Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) celebrates a stop of Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) during the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Nov. 30, 2023. The Cowboys won, 41-35. (Tom Fox / Tribune News Service)

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) celebrates a stop of Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) during the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Nov. 30, 2023. The Cowboys won, 41-35. (Tom Fox / Tribune News Service)

Captain of the Seahawks defense? Why it could be Witherspoon

The talented second-year cornerback brought ‘outrageous energy’ to Seattle’s minicamp.

  • Matt Calkins, The Seattle Times
  • Thursday, June 13, 2024 3:00pm
  • SportsSeahawks

RENTON — It’s minicamp, which is kind of like training camp, OTAs or the final day of the draft in that outlooks are sunnier than a San Diego summer.

A championship is the goal, having the best offense in the league is an aspiration, and team chemistry is so potent that Walter White would blush.

This is the kind of talk you’ll hear from Seahawks players every year around this time, and though there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just talk. But if you’re less about words and just ‘bout that action, boss, here’s something much different from last June: Devon Witherspoon is practicing.

The Pro Bowl cornerback sat out last year’s minicamp due to a hamstring injury. Granted, it’s just a few days at the end of spring, but it was a bit of a letdown given that “Spoon” was the highest draft pick (No. 5 overall) the Seattle Seahawks have had since 2009.

The Illinois product still went on to finish fourth in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but perhaps more votes would have come his way if he had played 17 games and not 14. Witherspoon didn’t lament his placing during his news conference Wednesday — he doesn’t seem the type to dwell on accolades — but he acknowledged his disappointment having to sit out those 12 quarters.

“I wanted to play all game and the whole season. I missed a couple games last year, so I’m trying to make sure I get through the whole season healthy,” Witherspoon said. “And then I’m just really trying to build on my year, like, I left a lot of things and plays out there on the table that I wished I had back. So I’m trying to make those plays this year.”

Pro athletes are pretty merciless when it comes to self-evaluations. A golfer can shoot a 59 and gripe about a putt he misread, just as a point guard can drop 20 assists and bemoan the two turnovers.

The point: There didn’t seem to be an abundance of missed plays from Devon last year. His Pro Football Focus grade of 84.1 was the best among all rookie cornerbacks and tied for sixth among all corners. That Pro Bowl selection was not solely based on those heat-seeking highlights in which he laid out receivers as if it were the 1970s.

Yes, the power he packs at 6 feet and 185 pounds is a physics phenomenon. But his pass-rush ability and coverage against the pass and run are a trifecta that makes Seahawks general manager John Schneider look quite wise for selecting him.

Still, there is plenty of room for improvement, which is hardly guaranteed for a second-year player in any sport. Just look at Kraken center Matty Beniers, who went from NHL Rookie of the Year in 2023 to a study in mediocrity last season.

So what’s different about Devon right now? Here’s an observation from a fellow second-year Seahawk.

“I think he’s been doing an awesome job. Just more vocal, you know, I mean, to me he looks like the captain of the defense, making sure everybody’s lined up and just using his voice more,” said receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who was picked 20th overall in the 2023 draft. “So just definitely excited to watch him take the steps, you know, physically, he’s getting bigger, he’s getting faster, and just more comfortable, being smart and plays extremely fast.”

It’s not often you hear about a second-year player described as the “captain of the defense.” But given how Bobby Wagner is gone, and that the boisterous Witherspoon was the team’s best defensive player last season, it might not be so far-fetched.

Defensive end Leonard Williams, whom the Seahawks signed to a three-year, $64.5 million extension this offseason, called Spoon “rowdy” in the most affectionate way. He added that Devon’s mentality reminded him of a defensive lineman’s, saying corners are usually quieter (although Richard Sherman and Deion Sanders might have something to say about that).

“I mean, when I got traded here in the middle of the season last year, I was just like, ‘Dang, who is this guy?’ Because he does have like, you know, just very like outrageous energy and in a great way,” Williams said. “This guy wants to get his face in there and get dirty, and I love seeing that in the secondary.”

Witherspoon said Wednesday that he doesn’t care about individual honors going forward — that he sees goals like that as “a limit.” He’s fine with everyone else on the squad getting recognition. He just wants to play — as much as possible and as well as possible.

There has been an influx of optimism toward this Seahawks defense since Mike Macdonald took over as coach. Having their most talented defensive player healthy only adds to that.

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