For a position that was rarely fielded in 2019, nickelback has been a topic of conversation and consternation since Justin Coleman departed the Seahawks for the Lions in March of last year.
A training camp competition between Akeem King, Ugo Amadi and Jamar Taylor last August saw Amadi get the initial start, Taylor take over for the next nine weeks and then King and Amadi handle the rest of the season. None of Taylor, King, or Amadi featured heavily on defense, with the three combining to play 552 defensive snaps—120 fewer snaps than Coleman played in his final year in Seattle.
Since the season ended, speculation surrounding the position has only ramped up. At the Scouting Combine, John Schneider called nickelback a starting position in the NFL, citing the amount they typically play in a given game. The next day, Pete Carroll alluded to the job being Amadi’s to lose. The Seahawks’ offseason acquisition of Quinton Dunbar crowded the cornerback group and increased its versatility, opening up further competition and possibilities for the slot corner spot. Finally, in his post-draft press conference, Pete Carroll hinted towards having some sort of plan for the position.
So what might that plan be, as Seattle looks to solidify the position that proved difficult to solve last season?
Obviously, Dunbar’s status in 2020 and beyond is unclear following the events of last week. For this exercise, we’re going to move forward operating under the assumption he’ll be available to the Seahawks.
Immediately after Dunbar was acquired, the assumption was that he would compete with, and beat out, Tre Flowers for the starting right cornerback spot. However, it seemed unlikely it would be that black-and-white. Seattle had already invested a considerable amount of time in Flowers’ development as he transitioned from safety, and to completely halt that in favor of two corners in Dunbar and Griffin on expiring deals would be short-sighted.
Part of Dunbar’s appeal as a cornerback, and as an addition to the Seahawks’ existing secondary, is his versatility. Dunbar played inside and out for Washington and possesses the kind of quick-twitch ability, awareness, and short-area quickness needed to succeed in the slot. If Seattle wants to get their three best cornerbacks on the field together and continue to allow Flowers to grow, their best path forward could be to start Dunbar and Griffin on the outside in base, before Dunbar slides inside to make way for Flowers in sub packages.
Stephens, a UDFA following the 2018 NFL Draft, spent time on the Seahawks’ practice squad in 2019 before being poached by the Dolphins in December. After Miami waived him in April, Seattle brought him back into the fold. In his combine presser, Schneider mentioned Stephens as someone expected to take part in the nickel competition.
Measuring in at 6’ and 192 pounds with just 29 1/4” arms, Stephens is one of the few untested corners on the roster who doesn’t fit the standard profile of a Seahawks’ corner. However, he also lacks any elite athletic traits, testing fairly average in every area at his Cincinnati pro day in 2018.
Despite having put together little film in the NFL and possessing an uninspiring physical profile, he is clearly a name of interest. Seattle liked him enough to hold him on the practice squad and bring him back when the opportunity arose, and the Dolphins were interested enough to poach him and give him a run on their defense to end the season. Now, he’ll get a chance to compete once again with the Seahawks.
The lone rookie listed here also requires some speculation. Norwood, a UDFA out of West Virginia, was announced by the team as a safety when his signing was confirmed earlier in May. However, Norwood started 10 games at cornerback in 2018 before making the switch to safety in 2019 and starting another 10 there. A slight 5’10” and 179 pounds, Norwood is much smaller than a typical safety in Seattle and a move into the slot would make sense.
The former Mountaineer played well above his size on the back end in ‘19 and has the physicality to defend the run from nickel at the level the Seahawks require of their slot corners. In his time at cornerback, Norwood proved to have sound ball skills, breaking up 11 passes in his lone season as a starter.
With plenty of versatility and experience at multiple positions, Norwood is a player who Seattle could try at a few positions early in camp to get a better sense of. In time, don’t be surprised if he enters the equation at nickel.
The incumbent starter, Amadi will presumably have a shot at keeping his spot and growing his role in 2020, having been on the receiving end of multiple Pete Carroll endorsements in the past few months. However, it’s fair to wonder if nickelback is his long-term position.
Amadi entered the NFL with a ton of versatility, having played at outside corner, nickelback, and safety at Oregon. While his size, at 5’9” and 199 pounds with 31 3/4” arms, fits that of a nickel, his athleticism does not. At the Scouting Combine in 2019, Amadi tested poorly with only his short shuttle—excluding the 40-yard dash—topping the 50th percentile (55th), with every other athletic test coming in below the 20th percentile. That severely limited athleticism, in turn, hampers his ability to mirror receivers out of the slot, stick in and out of breaks and close on the football.
