Ahead of the Seahawks’ first year in a decade without either Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor, some issues at safety should have been expected.
Predictably, there were issues.
A season that began with Tedric Thompson at free safety and Bradley McDougald at strong safety endured five more lineup changes along the way before ending with a tandem of McDougald and Quandre Diggs. The latter was acquired in a trade with Detroit in October, seemingly an admission that some of the young players the Seahawks had hoped would make a seamless transition from the Legion of Boom era weren’t quite ready.
The Diggs trade, though, helped solidify things once he recovered from an injury he had with Detroit (and then again after suffering another injury with the Seahawks in December).
His presence means Seattle may have a pretty set situation at safety entering the 2020 offseason. Diggs and McDougald are under contract for 2020, as are each of the younger players (Marquise Blair, Lano Hill and Thompson), who each got at least three starts in 2020.
Put them all together and they account for a position spending of just over $16 million, the seventh-most in the NFL, and the highest rating of spending on any position for Seattle other than quarterback, according to OvertheCap.com.
As we continue our review of the Seahawks position groups entering the offseason, let’s take a closer look at the safety spot.
Snaps played in regular season: 941.
Contract situation: Has one year left on a three-year contract signed before the 2018 season, due to make a base salary of $3.6 million in 2020 with a cap hit of $5.4 million, and dead money of $1.333 million.
2019 number to know: Had vastly improved pass defense numbers in 2019, according to Pro Football Reference, allowing a passer rating of just 58.8 when targeted compared to 110.1 in 2018.
Snaps played in regular season: 313.
Contract situation: Has two years left on contract he initially signed while with Detroit, due to make a $5 million base salary in 2020 with a cap hit of $5.2 million.
2019 number to know: Allowed just a 55.4 passer rating in five regular-season games with Seahawks but missed six tackles in 27 opportunities, according to PFR.
Snaps played in regular season: 300.
Contract situation: One year remaining on original four-year rookie deal.
2019 number to know: Missed five tackles in 28 attempts, according to PFR, in four regular-season starts.
Snaps played in regular season: 230.
Contract situation: Three years left on four-year rookie deal.
2019 number to know: Allowed a passer rating of 126.6 on 17 targets, according to PFR, including two touchdowns, in three regular-season starts.
Snaps played in regular season: 387.
Contract situation: Has one year left on original four-year rookie contract. Due to a performance escalator clause, is due to make $2.1 million in base salary in 2020 with a cap hit of $2.312 million but dead money of just $168,001, according to Spotrac.com.
2019 number to know: Seahawks were 5-1 in his six starts.
Seattle’s defense went from floundering to at least keeping its head above water almost immediately once Diggs entered the lineup against the 49ers on Nov. 11.
In fact, Seattle forced 16 turnovers in the next five games with Diggs starting — half the team’s season total — in going 4-1 in a key stretch of games that assured a playoff spot.
Diggs then sprained his ankle against Carolina but returned for the two playoff games.
After the season, coach Pete Carroll spoke as if the team had found its safety tandem for the foreseeable future.
“We played cleaner with him,” Carroll said. “He helped us in a number of ways. I’ll continue to tell you that he’s helping other guys play well. … When he is in the game with the younger kids, he’s got to control quite a bit more, as opposed to focusing on his play.”
Thompson began the season as the free safety, and while there were highlights, such as his late interception against the Rams, the Seahawks also allowed big plays in uncommon bunches in the early part of the season.
Blair, a second-round pick in 2019, showed lots of potential but also lots of room to grow. Blair remains a key part of the team’s future — and he became one of the best special-teams players down the stretch, impressing coaches with his commitment there — but may still need some time to find his way. Hill got four starts as an injury replacement, and, for now, that may remain his role.
So with McDougald and Diggs apparently set as the starting safety duo in 2020, the only question is whether Seattle wants to add competition or ride with the three younger players again as backups (Hill and Blair were the backups at the end of the season with Thompson recovering from shoulder surgery that ended his campaign midseason).
If the Seahawks want to bring in a veteran free agent to bolster depth in the back end, here’s one thought: Jimmie Ward, a 49ers 2014 first-round pick.
Ward played last season on a one-year deal worth $4.5 million in 2020 and might want more than that.
Seattle might not want to pay that, especially after he made 11 tackles in the Super Bowl. But Ward has played a lot of nickel, and Seattle could see him filling that role, competing at safety and serving as insurance. Ward, though, might balk at not being a sure starter.
Assuming Seattle keeps the McDougald/Diggs tandem, it might have to sign a lower-level veteran as possible insurance or potential competition.
The safety class for the 2020 draft is regarded as good, if not great.
The Seahawks have more urgent needs elsewhere, but given McDougald’s contract status and the position’s importance in their defense, they could well be tempted if two safeties regarded as certain first-rounders — Alabama’s Xavier McKinney and LSU’s Grant Delpit — fell to Seattle’s pick at 27.
Up next: Special teams.