What a wild ride the Seattle Seahawks cornerback position has been the last few years.
Or, really, since the departure of Richard Sherman and the end of the Legion of Boom era of the secondary following the 2017 season.
Since then, seven different players have started at least six games at one of the two outside cornerback spots for the Seahawks, with four others having been tabbed as the primary nickel corner.
But the Seahawks hope the merry-go-round may have finally ended in 2022 with the emergence of young players at all three spots, any one of whom could (and hopefully will) be a foundational piece of the defense for years to come, and specifically standout right corner Tariq Woolen.
As we continue a review of the Seahawks’ position groups heading into the offseason, let’s look more closely at the cornerback spot:
Right cornerback Tariq Woolen
Snaps played in regular season: 1,134
Contract situation: Entering second season of four-year rookie contract due to make a base salary of $870,000
Left cornerback Michael Jackson
Snaps played in regular season: 1,082
Contract situation: Now an exclusive rights free agent
Slot cornerback Coby Bryant
Snaps played in regular season: 756
Contract situation: Entering second season of four-year rookie deal due to make a base salary of $870,000
Left cornerback Tre Brown
Snaps played in regular season: 21
Contract situation: Entering third season of four-year rookie deal, due to make a base salary of $940,000
Slot cornerback Justin Coleman
Snaps played in regular season: 60
Contract situation: Unrestricted free agent
Left cornerback Artie Burns
Snaps played in regular season: 16
Contract situation: Unrestricted free agent
Others on roster: Isaiah Dunn, Chris Steele. Xavier Crawford, who ended the season on Seattle’s roster but saw playing time only on special teams, is now an unrestricted free agent.
It may be easy to forget now that the starting cornerbacks when training camp began were Sidney Jones on the left and Burns on the right with Coleman at nickel.
Seattle had re-signed Jones to a one-year deal worth up to $3.6 million and also then signed veterans Burns and Coleman to fill out the cornerback spot in the wake of the decision not to get into a bidding war for D.J. Reed, who ended up signing a three-year deal worth up to $33 million with the Jets.
But as the snap count numbers above show, the Jones/Burns/Coleman starting trio didn’t last long.
Burns suffered a groin injury early in camp which opened the door for Jackson, who was signed in 2021. Jones, meanwhile, also dealt with injuries in camp — a concussion — which opened the door for Woolen, one of two corners Seattle took in the 2022 draft.
And Coleman suffered a calf injury during practice following the first game of the season against Denver which opened the door for Bryant, the other corner Seattle drafted in 2022 and who had been moved to nickel midway through training camp.
Anyone reading this may not need much reminding what happened next.
Woolen became an immediate sensation and could be named as the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year on Thursday after tying for the league lead in interceptions with six.
Bryant, who was drafted with more fanfare than Woolen after winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football at Cincinnati, made the move to nickel a success and forced four fumbles, tied for third in the NFL.
Jackson might have been the biggest surprise of them all. He’d played just 29 snaps in his previous three seasons before taking over the starting role in 2022.
Things were obviously far from perfect as all three adjusted to being first-time starters — Woolen finished ranked 34th of 118 cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus while Jackson was 84th and Bryant 93rd.
But a year after finishing 31st in the NFL in allowing 265.5 passing yards per game, Seattle finished 17th allowing 217.7 (and allowing more than 265 only four times).
True, some of that might have been due to Seattle’s suddenly lax run defense and teams preferring to attack the Seahawks that way. But that also spoke in itself to the improvements in the team’s secondary play, and especially the corners.
The good news for the Seahawks is that, after all the years of change at cornerback since 2017 — from Sherman and Shaquill Griffin to Tre Flowers and Reed and Quinton Dunbar and Jones (and who can forget the brief Ahkello Witherspoon era?) — nothing has to change at all in 2023.
Woolen and Bryant have three years left on their rookie deals, and no ability to renegotiate those for two more.
And Jackson is an exclusive rights free agent since he has fewer than two accrued seasons. That means all Seattle has to do is give him a one-year, non-guaranteed tender at the league minimum based on his credited seasons (which for Jackson should mean $870,000) which binds him to the team.
The Seahawks also remain high on the long-term potential of Brown, who struggled this season when he returned in November after having suffered a season-ending knee injury in November 2021 in his third career start.
Assuming he gets more comfortable this year, Brown could compete with Jackson for the left corner spot.
The Seahawks also like the potential of Dunn, who was claimed off waivers from the Jets before the season and then played in five games on special teams before suffering a hamstring injury and going on IR.
Seattle signed Steele, a USC alum who spent time last year as a rookie on the practice squads of the Steelers and Dolphins, to the practice squad the last week of the season and then to a futures contact.
The Seahawks will obviously want to fill out the depth at cornerback — a backup nickel seems a necessity unless Coleman returns — but a big move at this spot, unless a player Seattle just can’t resist is somewhere in the draft, doesn’t seem all that likely.
What the Seahawks figure to do is count on improvement from within, especially with Woolen, who for all his vast potential and accomplishments as a rookie also showed that there’s still some learning to do.
That was especially true in the final two games against the 49ers when San Francisco exposed him some in zone coverage, something coach Pete Carroll acknowledged after the season.
“There are so many places, so many areas (where Woolen can get better),” Carroll said. “He has to see things more clearly, see the game better. When he plays coverage outside when he is one-on-one with guys, he’s on his way there. It’s the rest of the game that he has to gain more experience at. He’s just as raw you can get.
“… He’s really best when he is lined up on the guy and covering him. He’s really clear on how that works and that’s when his eyes are tight to what he is looking at. It’s the other stuff, the experience stuff that he is going to grow at, but he had tremendous experiences this year to learn. He’s really curious and anxious and wants to be great. He was really broken up about the game (the wild card playoff loss against the 49ers). He didn’t like his game at all last week. His heart is in the right place to get good. I think the sky is the limit for him for sure.”
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