RENTON, Wash. — Damarious Randall recorded the first interception of Seattle Seahawks training camp Monday when he decisively broke on a quick out, picked off Russell Wilson in stride and raced untouched to the other end of the field.
Two days earlier, Ahkello Witherspoon was the defensive standout with impressive pass-breakups on consecutive Wilson throws — a bullet to Metcalf followed by a lob to Gerald Everett towards the pylon.
“The best that he showed was today,” coach Pete Carroll said of Witherspoon last weekend. “… Really, this is Phase 3 work and we really have to be very careful about challenging the ball, and try to not challenge anything where there’s any contact at all. So it’s really hard. This is not real ball for the corners. They’re faking it as best they can. So to be able to show the body control and stay off the guys and still make plays is really hard. He had some beautiful plays.”
The Seahawks would love to see more of the same from their cornerbacks now that the pads are on and full contact is allowed. It would help ease concerns inside and outside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center about that position group, which the organization knows is the biggest question mark on Seattle’s roster.
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It’s not that they’re young and inexperienced. Witherspoon, who’s taken most of the first-team reps on the left side, has 33 career starts. Flowers, Randall and Pierre Desir all have at least 30 as well. D.J. Reed, the current favorite on the right side, has 10 starts over four seasons.
It isn’t a depth issue, either. The Seahawks could do much worse than any of the aforementioned names serving as their third or fourth cornerback, depending on how the competitions play out on either side. Flowers has been shaky as a starter but played well in spot duty last year (though Seattle could view his $2.183 million non-guaranteed salary as too steep if he doesn’t beat out Reed on the right side).
The group also includes some intriguing young players such as fourth-round pick Tre Brown.
“I feel like we’ve got great guys,” Reed said in the spring when asked about the belief that cornerback is Seattle’s biggest question mark. “It’s just what the business is, but it’s kind of disrespectful, but it is what it is. I only played half the season obviously because of my torn pec, but I felt like when I was out there I was playing at a high level.”
Reed emerged as an unexpected playmaker once he got healthy and became a starter midseason, recording two interceptions and seven passes defended over the final eight games. The Seahawks love his attitude and the edge he plays with at 5-foot-9. But if they viewed him as a sure thing, they wouldn’t have him in an open competition for a starting job.
The same is true with Witherspoon. The Seahawks signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal in March, having identified him as their top cornerback target in free agency if they had to replace Shaquill Griffin. Witherspoon is the type of long, athletic player that Carroll likes at the position, but he was up and down over his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and ultimately fell out of favor with their coaching staff.
“He’s physically right,” Carroll said. “He’s fast enough, he’s athletic enough, he’s fluid and he’s really tall and long, he’s got great reach and his feet move like a smaller guy. He’s got all the things we’re looking for.”
The Seahawks made a justifiable decision to not match the massive contract Griffin got from the Jacksonville Jaguars. But his departure leaves them without a cornerback who has made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team.
Luckily for the Seahawks, they have no such issue at safety, where Jamal Adams and Diggs form one of the NFL’s best duos. That could help cover for deficiencies on the perimeter, as could using more sub packages with Marquise Blair, Ugo Amadi or Ryan Neal as extra defensive backs. Blair was on the verge of breaking out before tearing his ACL early last season. Amadi filled in capably, as did Neal while Adams was out.
And what about the possibility of Seattle solving the issue by acquiring a big-name cornerback via a trade?
You can never rule that out with general manager John Schneider, who in three of the last four summers has dealt for Sheldon Richardson, Jadeveon Clowney and Adams. The New England Patriots‘ Stephon Gilmore and the Miami Dolphins‘ Xavien Howard are the kinds of difference-makers the Seahawks are missing, but it would be difficult, if not out of the question, to trade for either given the combination of draft capital and money it would take. The Seahawks are already without a first-round pick next year because of the Adams trade, and they’re about to give him a top-of-the-market extension.
“Well you can always add,” Carroll said. “But right now I’m looking at the guys that we have and I’m looking at Tre [Flowers] battling over there on the other side with D.J. and with Pierre and then Tre Brown, he’s just getting going. Tre Brown has not done anything to discourage from being in the competition as well.
“It’s just going to take us weeks. We’ve got weeks. We’ve got games, we’ve got all kinds of time to figure this out.”
In the meantime, it’ll be the Seahawks’ biggest question mark.