Last week I mentioned how two Seattle Seahawks cornerbacks who spent 2016 on injured reserve, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Mohammed Seisay, were teammates at Nebraska in 2012-13 before joining the NFL. At first I thought it was most likely a coincidence: Both defensive backs took different paths to Seattle, with Seisay getting picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Detroit Lions after the 2014 draft when Jean-Baptiste was a second round selection by the New Orleans Saints. Each eventually went through Detroit but Seisay came to the Seahawks via trade in August 2015; Jean-Baptiste was acquired to the practice squad late in that year after the Saints and Lions released him, and then signed to a futures deal in the 2016 offseason.
I wrote how these players, having spent more than a year already learning Pete Carroll’s defensive schemes and coverage techniques even if they weren’t active for most practices, might have an advantage in competition over any newcomers joining Seattle from the draft or free agency. These inauspicious NFL origins and injury histories don’t make Jean-Baptiste or Seisay at first glance particularly more exciting options than other established backups now jostling for the starting job or roster spot, DeAndre Elliot or Neiko Thorpe. But it turns out the fact we’ve hardly seen either of them play as pros obscures the Cornhuskers connection that could give each an even greater leg up.
Or you might say: an extra kick-step.
See, former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini worked under Pete Carroll as defensive backs coach when Carroll was defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers in 1995-96 before joining Carroll on the New England Patriots for the next three years. And even though Pelini coached linebackers with New England, not the secondary, that move helped Pelini gain perspective of Carroll’s defense as a whole and is why Pelini credits Carroll specifically as his “mentor”: “It was a whole new world”.
More fundamentally, it developed the connection for Pelini how closing the middle of the field with a single-high safety and cornerbacks in man-free coverage on the outsides allows the various formations at the front of the defense to concentrate on run-stopping with the down safety free to fill like a linebacker. Even as he moved on to jobs with the Green Bay Packers, Oklahoma and LSU, Pelini kept the same principles in place. As Danny Kelly said right here in 2012, “If there’s a team in college football outside of USC that runs a similar scheme to that of Seattle, it's probably Nebraska.”
Danny cited the Pelini relationship also a year earlier to explain why the Seahawks had signed three Nebraska products as undrafted free agents in the 2011 offseason. Carroll and the Seattle front office are known for paying special heed to the coaching pipelines of players they sign and draft (even fifth-round cornerback that year Richard Sherman played for defensive coordinator Ron Lynn at Stanford, who coached DBs when Pelini was with linebackers on Carroll’s staff on the Patriots), so it makes sense they would target players instructed by Carroll disciple Pelini.
Of course, Pelini got fired by the Cornhuskers after the 2014 season and now coaches at FCS Youngstown State, so this information isn’t all that helpful for analyzing the 2017 class of defensive backs (although Youngstown, which reached the FCS final, boasted two of the best edge rushers at that level of football so perhaps remember the names Derek Rivers and Avery Moss on day three, and I’m now slightly curious how 6-foot-2 cornerback David Rivers III’s arm length and speed measures out at pro day). The guys coming out of Nebraska are still Pelini’s recruits, but the current crop of cornerbacks don’t fit the Seahawks profile (John Schneider didn’t bother to draft Alfonzo Dennard out of Pelini’s program in 2012 before he went in the seventh round to New England, maybe because he punched a cop right before the draft but also because he was only 5-foot-10) and of the Cornhusker talent only safety Nate Gerry seems worth mentioning for Seattle.
But the Pelini factor is probably the best case for Seisay’s and Jean-Baptiste’s potential future with the Seahawks. Jean-Baptiste was portrayed as a guy who was “lost” in New Orleans, slow at picking up the scheme and not contributing on special teams—he was scarcely active as a rookie and didn’t make it past his second training camp, then got cut from the Lions’ practice squad. Terrible signs, yet it’s also true that Rob Ryan’s defense was a cabbagepatch of mixed intentions during that time. Ryan’s family-heirloom schemes couldn’t meet the Saints front office’s pivot to try to match Seattle’s personnel according to this interview in which Ryan explicitly blames “respect for Pete Carroll or something by upper management” for the defensive disaster that were the 2015 New Orleans Saints.
When Jean-Baptiste was struggling as a rookie Ryan said, “We drafted him to teach him how to play our way, different than it was going to be in college.” That is, different from the schemes that relied on him to press and use the kick-step to keep plays in front, as Belini’s defenses did. Jean-Baptiste was already considered raw and got put into a defense that didn’t suit him, and unlike most available cornerbacks looking for a change of scheme in 2017 he might with Pelini’s training possess the very packet of technique that held back outsider cornerbacks before. And unlike Dennard, he’s 6-foot-3 with 32 inch arms.
Jean-Baptiste’s body compared most easily to Richard Sherman before the 2014 draft (here’s Jared Stanger doing just that on Field Gulls), which explains maybe why New Orleans felt they had to go up to the second round to get him. Seisay was in a similar mold (not quite as tall but 33.5 inch arms) and fit Seattle’s SPARQ profile perfectly according to Zach Whitman, but was even less polished than Jean-Baptiste as a part-time player on Nebraska’s defense. Both Seisay and Jean-Baptiste were junior college players who joined the Cornhuskers later in their eligibility, so didn’t get a full dose of Pelini’s Carroll-infused instruction. Still Seisay at least had some foundation of the principles even before the two years he’s now had the chance to observe Seahawks practices.
It’s not enough to exactly feel confident about these guys. Stanley Jean-Baptiste was recently called one of the biggest draft busts of the last five years (although Paul Richardson is also on that list and he’s at least a useful player, Jean-Baptiste still has yet to record his first NFL tackle; it highlights the degree of difference in draft success the Saints have had). But considering Seisay and Jean-Baptiste have basically never played for three years, the background that they fit the model and were in a sense learning Seattle’s system since before they were in the pros are the mitigating factors you would want if the Seahawks decide to retain one or both of these ERFAs by March 9.