Some questions need to be asked about Amadi, both looking back and looking forward. In relation to 2019, one has to wonder why Amadi couldn’t beat out a dreadful Taylor for the job and, once it was his role, why was he not able to force himself onto the field more often? It’s difficult to accept “Pete Carroll’s stubbornness” as an answer for either question. Moving forward, with several alternative options for nickel on the roster and very few safeties, there’s the question of whether Amadi is moved back to safety in 2020 and beyond. Both the player’s profile and the roster construction could lead one to believe that’s the logical conclusion.
Amadi will certainly be a part of the mix at nickel once training camp opens, but if he is unable to grab hold of the position, a position switch could be in his future.
One of the more interesting options for the Seahawks’ nickelback spot would be to frequently utilize big nickel packages. After toiling with some shoddy safety play in recent years, Seattle has a wonderful problem: three good players for two spots.
Quandre Diggs is locked in as Carroll’s centerfield-playing free safety, after taking to the position with total ease during the second half of 2019. The entire defense benefited from Diggs’ presence, but Bradley McDougald in particular was a new player with Diggs behind him. McDougald and Carroll both, on multiple occasions, spoke of the renewed confidence Diggs gave him and it showed. That duo should again man the back end of the Seahawks’ defense in 2020, but that forces the question of what it means for Marquise Blair.
A second-round pick a year ago, Blair flashed in his brief action last year and should be ready to play full-time as a sophomore. However, he’ll be hard-pressed to beat out McDougald. An answer could be to feature big nickel packages, with McDougald moving into the slot and Blair taking over at strong safety. McDougald has previous experience defending the slot, having done so in Tampa Bay with some regularity, and matches up well against tight ends and most slot receivers. It wouldn’t likely be a permanent solution, but in the short-term, the use of big nickel could allow Seattle to get their most talented defensive backs on the field at the same time.
(A related aside: This idea that the Seahawks could move Diggs away from free safety to play nickel in sub packages must stop. It’s insanity. Seattle should not and will not willingly take the backbone of their defense away from his best position to fill another spot he previously floundered at when they have other options at said position. For the better part of a decade, the Seahawks’ defense was horrendous without Earl Thomas at free safety. They finally found a successor, and some want to willingly move Diggs? Utter nonsense.)
The final strong possibility for Seattle’s nickel is that they are not yet on the roster. The Seahawks have the cap flexibility to make moves above the veteran minimum, and would have two noteworthy options should they choose to make a splash at nickel.
Two months after agreeing to a three-year, $13.5 million deal with the Jaguars, Darqueze Dennard remains a free agent after Jacksonville and the former Bengal could not agree on final terms of the contract. After six seasons of predominately playing the slot in Cincinnati, Dennard was eager to get a shot on the outside with the Jags.
Dennard’s desire to play on the outside could be a stopping point in any interest between the former first-round pick and Seattle, but as the offseason drags on he may be more open to different situations. Dennard was largely solid during his time with the Bengals and is coming off a season that saw him allow a career-low 38.7 completion percentage in coverage in nine games. A deal for Dennard would come in below $4 million per year and offer the Seahawks a stop-gap solution at nickel.
A similarly short-term solution would be former Patriot and Titan Logan Ryan. One of the more noteworthy players still on the market, the reason for Ryan’s unemployment could also be reason enough for Seattle to pass on him. Ryan is reportedly seeking more than $10 million per year. A deal between the Seahawks and Ryan would surely take the team out of the running for Jadeveon Clowney, but even that non-starter aside, he simply isn’t worth the money. Per Pro Football Focus, Ryan allowed the most receptions (80), yards (940) and yards after the catch (426) among all cornerbacks in the league in 2019; in the slot, it was the same story—most catches (68), yards (758) and yards after the catch (356) allowed. Not only would Ryan be an expensive answer, but he may also not be a good answer at all.
With training camp and preseason just a couple months away, Seattle is not short on options to fill a position that gave the team, fans and observers fits a year ago. Whether it’s as simple as letting a competition play out, getting creative with multiple players, or looking towards free agency, the Seahawks can find an answer to their slot woes in 2020.