At the conclusion of the 2019 season, observers of the Seahawks were largely unanimous: Seattle had to add a cornerback to the group for the 2020 season. Interestingly, however, was the split on where that addition needed to come. For some, it was clear the sophomore Tre Flowers was not the answer and a new partner for Shaquill Griffin was needed; for others, a seemingly archaic return to base defense proved the Seahawks had to right the wrong of not adequately replacing Justin Coleman by bringing in a nickelback.
Speaking at the Scouting Combine in February, John Schneider added fuel to the speculation, saying “If I told you we were satisfied with the [secondary’s] performance, I’d be lying. We all need to get better.” As the architect of the team, the onus was on Schneider to help Seattle get better in an area he diagnosed as in need of improvement. After the hullabaloo of free agency died down, the Seahawks’ personnel maven struck, acquiring disgruntled Washington cornerback Quinton Dunbar in exchange for a fifth-round pick.
In shrewdly moving to trade for Dunbar, Schneider may have been able to placate both sides of the secondary improvement crowd. The inbound cornerback will certainly provide Seattle a boost on the outside, but he could also provide a dynamic presence inside, one that the defense lacked in 2019.
Dunbar’s fit on the perimeter in the Seahawks’ defense is clear to see. A converted wide receiver, at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds with 32 5/8” arms, he is the physical archetype of a Seattle cornerback under Pete Carroll. (In hindsight, it’s a surprise they weren’t the team to sign Dunbar as a UDFA in 2015.) Dunbar has taken to the position extremely well, playing with the physicality, awareness, and aggression of a seasoned defensive back. Those traits, however, would be rendered largely worthless if he didn’t carry it so fluidly.
This breakup, against the Falcons, exemplifies that: Despite flipping his hips and changing direction multiple times, Dunbar not only sticks with the savvy Calvin Ridley but keeps his eyes on Matt Ryan and gets in a position to break up the pass.
Dunbar’s physicality and length translate to his play—crucially, in all facets of coverage. Prior to the catch, Dunbar engages aggressively but does so while tracking the football so as to not be penalized. (This pass breakup resulted in an offensive pass interference penalty.)
At the catch point, Dunbar is uber physical and plays with the kind of “my ball” ethos that drives great cornerback play. Of the 23 cornerbacks with 9+ interceptions and 35+ PBUs since 2015, Dunbar reached those numbers in the fifth-fewest games and fewest starts. While he combines physicality and athleticism with great success, his disruptive production is a result of a superb awareness of the quarterback’s eyes. He is consistently reading the opposition, and when it’s time to do so, he has the athleticism to drive on the football and the physicality to make it his own.
If Dunbar isn’t able to simply barge his way into a turnover, he uses his arm length to great success. When Dunbar finds himself in a disadvantageous position, with a receiver having leverage on him, rather than go through his back and be flagged, he uses his length to get into the receiver’s frame and disrupt the pass. (Awareness is prevalent across Dunbar’s game, and it has resulted in just three flags for pass interference or holding over the last three seasons.)
In Carroll’s cover-3 defense, communication in the secondary is of crucial importance. When it’s clicking, each defensive back works tremendously well together, funneling and passing off wideouts in perfect synchronization. When it’s off, it can result in blown coverage—most often over the top. Despite being relatively new to the position, Dunbar’s football IQ shines through on film. Similar to his awareness in coverage and at the catch point, he displays a recognition of route patterns and an ability to communicate and react to what develops in a timely manner.
On this interception against the Giants in 2019, Dunbar is carrying the deep route before passing it off to the safety, Montae Nicholson, and breaking on the route over the middle of the field, resulting in a turnover.
Though Dunbar has the size and ability to succeed on the outside with the Seahawks, there’s reason to believe Seattle will want Dunbar, Griffin, and Flowers to see a considerable amount of snaps in 2020. While the outside perception of Flowers is low, he is a player Carroll and the Seahawks have invested time into, as he converted from safety to cornerback, and he possesses the size, length and athleticism they want at the position. Plus, he is the only cornerback of the three under contract beyond 2020. It seems unlikely Seattle will want to stunt Flowers’ development or give up on him entirely, in the event Griffin or Dunbar leave the Seahawks before 2021.
A path Seattle could explore, to utilize all three cornerbacks, would be to shift Dunbar into the slot in sub packages, with Flowers then resuming his role as the right cornerback. Despite Dunbar’s physical play and long frame, the former wideout began his career seeing snaps as a nickel, in addition to the outside. He could, periodically, return to the slot in 2020. Though he finally made his home, and found success, outside, he has the skill set to thrive in the slot.
Dunbar has just average change of direction ability but his burst, the best athletic trait he possesses, is elite: In 2015, Dunbar’s 10-yard split of 1.47 seconds tested in the 96th percentile among cornerbacks. His ability to immediately close on routes, as a result of his short-area burst, is apparent.
While Dunbar’s elite closing speed allows him to break on passes terrifically, more pertinent to the slot is the way it enables him to consistently negate separation. The way Dunbar can erase space between himself and the receiver, and then disrupt the receiver’s frame, is reminiscent of Coleman and a combination of traits that is conducive to succeeding out of the slot.
Similarly, when undercutting a route, Dunbar displays the kind of lateral agility desired out of slot corners, eating up the space between himself and the receiver to get into a position to breakup the play.
When Dunbar is trailing a receiver from the inside, playing off their hip, he can use his elite burst, awareness and ball skills to undercut the route. His ability to close will result in breakups or turnovers more often than not—like Coleman, Dunbar can turn a disadvantageous situation into a positive play for the defense.
The majority of Dunbar’s qualities which translate to the slot—burst, agility, ball skills—are displayed at the top of the route or the catch point. Just as important is the ability to mirror a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. When aligned inside, Dunbar’s quick-twitch ability shines at the snap. Below, against Josh Gordon, Dunbar sticks with the vertical threat as Gordon attempts to sell outside twice, before getting a hand in to breakup the pass.
Shifting Dunbar into the slot in 2020 won’t just be an avenue to get the defense’s three best cornerbacks on the field, but it will be the best approach against some of the sport’s most dangerous offenses. The Rams, 49ers and Cardinals make up six of the Seahawks’ 16 games, and each team boasts playmaking inside: Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel and Larry Fitzgerald (and hell, even George Kittle). Offenses continue to shift their most dangerous pass catchers inside in an effort to find a mismatch—with Dunbar inside, they will not succeed in doing so.
Regardless of the internal or external opinion on Flowers, it was clear Seattle had to add to their cornerback group ahead of the 2020 season. In yet another clever deal, Schneider ensured the Seahawks will have an injection of talent in the secondary next season. Whether Dunbar finds himself in the slot, on the outside or split between both, he will be a welcome addition to Seattle’s defensive backfield.