To understand how quickly things can change in the NFL, consider the thus-far brief Seahawks career of Bradley McDougald. It was only 21 months ago that the Seahawks signed McDougald to a one-year contract as a free agent, a player who despite being a starter in Tampa Bay didn't appear to have an obvious path to playing time on a team that featured a pair of Pro Bowl safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Even with those two on the team, McDougald proved to be talented enough to work his way onto the field, first in Seattle's "big nickel" packages, then eventually as a starter for nine games, two at free safety in place of an injured Thomas, and seven at strong safety after Chancellor went down with a season-ending neck injury.
By the time training camp rolled around this year, it was clear that McDougald, who the Seahawks re-signed in the offseason, would have a big role in Seattle's defense. The neck injury that ended Chancellor's 2017 also kept him off the field this year, while Thomas held out in training camp, which combined with the offseason release of Richard Sherman meant that McDougald went from being the team's third safety a year earlier to being the most experienced member of the secondary by a significant margin.
Thomas eventually returned for the start of the regular season, but a broken leg in Week 4 ended his season, meaning McDougald was once again the clear leader of a secondary he had joined only a year and a half earlier. And McDougald has thrived in that role this season, not just in the way he has helped the young starters around him—free safety Tedric Thomson is in his second season and first as a starter, right cornerback Tre Flowers is a rookie, while left corner Shaquill Griffin is a second-year starter—but also by playing the best football of his career. Through 13 games, McDougald ranks second on the team to Bobby Wagner in tackles (68) and passes defensed (nine), is tied for the team lead with three interceptions, and has two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
And McDougald doesn't just make a lot of plays, he makes them in big moments, such as when he intercepted Cam Newton in the end zone of a back-and-forth game with big playoff implications, or when he broke up a pass in the end zone on fourth-and-goal on Monday night with the Seahawks protecting a 6-0 lead against the Vikings.
"It has been his consistency and he has been very productive," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He has been a playmaker from the first game out and he's been able to put himself in situations and make plays that other guys don't make. He's a really good guy in coverage and he continues to come through. The Carolina play that he made, the fourth down in the end zone (against Minnesota), along with the number of others in the last few weeks. He continues to make things happen and he's having a fantastic season."
On McDougald's leadership, Carroll added, "He has been responsible for keeping that group together. He was the guy that had the experience that could speak at all. Only Shaq had played a season, so he was really instrumental in all of that."
McDougald didn't come into the 2018 season with a goal of becoming a leader, but with Chancellor unable to play due to injury and Thomas absent from preseason workouts and camp, he realized he was going to have to step up.
"It wasn't my focal point, it wasn't something I spent my offseason thinking about, 'Oh man, I'm going to come in here and be a leader,'" he said. "It kind of just got hand delivered to me. Every room kind of just needs a voice in the room to bounce ideas off of, and I was the oldest guy at that point, and I had a little more experience than a lot of players in the secondary at the time, so guys just kind of gravitated towards me."
But even if it wasn't planned, the role of veteran leader has suited McDougald well.
"He has brought a lot of leadership," Thompson said. "He leads by example. Everything he tells you he's going to do, he's going to do. He's just a good leader for us. And then he's making plays, which he has been doing his whole career, even when he was in Tampa. He was making plays for us last year. Even with the two Hall of Famers back there, they still had to find a package for him to get him on the field because he was making plays, and it just carried on to this year. He's making plays at safety, he's making plays at linebacker, he's making plays all over the field. And he's communicating really well, he's able to talk to the DBs, he's able to talk to the linebackers, he's even able to put the D-line in certain stunts and stuff like, so he's doing a really great job for us this year."
And now that McDougald has become a leader, one of the most important pieces of advice he can give out is one that he received from Chancellor when he arrived in Seattle, then eventually replaced the Pro-Bowler at strong safety. McDougald knew it already, but it was also important for him to hear from Chancellor that his job was not to be Kam Chancellor, but rather to be the best version of himself he could be. That holds true as well for Griffin and Flowers, who might be Seahawks cornerbacks, but who aren't being asked to be Richard Sherman.
"That was always my goal—when I came in here, I wanted to be me," McDougald said. "Talking to Kam, talking to Earl, they watched film on me and they said, 'One thing about Seattle, Pete lets you be you. He believes in letting guys character show colorfully. Whoever you are, be you, but be you every day, be it consistently, and if you can do that, Pete's going to love you.' I took that to heart.
"I've got a different playing style than Kam, so when I came in to replace Kam, I was constantly getting compared to Kam, the way he hits, the way he does this, the way he does that. And he was the first person to tell me, 'You're here because of what you have done, be you.' I spread that message to the younger guys—'You don't have to be Sherm, Tre. You're built like him, but you don't have to be him. Be you, be Tre Flowers, be the next household name.' When Sherm was a rookie, nobody knew who he was before he started making his plays. So that's one thing I try to pass down to them, just be you and that's good enough for us."
McDougald's emergence as a leader is just one of many reasons why the Seahawks have zero concerns about the strength of their team leadership, even following an offseason that saw several key veterans depart via free agency, trade or because of injury. Yes, some big personalities and strong voices moved on, but a lot of important veteran voices are still around, players like Russell Wilson, Wagner, Doug Baldwin, K.J. Wright, Duane Brown, Justin Britt and Tyler Lockett. And a group of younger players such as Jarran Reed, Frank Clark and Shaquill Griffin have stepped into leadership roles following the departure of veterans in their position groups.
"These guys are connected," Carroll said. "There's always leadership. Sometimes, it's better than others. We have particularly good direction from our guys and guys that are humble and they care about the people around them and they're looking after the young guys. They're watching them, not just in football but what's going on around their worlds. These guys do a great job of handling their business on and off the field. I think it has to do with the leadership, so it's been a strong aspect of us. I know everybody said 'Oh, well you're going to lose all this leadership, how are you going to be?' I didn't feel like that. I felt like we had plenty of guys that had already been factors as leaders throughout the squad and there's been a few surprises. I think Bradley taking over as much as he did and as quickly as he did was a great surprise. J-Reed was a guy who we knew would be a guy that could be a leader and he's stepped up. I think Frank has been a surprise in how confident he's been and how he's been able to share his experience with guys and help them out."