One of the many questions the Seahawks have to answer in training camp is that of who starts at the cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman, Jeremy Lane or DeShawn Shead or perhaps someone else, like Tharold Simon.
The short answer to that question is that, well, there isn't a short answer. While Simon has the talent to work his way into the conversation, for now at least he is in a backup role, leaving Shead and Lane to battle for a starting job, but this competition isn't a simple either/or situation.
Because both Lane and Shead have the versatility to play outside cornerback and nickel back, and because the Seahawks showed last season a willingness to mix and match with their cornerbacks, Sherman included, depending on matchups, Lane and Shead in many ways are both holding down starting jobs at the same time.
Last season, after Lane returned from injury, there were games in which Shead would be the starter in base defense, but Lane would end up playing more snaps by the time the game ended. And it was not unusual for both to play the nickel spot and right corner within the same game, depending on matchups.
"I think it's great for our defense to be able to have me able to move inside and have (Lane) play outside so we can matchup all around the field," Shead said. "It gives our defense a lot of flexibility. That's one of the things that makes this defense great."
Shead got the nod as the No. 1 right corner when camp opened Saturday, then Lane took that honor Sunday, with Lane usually then moving inside with Shead playing outside in nickel. But what makes the combination of those two so good for Seattle's defense is that neither has to stay in one role.
"We know offenses love matchups, they love to try to create mismatches, and obviously on defense we love preparing our guys in order to stop mismatches," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "So (moving Lane and Shead around depending on matchups) could easily be the case."
Part of what makes the competition so interesting is how different the two players are from a physical standpoint. Shead, who has also played safety for the Seahawks, is the much bigger and more physical player at 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, while Lane is the leaner, faster defensive back at 6-foot, 190 pounds. Those different styles are also what gives the Seahawks more flexibility to match up with different types of receivers.
"They're definitely different types of players," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "DeShawn Shead, the one thing that really stands out to me is his strength at the line of scrimmage—his upper body strength is unparalleled. The closest replication I can think of is Brandon Browner when he first came in. If Shead gets his hands on you, it is pretty much over for you, so you have to be very quick at the line of scrimmage, and you have to be very cognizant of his hand placement. With Jeremy Lane, he is more of a finesse player. Not to say that's a bad thing, but he has the skillset, athleticism to allow you to get into your route and then he will just follow you, trail you and wait for his opportunity. He is opportunistic into the route. They play two different types of defensive back, but highly effective on both of their strategies."
And while Lane and Shead will continue to push each other throughout camp, that competition will remain friendly between two players who arrived in Seattle at the same time in 2012, Lane as a sixth-round pick and Shead as an undrafted free agent.
"J-Lane, he's one of my brothers," Shead said. "We came in at the same time, he's been my brother since Day 1. We still help each other out, then we just come out here and battle."
And for Lane, who has battled everyone from Byron Maxwell to Simon to Shead for playing time, competing for a job is nothing new, even after signing a multi-year contract extension.
"It's pretty cool to compete," he said. "That's all I know, so I don't have a problem doing it."
While Shead and Lane are currently the clear-cut leaders in the competition at right corner and nickel, in some order, Simon, a fifth-round pick in 2013, hopes to work his way into that conversation. After missing his rookie season with a toe injury, Simon showed promise in 2014, appearing in 10 games and starting five, but another toe injury cost him almost all of last season. Simon has some catching up to do, but he also has the size (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) and ability to be a good fit if he can stay healthy.
"It's definitely a big year for me," Simon said. "Four years in the league, I haven't really shown anything yet, so it's definitely a make-or-break year for me. I'm taking it on as that too. So I'm practicing, I'm in the meeting rooms studying hard, and hopefully everything turns out the way I want it to."
However things shake out at cornerback, the Seahawks feel very good about this group after re-signing Lane in free agency, both in terms of talent and depth, and in their ability to match up with different opponents because of the versatility of players like Shead, Lane and Sherman, who last season moved around more than he has in the past to cover opponents' top receivers.
"We have, really, as good of flexibility as we've ever had," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said during offseason workouts, noting that the flexibility also extends into the safety group. "… This is really as strong as I've felt we've gone into this portion of the year with versatility. The competition is really going to be on. We'll hopefully be able to situate that—Kris will get it all squared away—so we can take advantage of that. It does give us choices, matchup wise, if it all stays somewhat the same, so that's a real positive."
Action photos from the Seahawks' second day of training camp practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center.