RENTON — He had all the qualities coach Pete Carroll covets in a cornerback: the height, the long arms, the speed, the aggressive instincts. He had a familiar story, too: a raw fifth-round draft pick asked to switch positions and play a premier spot on the Seahawks defense.
Alas, Tre Flowers never became the cornerstone piece perhaps Carroll envisioned he could be when the Seahawks selected him in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, seven years after Seattle had taken Richard Sherman in the fifth round.
And though it was never fair to have expected Tre Flowers to blossom into the next Richard Sherman, Flowers’ fall from the lineup — and subsequent release this month — is the latest, and most glaring, example of the Seahawks’ inability to develop steady production at cornerback in the post-Sherman years.
“I love that kid,” Carroll said Oct. 13, a day after Flowers was cut. “I’ve been working with him as close as anybody I’ve worked with since I’ve been here.”
Since Sherman’s departure after the 2017 season, the best cornerback the Seahawks have drafted and developed, Shaquill Griffin, is now playing for their opponent this weekend, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Seahawks did not make a serious attempt to sign Griffin when he became a free agent last offseason, according to a team source, believing his price tag was too rich. He wound up signing a deal with the Jaguars worth $44.5 million over three years, making him one of the NFL’s highest-paid cornerbacks.
Griffin had succeeded Sherman at left cornerback, and to find Griffin’s successor the Seahawks cast a wide net.
They opened training camp this summer with 11 cornerbacks and an open competition for the two starting jobs.
By the end of training camp, the cornerback situation was more chaotic than ever during the Carroll era. The position has been revolving door since.
The backdrop to all this, of course, is the Legion of Boom, so dominant and so consistent for so long. Fair or not, Carroll’s defense — and the Seahawks cornerbacks, in particular — carry the weight of the LOB standard.
The numbers this season are grim. The Seahawks have the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense and 27th-ranked pass defense. They have just two interceptions — both by safety Quandre Diggs — and none by a cornerback since Week 14 of the 2020 season.
“The Seahawks are paying the price for an erosion of talent on their defense in recent seasons,” Pro Football Focus wrote this week. “Poor drafting and questionable trade decisions have left them with few true impact playmakers and plenty of players who don’t seem to be able to make a difference overall.”
A shifting philosophy?
Griffin and Flowers were the Seahawks’ regular starters at outside corner in the three seasons after Sherman left. They knew they had embarked on an ambitious project when they drafted Flowers — a safety in college — and shifted him to right cornerback.
Flowers had an unexpected ally in his efforts to become a viable starting cornerback — Sherman himself. Even after Sherman joined the rival 49ers, Flowers said Sherman went out of his way to help him with nuances of cornerback play. During an interview in the Seahawks locker room early in the 2019 season, Flowers showed a reporter his phone, scrolling through a half-dozen lengthy messages from Sherman.
“He’s always been good to me,” Flowers said then.
Flowers started 40 games for the Seahawks and was the subject of some of the most heated backlash from fans the last few seasons. He wound up losing his job midway through the 2020 season. He regained a starting job during training camp this summer, only to lose it again after three games — and one particularly poor defensive game in the loss at Minnesota.
Flowers was released Oct. 12 and claimed on waivers by Cincinnati that week.
“I think it was time for a change for him as well,” Carroll said then.
Over the past two weeks, the Seahawks secondary has looked uncharacteristically small.
D.J. Reed has been their most consistent cornerback, starting all seven games this season and drawing strong reviews from Carroll. Reed is 5 feet 9 and 193 pounds.
Rookie Tre Brown, slowed by a knee injury early in the season, made his debut against Pittsburgh on Oct. 17 and has been splitting time with Sidney Jones at left cornerback. Brown is 5-10 and 185 pounds.
Much has been written over the years about Carroll’s archetype for a cornerback — the 32-inch arms, the height, the speed. But given Reed’s strong play going back to last season, and the drafting of Brown in the fourth round, has Carroll tweaked his philosophy some?
Carroll was quick to point out that he was the coach of the New York Jets in 1994 when they drafted 5-9 cornerback Aaron Glenn in the first round. Glenn played 15 seasons in the NFL and earned three Pro Bowl nods.
“It’s the player,” Carroll said. “It’s his style and how he plays the game. Yeah, there’s a preference (for length and size). … I know how I like it to be, because I think it’s harder on the offense … but I think you have to be open to all the guys and see what you get. We’ve shot hard to find long, tall, fast guys, you know. And Sherman was a great example of that.”
Turning a corner?
The Seahawks hope they found something — a new cornerstone, maybe? — in Brown, the former Oklahoma standout. In his second NFL game, Brown earned more playing time Monday night against New Orleans. He played 50 snaps; Jones played 23.
It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but Brown appears to have the kind of aggressiveness and instincts (not to mention the 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash) that Carroll covets in his corners.
“Tre continues to show that he’s really comfortable,” Carroll said this week. “I just can’t get him in many situations that he isn’t in command of. I’m really fired up about his play.”
Reed’s play has steadily improved since he switched back to the right side — his more natural position — after three games.
“Look at what D.J.’s doing. D.J. is playing great football for us,” Carroll said.
After a historically bad start to the season (again), the Seahawks’ defense generally has taken encouraging steps the past two games. Granted, Pittsburgh and New Orleans have subpar offenses — save your real assessment of this defense until after the Seahawks play Green Bay and Arizona in back-to-back weeks next month — but improvement is improvement.
The Jaguars, behind rookie QB Trevor Lawrence, should present another opportunity for the Seahawks’ defense to get healthy Sunday at home.
Has this defense legitimately turned a corner? Time will tell. But judging by its cornerbacks, at least, there seems to be some hope that is indeed the case.
Seattle Times reporter Bob Condotta contributed to this report.