When Seahawks training camp opened and the best defense in the NFL took the field, an undersized but speedy free safety patrolled centerfield, while a bigger strong safety lurked closer to the line of scrimmage.
But unlike what we have seen in almost every game and practice dating back to the 2011 season, the starting safeties over the first four days of training camp weren't Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, but rather Steven Terrell and DeShawn Shead.
With Thomas currently on the physically unable to perform list while he recovers from shoulder surgery, and with Chancellor having not yet reported to camp, the Seahawks are getting a long look at their depth behind two of the best safeties in football. Opening the season minus two Pro Bowl safeties is hardly an ideal situation, but true to his always-positive nature, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll does see some good in a scenario in which two of the team's most important players are replaced by former undrafted free agents who have one NFL start between them. For starters, the Seahawks are getting a chance to see just what they have at safety behind Chancellor and Thomas, something made more important by the loss of two key backups over the past two offseasons, Jeron Johnson and Chris Maragos.
While Shead has clearly emerged as Seattle's top backup safety—he worked with the No. 1 defense at free safety in Thomas' place throughout OTAs and minicamp when Chancellor was present—the picture is a lot less clear beyond that. Obviously Terrell is the next option at the moment, but Carroll also spoke highly of undrafted rookies Ronald Martin Jr. and Keenan Lambert, who is Chancellor’s half-brother, as well as seventh-round pick Ryan Murphy.
And just as importantly for a coach who prides himself in getting the best out of every player is the opportunity Shead and Terrell are getting to show what they're capable of while playing alongside some of the best defensive players in the league.
"Nobody comes here to be a great backup," Carroll said. "They don't dream about, 'oh I'm going to be a heck of a backup in the NFL,' they dream about playing."
And right now, Shead and Terrell are playing with the starting defense.
"We're all brothers in this secondary, so if one person isn't here, if one person goes down, it's next man up," said Shead, who started one game last season in place of Chancellor. "That's our philosophy, so if somebody's hurt or somebody's not here, we don't expect the level of play to drop, so you've got to be ready to step in and keep that same level of play, keep that same intensity. That's our philosophy here."
Terrell, who was originally undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2013, spent time with Jacksonville and Houston in 2013, then spent last season going back and forth between Seattle's practice squad and active roster, appearing in four regular seasons games and all three postseason games. He has spent time working at safety and cornerback, and like most players in his position of trying win a roster spot and make a career for himself, he has embraced the attitude that "the more you can do, the better." That's similar to the path Shead took switching between cornerback and safety during his first two seasons before focusing mostly on safety last year.
"Every day, no matter where you're at on the depth chart, you've got to study and prepare like you're going to be in there with the ones," Terrell said. "So when it actually happens, it's just keeping the same routine, doing everything the same. I'm just trying to make the most of this opportunity, but I wish those guys were here."
Until those guys are here, however, Shead and Terrell are the next men up, in charge of shoring up the back end of Seattle's defense. And while Shead and Terrell don't have the credentials of the Pro Bowlers ahead of them on the depth chart, they've impressed their teammates and coaches so far while in an elevated role.
"I've seen disciplined football," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "They're very sound football players. They're exactly where they need to be when they need to be there. They're assignment sound, they understand the concepts, they understand the verbiage of the defense, they understand how to communicate, that's huge. That's huge in this defense. Obviously Kam, Earl and myself have played together for going on five years now. There's a different kind of understanding you know when you look at him—non-verbal communication we have with the chemistry—but these guys have stepped right in and done an admirable job."
For Shead in particular, this season represents an opportunity to continue building on a career that took a big step forward last season. Undrafted out of Portland State in 2012, Shead spent most of his first two seasons on the practice squad waiting for his chance. He was promoted to the active roster late in the 2013 season and appeared in five regular games and three postseason games, almost entirely on special teams, though he did briefly play strong safety in Super Bowl XLVIII when Kam Chancellor suffered a minor injury on kick coverage.
Shead spent all of last season on the active roster and became one of Seattle's top special teams players while also earning his first career start. Add to that a postgame on-field engagement, marriage and the birth of a daughter, Savannah, in April, and it's been a pretty darn good year for Shead, and one that could get even better if he picks up in 2015 where he left off last season.
"I'm really excited about DeShawn Shead," Carroll said. "He's been such a great player on our team and waiting for his opportunity… DeShawn Shead's chance is up right now.
"DeShawn has been a terrific Seahawk, he has done so many great things for us, and now it's a big opportunity for him to show how far he can take it. Physically, he's in extraordinary shape, he's a great study kid, and he's done everything, so we're really thrilled about that. He's a guy that can take this opportunity and see what he can do with it."
Thomas will get healthy eventually, and Chancellor will show up at some point, and just like that the Seahawks will again have an experienced and talented duo at safety, knocking everyone else down a notch on the depth chart. But until that happens, Shead and Terrell are trying to capitalize on a big opportunity, and the early returns have been encouraging.
"Obviously it's been a great opportunity for them, they've been doing a fantastic job," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "DeShawn Shead, Steven Terrell, those are guys we have starting right now for us, and they've been around so they understand exactly what we need from them and they've been doing a great job."