When Seahawks safety Dion Bailey lines up with the first-team defense in practice, even he sometimes has a hard time believing it. To his left is All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, and at the other safety spot is Earl Thomas, another All-Pro and someone Bailey looked up to when he was younger.
"It's surreal at times, because I grew up watching Earl," Bailey said. "… He's a safety I've always tried to model my game after."
Thomas, who is still not doing full-contact activity following offseason shoulder surgery, won't be on the field when the Seahawks play in San Diego Saturday, but there's a good chance Bailey will again be sharing a field with Sherman and the rest of Seattle's starters. And with Kam Chancellor having still not reported two weeks before the start of the regular season, there's a real chance Bailey, who went undrafted out of USC in 2014, could be the starter when the Seahawks open their season in St. Louis.
Bailey isn't guaranteed to start Saturday or in any other game—he's battling DeShawn Shead for the top spot at strong safety right now—but he has spent the most time with the first-team of late, so this game and every practice going forward represent a big opportunity for Bailey.
"The opener is coming and we got to get those guys ready to play," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "So that's what we're doing."
At this time a year ago, Bailey was an undrafted rookie whose hopes for making the roster were ruined by an ankle injury. Bailey did end up on Seattle's practice squad last season, and was turning heads in practice late in the season, but he couldn't have imagined he would be in this position so soon.
"All you can ever ask for is an opportunity to display your ability, and I've been granted a wonderful opportunity, one I never even could have dreamed of," he said. "So I plan to take full advantage of it. The same approach I've been taking Week 1 and Week 2 of the preseason, I plan on taking into Week 3 and making more progress, keep taking strides."
Whether or not Bailey starts this game or any going forward, he feels like the chance to play with the starters has helped him mature as a player.
"I'm light years ahead of where I was coming into camp," he said. "It's just a confidence factor, and just the respect you get from your teammates. Being vocal out there—someone who doesn't really have a lot of respect out there is trying to tell other guys, 'You're supposed to be doing this or doing that.' They're looking like, 'What? You don't really know what you're doing.' So to go out there and prove on tape in a game-like situation that I can play calm, I understand the defense and I can take control and help be a leader in the secondary has definitely paid dividends for me, and I plan to go out there, getting on the field with Sherm and all them, and displaying the same thing."
In addition to on-field experience, Bailey is also better thanks to some mentoring from the player he is currently replacing. Chancellor hasn't been on the field or in meeting rooms since camp began, but he is in regular contact with a lot of his teammates, including young safeties like Bailey, Shead, Steven Terrell, and Ronald Martin Jr.
"I talk to Kam often, especially after games," Bailey said. "Ask his opinion how I look, what he thinks I could have done better. It's all been positive. He has been a huge supporter in my corner ever since I was granted this opportunity. I support him in what he's trying to do, and he's supporting me in trying to make my dreams come true. That just speaks volume of the type of person Kam is."
A former linebacker at USC, Bailey has impressed teammates and coaches alike with his physical play.
"He's always been an aggressive, tenacious hitter and defender," said defensive coordinator Kris Richard, who helped recruit Bailey to USC. "I remember him all the way back in high school. We were there at USC recruiting him at that time, so that was one thing that stood out about him aside from the fact that he went out and got the football. So those are things that he's continued to carry over throughout his tenure here, so yeah we're really excited for his future."