar both injured, and Reed never gave up that starting job even after Flowers returned.
Now, heading into 2021 the 5-foot-9 Reed is a favorite to win a starting job in what looks to be a deep cornerback competition, despite the fact that he is far smaller than the prototype Pete Carroll cornerback. His play in 2020 was even a factor in the Seahawks again going against their usual size requirements at the position when they selected Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown in the fourth round of this year's draft, immediately declaring he'd compete for an outside cornerback spot despite his 5-foot-10 stature.
So yeah, it might sound bold that Reed thinks he should or will be shadowing top receivers this season, but do you want to bet against him at this point?
In addition to his standout play last season and a level of swagger that is perfect for his position, Reed is also confident about 2021 because he's heading into the season healthy. Last year, the torn pec kept him out of training camp and the first half of the season, meaning he hit the field for regular season games with minimal practice under his belt. Reed finished his rookie season playing with a serious shoulder injury that affected his preparation for his second season. Instead of spending this offseason going through another grueling rehab, Reed this spring was able to focus on staying in shape, working on his technique, and even taking a break to take his girlfriend to Hawaii.
"It's beautiful, this is probably one of the few offseasons I've had," he said. "I've had surgeries most of the offseasons, so to get a full offseason, to go travel to get my mind of football, for my mentals, and just to recoup, relax, then get back to basics and really tie down into my technique, fitness, getting into the best shape, it's beautiful. I'm glad to be out here with the fellas, it's feels good just running around out here."
Reed added that having a full training camp should "benefit me tremendously" considering how little preparation he had for game action last year.
"Last year I literally rehabbed for three months, then I had a football game," he said. "No tackling reps, no being in pads, it was just film study and get ready physically without being able to run with my teammates, so it was a little more challenging. Now, I get to go into OTAs right now, getting in shape, training camp, we'll compete for our spots, so I'm going to be in full-time shape. I'm excited."
Reed's confidence in his own play is just one reason he is excited about Seattle's prospects at cornerback. With Griffin and Dunbar both leaving in free agency, the outside perception has been that cornerback is question mark for the Seahawks. But the way Reed sees it, the group of him, former 49ers teammate Ahkello Witherspoon, a free-agent pickup; former Colts and Jets starter Pierre Desir, another free-agent addition; Tre Flowers, a starter in 37 of 42 games played over the past three seasons; Brown, a promising rookie; and Damarious Randall, a veteran who is moving from safety back to cornerback the position he played for his first three seasons with Green Bay, gives the Seahawks a deep and talented group that will compete for starting spots.
"I feel like we've got great guys," Brown said. "It's kind of disrespectful (calling cornerback a question mark), but it's just like, it is what it is. I only played half the season, obviously, because of my torn pec, but I felt like when I was out there, I was playing at a high level. So for it to be question mark, it's kind of disrespectful, but I mean that's just the nature of the game. But Pierre Desir, he looks really good right now, same as Ahkello, same as Tre—both Tres—so I feel like we got good guys there."