When Kam Chancellor returned to the Seahawks on Wednesday, one of the first things fellow safety Earl Thomas did was seek out DeShawn Shead.
Shead, who first signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted rookie in 2012, then spent time on the practice squad before a promotion late in the 2013 season, has spent most of his NFL career in relative obscurity. Over the past two seasons, he became a valuable backup defensive back and a key special teams player, but his chances on defense were very limited. That all changed at the start of the 2015 season.
In Seattle's opener, Shead saw significant playing time at left cornerback, coming into the game when the Seahawks were in their nickel defense with Richard Sherman sliding inside to cover St. Louis' slot receiver. A week later, Shead started at strong safety, playing every snap against the Packers while recording 8 tackles, the third most on the team.
Shead's role figures to change, possibly as soon as Sunday if Chancellor plays, but his contributions and value to the team have not gone unnoticed by coaches and teammates.
"When Kam came back, I just grabbed (Shead) and gave him a hug and told him how much I appreciated everything he has done," Thomas said. "He can play corner, nickel—every position in that room he can play. He's a very selfless guy… He's a valuable piece of this process."
Shead has played well at cornerback and safety each of the past two games, and has been a core special teams player for a while now, but what has really stood out is his uncommon versatility. When Thomas was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Shead spent most of offseason workouts as Seattle's top free safety. Then in training camp he played strong safety before moving to corner, where he started the Kansas City game in place of an injured Richard Sherman. Shead has since spent practices going back and forth between safety and cornerback, earning significant playing time at both spots. Between special teams and defense, Shead has been on the field for 142 snaps through two games, more than every defensive player except for Sherman and Cary Williams. And even if he isn't a starter going forward, Shead gives the Seahawks extra roster flexibility as a backup who can play multiple spots.
"He's been a great Seahawk," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's done so many things, he's come out of the ranks and worked his way up. He became a core special teams guy by doing things right and playing hard and being a great kid, and has worked his way around long enough that he knows how to play everything in the system back there. He's very valuable to us and the versatility is unusual. He played very well at corner just a week ago, so that's a real positive."
As Thomas noted, Shead has maintained a positive attitude throughout the position shuffling, and now knowing that his playing time likely will decrease. Like every player, he wants to be a starter, but he'll prepare the same every week regardless of his role.
"It definitely meant a lot," Shead said of the first two games. "It showed my validity, being able to go out there and handle cornerback and then being able to handle the strong safety position against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Just to be able to go out there and show them I can do that, contribute on special teams and defense, it just helps me show my value to the team.
"Every week, if Kam's here or not, I prepare as a starter. I'll go into the game plan looking at my role as a strong safety and also at corner, because if somebody goes down, I'm the next man up. I've got to be prepared for whatever happens."
Even though strong safety and cornerback both fall under the umbrella of defensive back, they are very different positions, making what Shead has been able to do all the more impressive. As a cornerback, Shead has to focus on his technique, covering an outside receiver, and most importantly in Seattle's defense, keeping his man from beating him over the top. At safety, Shead has coverage responsibilities, but that often involves covering a zone in the middle of the field. And while technique is still important, Seattle's strong safeties also are very involved in run defense, putting more emphasis on physicality.
"It's incredible how versatile DeShawn is," Sherman said. "Every week it seems like he's playing a different position, whether it's inside, outside, strong safety, free safety. I think he's been very accommodating and very willing to do whatever he can to help this football team. I think as long as you can do it, the more you can do, you always have a spot out there on the field. He's the perfect example of that, always the more you can do. We appreciate everything he's done. He's played corner, safety. I think he was the first player to play corner, safety and nickel in one game. It's a lot of mental gymnastics moving from safety to corner, and moving to both safety spots. I think it's a lot more mental than anybody could ever understand. You really have to tip your hat to him and what he's been able to do."
"It is rare," added defensive coordinator Kris Richard. "It is very rare… He's been able to go out there and practice that safety, and get in the game and play corner. It's just a testament to his level of preparation."
Interestingly, one of the keys to Shead's versatility on the football field has nothing to do with football. One of the reasons Shead chose Portland State out of Palmdale Highland High School in Southern California was that Vikings coaches told him he could participate in track and field while also playing football. As a member of Portland State's track team, Shead participated in the decathlon, an event that requires as much versatility as anything in sports.
"I think it plays a major role in my versatility," he said. "Decathlon you have to go from being a high jumper to a long jumper to a hurdler to a pole vaulter to throwing a discus. Being able to transition to those events and techniques I think definitely mentally helps me be able to transition from corner to safety."