Even as a hard-nosed safety at Oklahoma State, Tre Flowers sure looked like Pete Carroll’s type of Seahawks cornerback. The height and length screamed Seattle and Flowers possessed the requisite athleticism to make the transition. And so, it came as no surprise when the Seahawks made Flowers their fifth-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft and labeled him a cornerback.
The early returns on Flowers were, if not outright great, promising. The former safety did enough during his first training camp, frequently visiting Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin’s room to practice the kick-step technique, to start immediately as a rookie. While the results were mixed—a solid 57.3% completion when targeted, six PBUs, a less-than-great 9.2 yards allowed per target—the perception of Flowers was aided by Griffin’s struggles opposite him. As Griffin dealt with weight, injury, and confidence problems in his first season on the left side, he became the focal point of criticism—with Flowers becoming the promising young corner.
In 2019, that perception flipped. Griffin returned to his college weight which, in turn, saw a return of his elite athleticism, and played with renewed confidence, earning his first Pro Bowl trip. Flowers, meanwhile, did not take any massive step forward in his second season playing cornerback, leading some to grow sick of what seemed like an experiment. Though Flowers’ yards allowed per target dropped considerably, from 9.2 to 7.9, his completion percentage in coverage rose slightly to 59.6.
While Flowers’ on-ball production grew, his game simply did not; the issues that plagued him as a rookie, such as being slow to locate the football at the catch point, continued. While it was an understanding gap in his game, transitioning from facing the play at safety to having his back to it at corner, the patience and excitement around a rookie became exhaustion around a sophomore.
Then, there was Seattle’s season-ending loss to the Packers and Flowers’ performance that would follow him the entire offseason. While it was not nearly as bad as it is remembered by some—in reality, Flowers allowed just three catches for 74 yards and two scores, all of which came in single coverage against Davante Adams, one of the premier route runners in the NFL—it was an anchor around his neck. That anchor grew heavier when the team made a move to replace Flowers, acquiring Quinton Dunbar.
A tumultuous offseason for the newly acquired Dunbar saw Flowers re-enter and then exit the starting lineup about a half-dozen times before camp began. But soon Dunbar’s legal situation cleared and he was expected to claim the right cornerback spot, giving the Seahawks stability at both starting spots for the first time in years.
Nagging conditioning and injury issues have seen Dunbar in and out of the lineup through the first five games, however, providing Flowers with yet another lifeline. The continued chance has only proven what many decided long ago: Flowers simply is not a starting cornerback in the NFL. While his confidence is surely, and understandably, at a new low, he has gone further than simply being a liability in coverage.
In Flowers’ limited (192 of a possible 391) snaps in 2020, he has been the easiest target in football. Quarterbacks are completing a shocking 84.2% of passes thrown at Flowers this season, with the corner allowing 12 yards per target—not per completion, per target. For context, the NFL record for highest completion percentage in a single season is 74.4%; the record for yards per attempt is 9.9. If a quarterback was able to throw exclusively at Flowers for an entire season they would set records that are at Wayne Gretzky levels of unachievable.
Even in looking at Flowers’ horrific 2020, it is tempting to make excuses. The secondary lacks cohesion after a bizarre offseason. His confidence must be at rock bottom, at a position that needs it perhaps more than anywhere else. It’s a small sample size. Trust me, I want to make those excuses. Flowers is a player I believed in prior to the 2018 draft, seeing him as a high-ceiling prospect to try at cornerback. His promising rookie year had me even more optimistic. I did, and still do, believe that the criticism of his 2019 season was overblown. However, he has now played nearly 40 games in the NFL as a cornerback; struggles that would naturally come with a position switch can no longer be used as an excuse.
It was an entirely worthwhile experiment by Seattle, to move Flowers to cornerback and attempt to coach him up to a high level of play as Carroll and other defensive coaches have before. However, it has now become undeniably clear: Tre Flowers is not a starting-caliber cornerback in the NFL and that isn’t likely to change.