The Seattle Seahawks‘ cornerback situation looks much different than it did a week ago.
But the question with that group is the same heading into Sunday’s regular-season opener as it was before training camp — is it good enough? Because it remains to be seen how much better they are now after all those changes.
To recap the reshuffling: the Seahawks acquired Jones in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars before cutting Randall, John Reid and two other cornerbacks while setting their initial 53-man roster. Then they traded Witherspoon to the Pittsburgh Steelers, deeming him expendable once he went from the presumed starter on the left side to a backup.
They essentially swapped out Witherspoon for Jones when you take into account the player profiles and details of those trades. The 2022 sixth-round pick they gave Jacksonville is roughly equal in value to the 2023 fifth-rounder they got from Pittsburgh. Witherspoon’s departure saves them $1.5 million in 2021 cap space and cash, which is what they’ll owe Jones.
While the Seahawks prefer the guy they just traded for, how much of an upgrade can they expect Jones (who was projected as a backup in Jacksonville) to be over Witherspoon (whom they signed to be their starter)?
Austin is an intriguing addition. He spent all summer taking first-team reps with the New York Jets and was expected to resume the starting role he held for parts of his first two seasons. That made it a surprise when the Jets waived him last week.
He should be familiar with Seattle’s scheme given that Jets coach Robert Saleh runs a version of Pete Carroll’s defense. He looks like a big Seahawks corner (6-foot-1, 198 pounds). He doesn’t have great speed but has all the confidence you want at a position that requires a short memory.
“I’m the real deal,” Austin said earlier this offseason. “It ain’t no secret in that. Click the tape and press play. Of course I made mistakes, but there’s also a lot of plays on that field that other corners in this league aren’t making.”
Then again, Austin was cut from a team that isn’t loaded at cornerback either, and it wasn’t financially motivated given that he was making relatively little as a 2019 sixth-round pick. Interestingly, Austin didn’t play in one of the Jets’ preseason games because of what was described as a “personal reason,’ yet he was still on the sideline. He went unclaimed after being waived.
Carroll pointed to Tre Flowers‘ strong summer as the reason for Reed’s move from the right side, where they had been competing to start. Clearly, Witherspoon’s inconsistent play factored as well. Reed missed time with a hip strain, which gave Flowers more chances to showcase the growth he’s made from Year 3 to 4.
“He knew he was up against it,” Carroll said of Flowers. “He was battling D.J., who had kind of taken his spot last year, and D.J. being kind of banged up gave him an opportunity to really show and he took advantage of it. I love the way D.J. plays. He’s really aggressive, he’s really heady, he’s a good tackler and just a really good ballplayer. He can play either side, wherever we need him, and he played both last year.
“I haven’t had Tre play much on the other side and didn’t want to move him. That’s really how that came about.”
Reed and Flowers are now the likely starters, though Flowers’ hold seems tenuous with the new guys breathing down his neck. In addition to signing Austin, the Seahawks promoted Reid from their practice squad Tuesday while placing rookie fourth-round pick Tre Brown and recent waiver pickup Nigel Warrior on Injured Reserve. They’re eligible to return after three games. Seattle has Michael Jackson and Gavin Heslop on its practice squad.
“These guys are still up against it, they still have guys coming in battling for spots now,” Carroll said last week, before Austin was signed. “Sidney is not coming in here to stand around. He wants to play. In time, when we get him adapted to what we’re doing and all of that, then he’ll be battling too, and you’ll see Nigel and you’ll see a couple of other things that happen here too.”
The Seahawks’ cornerback depth looks solid. They have enough experience among their top four of Flowers (37 career starts), Reed (10), Jones (14) and Austin (16). But if they were sure things to be above-average starters this season, they wouldn’t have had to compete for starting jobs or have been cut or traded.
Austin is known for his physicality and willingness to tackle, unlike Witherspoon. One NFL talent evaluator described Jones as tough and instinctive. So the Seahawks’ newest corners might be an upgrade in the toughness department.
That doesn’t make them Stephon Gilmore, the offseason pipe dream of Seahawks fans. The New England Patriots put Gilmore on the Physically Unable to Perform list, so he won’t be helping anyone’s cornerback situation for at least the first six games. The Seahawks met with Richard Sherman before his July arrest to discuss a possible reunion, though it’s not clear how likely that would have been even before his personal troubles. He’s also 33 with injury concerns.
Without a Pro Bowl-caliber player like Gilmore, LOB-era Sherman or even Shaquill Griffin, the Seahawks could be susceptible against the strong receiver corps (Tennessee’s A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, the Rams’ Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) and master play-callers (Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay) they’ll face over the first month of the season.
The good news? If the Seahawks’ pass rush is as strong as it looks on paper, that would take some pressure off the corners. A Pro Bowl safety duo of Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs as well as a strong tandem at nickelback with Marquise Blair and Ugo Amadi could also help cover for deficiencies on the perimeter. So could Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme.
And you can never rule out the possibility of general manager John Schneider making an impact addition at cornerback closer to the trade deadline.
Without one, will they have enough?
— Information from ESPN’s Rich Cimini was included in this story.