When the disappointing reality set in for Tyvis Powell, he still had a big decision to make. The safety from Ohio State was passed over by 32 NFL teams for all seven rounds of the 2016 draft, but that didn't mean teams weren't interested in Powell. Powell's phone was ringing non-stop as the draft came to an end, calls from scouts, coaches and general managers hoping to sign him as an undrafted free agent, and in the end Powell didn't choose the team with the least depth at safety, or the one closest to his hometown of Bedford, Ohio. Instead, Powell wanted to compete to be a part of the NFL's best secondary.
The Seahawks have built one of the NFL's best franchises under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager in part because of great draft picks, including mid-to-late round steals such as Russell Wilson (third round), Richard Sherman (fifth) and Kam Chancellor (fifth); they've made shrewd trades (Leon Washington, Chris Clemons and Marshawn Lynch, to name a few); and they've found great value in free agency (Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, for example). But another big part of Seattle's success has been the way the team has allowed undrafted free agents to compete for jobs, then developed those players into big parts of the team.
Last season, the 32 players who came into the NFL as undrafted free agents suited up for the Seahawks in regular-season game, including 15 who started at least one game. That list includes key contributors like Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, DeShawn Shead, Garry Gilliam, Patrick Lewis, Thomas Rawls and Bennett, who first signed with Seattle as a UDFA in 2009 before establishing himself as a starter in Tampa Bay. At one point late last season, 26 of the 53 player's on Seattle's roster were undrafted, a number Powell was made aware of when Schneider called Powell after the draft.
"They just told me about the opportunity, that they were going to give me a fair chance to compete for a spot," Powell said. "So I'm just trying to go out here and hold up my end of the deal.
"'If you come here, you can play here," Powell recalled Schneider telling him. "We'll give you a fair chance to make this roster.' The No. 1 selling point is the fact that they had 26 undrafted players on their roster… People I looked up to like Sherm and Kam weren't drafted that high, but they worked for what they got to become the best safety and the best corner in the league, so I feel like I now have motivation right in front of me. They weren't drafted that high, but they're still seen as one of the best, so I'm just looking at them every day to see the things they do, and I just try to mimic that."
And so far, Powell's decision to come to Seattle is looking like one that could pay off both for him and the Seahawks. Powell knows he still has a lot of work to do between now and the season opener if he is going to make the team, but he has certainly made a good impression thus far. In particular, Powell stood out in Seattle's preseason opener at Kansas City, not only because he had an interception while playing safety, but also for his standout play on special teams where he made big plays on multiple special teams units. Powell made a tackle on kick coverage to pin the Chiefs deep in their own territory, he had a huge block on a Tyler Lockett punt return, then he nearly saved a punt from going into the end zone for a touchback, a hustle play that was eventually overturned on review.
"He had a great game," Carroll said. "He had a terrific game. Your first time out as a rookie and you know special teams is a big deal, he makes a great play on kickoff coverage on the 12, he has a fantastic, just classic block on No E (Lockett)'s punt return. The ball that he almost kept out of the end zone was an extraordinary play too, just to make that play, and he has a pick. It was a great day and I was really fired up for him. He has looked really good at practice and he made a big statement. I don't remember a first year guy having a first game that was that obvious like that. It was very impressive."
Considering the success some rookies have had in Seattle, that's a big statement for Carroll to make. It's also one, however, that Powell knows won't matter much if he doesn't back it up, starting with Thursday night's preseason game against Minnesota.
"I played with a lot of passion and energy," Powell said. "I made some plays, but I just want to keep it going. I watched the film and there's still some stuff I need to correct, and I just plan on trying to correct that this next game."
In addition to his play on special teams, Powell can also help his chances of making the team with his versatility. A safety in college, Powell has also worked a cornerback in training camp, and did so at times against the Chiefs last week. If that combination of special teams play and secondary versatility as a route to making the roster as a UDFA sounds familiar, that's because it is pretty much exactly how Shead made his mark early in his career. Shead was a big contributor on defense last season both at cornerback and safety, and is battling for a starting job at corner this year, but he first made the practice squad, then later the 53-man roster because he was a good special teams player who gave Seattle roster flexibility as a backup who could play pretty much anywhere in the secondary. The Shead comparison is one Carroll has made about Powell, and Shead has taken Powell under his wing trying to help him become a versatile defensive back.
"I talk to a lot of the young guys, but specifically Ty—to be able to be versatile gives you amazing value, because it's about the more you can do in this league," Shead said in the visitor's locker room at Arrowhead Stadium after Seattle's 17-16 victory. "If you can play corner and safety and special teams—which is number one for him—you create that value and it's a big deal. I was really proud of him today. He did a really good job and I can't wait to see him play again."
For now, Powell could not care less which position he is playing, so long as he is getting an opportunity to compete.
"Whatever it's going to take to make this 53-man roster," he said. "I don't care if they tell me, 'Tyvis, we need you to get the water for everybody,' I'm going to be the best water boy in America. Every day, if they say, 'Tyvis, go take a rep at corner,' I go to corner. 'Tyvis, go to safety,' I go to safety. Whatever they need me to do, I'll do."
Whether Powell or any of Seattle's other promising undrafted free agents make the roster remains to be seen, but history tells us that a couple of players who were snubbed on draft weekend won't just survive roster cuts, but will also thrive in Seattle this year and beyond.
"The road has been paved, and we're looking for the next guys," Carroll said of his team's success with undrafted free agents. "I think last year at some point we had 26 undrafted guys on our team, so that's not a big issue for us. We are kind of familiar and comfortable, and I don't know, something is in the water here. These guys just show up and do great stuff and make teams and do stuff other people don't think they're going to do. When they do, they are the real deal. Great competitive kids, guys with a chip and an attitude that we like and that's kind of why they get here, you know?"
Look through the best photos from the Seahawks final practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center before Thursday night's preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings.