With Seahawks training camp set to kick off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at 12 of the team's most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2020 season. Today we wrap things up with a look at what the Seahawks might do with their nickel defense and how much they'll use it.
The Seahawks return all four starters from last year's secondary—safeties Quandre Diggs and Bradley McDougald, and cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers—but that doesn't mean there aren't questions to answer in training camp when it comes to the secondary.
Most notably, the Seahawks will try to solidify the nickel defensive back spot, a position that in the modern NFL is essentially a fifth starting spot in the secondary. And on a related note, the other big question is how often the Seahawks will use said nickel back a year after deploying their base defense (four linemen, three linebackers) at an unusually high rate last year.
Prior to last season, Justin Coleman held the nickel role down for two seasons and was one of the league's best nickel backs, playing more than 60 percent of Seattle's defensive snaps over those two seasons. But Coleman left in free agency, and the Seahawks tried a few different players last year before rookie Ugo Amadi took the job over late last season, but they used those defensive backs less often, instead relying on a position of strength, getting linebackers Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks on the field at the same time.
Amadi winning the job late in the year bodes well for him heading into 2020, as does Carroll saying at the NFL Scouting Combine, "I thought Ugo did a nice job at the spot at the end of the year…It's really Ugo's to lose right now. If we were gong back, that's where we would begin."
Carroll did add, however, that Amadi is "going to be under siege" in that competition, and while there are other cornerbacks who could push him for that role, one of the most intriguing possibilities is a three-safety nickel package that would include another 2019 draft pick, second-rounder Marquise Blair. Blair showed flashes last season of playmaking ability and has the hard-hitting, physical style the Seahawks love, but he wasn't able to solidify himself as a regular in the secondary. Carroll noted earlier this summer that using Blair in the nickel role is definitely something the Seahawks are considering.
"As a matter of fact, he is a guy that we're very interested in finding a role for him," Carroll said of Blair, who started three games last season. "We've already mapped that out. He's got real special talents that we want to find a spot for him, not just to go along and complement the safety play that he's going to play. So in the nickel package, he is going to get a lot of consideration to contribute in some additional ways, because he's unique and got some special stuff."
And using a three-safety nickel look would be nothing new for the Seahawks, who did a significant amount of that in 2017 with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Bradley McDougald. That package was created in large part as a way to get three of Seattle's best defensive backs on the field together, and could very well be an option again in 2020 if the Seahawks think a combination of Blair, McDougald, Diggs and two corners gives them the best collection of talent in the back end of their defense.
As for how much base the Seahawks will play in 2020, Carroll said that's still under consideration, and as he has pointed out on a few occasions, the numbers actually support that Seattle was better against the pass with three linebackers on the field than in nickel. If, however, Amadi, Blair or someone else step up and force their way on the field, then the Seahawks could end up back in a more traditional situation where the nickel defense is on the field more often than the base.
"Overall we weren't as effective as we've been (on defense), so when we get back on the field and see how things fit together—a big part of that was some of the players that we had," Carroll said earlier this offseason when asked about how much base defense his team will play. "We've always tried to draw from the strengths of our players, and that was one of the reasons that we did that last year. So we'll see how that goes. It is part of it, it's valuable experience that we've had… We played those packages better than the nickel packages in the years past, but has that complemented all of our game and prepared us for all of our game? That's the decision that we make as we see our players fit in. So, I'm sorry I can't give you the definitive there, but all of that has been in discussion, all of that has been in the process of how we're approaching the season so that we can take advantage of the directions we may go depending on how the individuals who contribute."
As for the starting cornerback spots, at left cornerback, the Seahawks bring back Griffin, who earned his first Pro-Bowl nod in his third season, and who should only continue to get better as he continues to fine-tune his game and hopefully add more takeaways to his resume. The Seahawks also expect to improve at right cornerback, either because free-agent addition Quinton Dunbar takes over that role, or because two-year starter Tre Flowers continues to grow and keeps that job.
A look back at some of the best photos of Seahawks corner Shaquill Griffin from the 2019 season.