Continuing the revolving door that has been their cornerback position all preseason, the Seahawks traded Ahkello Witherspoon — who began training camp expected to take over as the starter on the left side — to the Steelers.
In return, Seattle will receive a fifth-round draft choice in 2023, the team announced Friday.
Witherspoon, who spent the previous four seasons with the 49ers, signed a one-year deal with Seattle in March worth $4 million guaranteed that included a $2.5 million signing bonus.
Seattle will save $1.5 million against the cap for 2021, Witherspoon’s guaranteed salary for this season. But Seattle will have to eat the signing bonus — $1.25 million in dead money in both 2021 and 2022 (the 2022 season being a void year on his deal).
Witherspoon was signed in the wake of the decision not to try to re-sign Shaquill Griffin, who agreed to a three-year deal with Jacksonville worth up to $40 million. The hope was he could take over for Griffin, who had started on the left side the past three seasons.
According to calculations from OvertheCap.com, the signing of Witherspoon canceled out the signing of Griffin in the formula for compensatory draft picks for 2022. That means, essentially, Seattle also cost itself the potential fourth-round pick in 2022 it could have gotten for the loss of Griffin by signing Witherspoon, who it has now traded without playing a regular-season game.
While Witherspoon was signed with the expectation he’d take over the starting spot on the left side — viewed as the most important cornerback spot in Seattle’s defense — coach Pete Carroll never outright declared that the job was his as several other cornerbacks also took turns starting at left corner in the preseason.
And this week, the Seahawks moved D.J. Reed from right cornerback to left, further indicating that Witherspoon’s hold on the job was shaky, if nonexistent.
Reed was the starting right cornerback going into camp. But Tre Flowers took over that job after Reed missed much of camp due to a hip injury.
And while Carroll stopped short Wednesday of publicly confirming Flowers will start on the right side, he praised the way Flowers has played in camp in his fourth season with the team.
“His consistency and really just making plays,” Carroll said. “He made plays all camp. All kinds of stuff. In zone and man-to-man, he’s much more comfortable making plays on the ball which was great to see.”
Indicating the uncertainty of the overall position, the Seahawks have added three cornerbacks in the past five days — former Husky Sidney Jones and Nigel Warrior to the 53-man roster and Michael Jackson, a fifth-round choice of the Cowboys in 2019, to the practice squad.
Jones, in particular, could now factor into the Witherspoon-less competition on the left side.
Jones, a second-round selection of the Eagles in 2017, was acquired Monday in a trade with Jacksonville for a sixth-round pick in 2022. And while he can play either side and also the nickel, the trade of Witherspoon indicates he’s now going to concentrate on the left.
Warrior, a rookie, spent camp with Baltimore before being waived. A college safety, Warrior will be used as a cornerback by the Seahawks.
Jackson, who has played in two NFL games and was in camp with the Patriots before being waived, joined the practice squad Thursday.
Last week, Seattle traded for cornerback John Reid of Houston. Reid played left cornerback in Seattle’s final preseason game before being waived Tuesday and then re-signed to the practice squad.
Seattle also has rookie Tre Brown, a fourth-round choice out of Oklahoma this year. Brown played left cornerback in camp but has been dealing with a sore knee.
Wednesday, Carroll said Brown was making a legitimate run at the starting job on the left side before he was injured, which further indicated how shaky Witherspoon’s hold on the job had been.
“Unfortunately for him, had he been in the mix, he could have been right at the front of this competition because he had a shot to do that,” Carroll said. “I was open-minded about that if it was going to happen. Unfortunately, he got set back.”
Carroll said it remains unclear when Brown will return, adding, “it’s going to be OK. We aren’t sure when.”
Witherspoon becomes the latest veteran cornerback to be acquired by the Seahawks amid some fanfare only to see their Seattle career end quickly and ignominiously.
Seattle signed Cary Williams to a three-year deal worth up to $18 million in 2015 in the wake of the free-agent departure of Bryon Maxwell. But Williams lasted just 11 games before he was released, with Seattle forced to eat $7 million in guaranteed money.
Seattle traded a fifth-round choice a year ago for Quinton Dunbar, hoping he could take over the right side. But Dunbar dealt with a knee injury and was in and out of the lineup, ultimately playing only six games. He was not re-signed at the end of the season. Dunbar signed with Detroit but was released last month.
This year, Seattle also re-signed veteran cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Damarious Randall and gave each a shot at winning a starting job — Randall was the official starter on the left side for the final preseason game.
But Desir was cut after the second preseason game, and Randall was released in the cutdown to 53. Randall was not re-signed to the practice squad.
Wednesday, Carroll hinted that the Seahawks were not done making moves at the cornerback spot, saying, “You’ll see a couple of other things that happen there too.”
So the Witherspoon trade might not be the last move the Seahawks make to solve the riddle of what has been their most unsettled position so far this season.