RENTON — When the Seahawks take the field Sunday night in Pittsburgh to play the Steelers, at least one of the team’s prospective starting corners when training camp began will be on the sideline.
Only, Ahkello Witherspoon, who started Seattle’s first two preseason games, won’t be on the visiting side. Instead, the man whom Seattle signed to a one-year contract worth $4 million will be with the rest of his Pittsburgh teammates on the home sideline.
Witherspoon started those Seattle preseason games on the left side with Tre Flowers on the right.
Flowers is also no longer a Seahawk, waived by Seattle on Wednesday following his benching two weeks ago.
Coach Pete Carroll denied a report that Flowers asked to be waived, saying instead he merely thought it was time for a change for a player who had started 40 games for Seattle since being taken in the fifth round of the draft in 2018.
“He never said anything like that to me, ever,” Carroll said. “I think it was time for a change for him, as well as he had a couple of guys that are getting some playtime ahead of him. … It just was his time to go on.”
It was a tough decision for Carroll, though, as he acknowledged Wednesday that Flowers was something of a pet project when the team drafted him out of Oklahoma State. It was Carroll who saw the 6-3, 203-pounder playing safety for OSU and thought he could make the transition to corner, with his size and length often drawing comparisons to Richard Sherman, whom the team had released just a few weeks earlier.
“I love that kid, and I’ve been working with him as close as anybody I’ve worked with since I’ve been here,” Carroll said. “And I feel better for him to get out of here and get going again. There’s a lot of teams that need corners, and I hope he gets a great shot.”
Flowers was a full-time starter in 2018 and 2019 and had his best statistical regular season in 2019, allowing a passer rating of just 72.5, according to Pro Football Reference (in context, Seattle’s allowed passer rating as a team that year was 85.6). But rough performances in two playoff games helped lead to Seattle trading for Quinton Dunbar in the offseason and Flowers losing his job in 2020.
He got it back this year with a strong training camp performance that had Carroll saying in September that Flowers was “the best he’s been.”
But in three starts this year, Flowers allowed a career-high passer rating of 132.0, via PFR, with 13 completions on 17 targets for 190 yards and a touchdown and was benched two weeks ago when Seattle decided to insert Sidney Jones IV in the lineup.
Asked about his high hopes for Flowers entering the season and why they didn’t pan out, Carroll said: “He had really exceeded a little of the expectations. He came back better and really effective and aggressive and all of that. And in my opinion, it just didn’t stay as much as we had hoped. And so we gave it a great shot at it and he did everything he could with it. … He’s a really good technician. He’s got to finish the plays and make the plays and then come back when you don’t.”
That Flowers had come on, and D.J. Reed had returned to health, helped lead to the decision to trade Witherspoon to the Steelers for a 2023 fifth-round pick. When Witherspoon signed last March, he was immediately slotted in as the starter on the left side, where Shaquill Griffin had played the last three years before departing via free agency to Jacksonville.
Now, just six games into the season, neither Flowers nor Witherspoon is a Seahawk, instead serving as the most vivid symbols of how awry Seattle’s cornerback plan has gone this season.
Witherspoon counts as $1.25 million in dead money both this year and next — the second-most for this season and the most at the moment for next year.
He’s so far done little in Pittsburgh playing just four snaps (in Game Two against the Raiders), with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Wednesday noting it’s difficult to join a new team right as the season is beginning.
“He’s kind of gotten on a moving train,” Tomlin said. “But he’s a sharp guy and a quick study. … We’re glad we’ve got him here. He’s providing quality, veteran depth and we know that he’s capable when called upon.”
The waiving of Flowers will save roughly the dead cap hit for Witherspoon — $1.576 million.
Despite having now gotten rid of the two highest-paid corners on the team entering the season, Seattle’s cornerback spot remains in flux.
Reed moved back to the right side two weeks ago and has allowed his two lowest passer ratings of the season.
But Jones has statistically been no better than Flowers (though also playing on the typically more challenging left side), allowing 13 completions on 17 targets for 167 yards and a rating of 126.3, according to PFR.
But Carroll said he thought Jones showed improvement against the Rams game from his first start against the 49ers.
“He knocked off some rust,” Carroll said. “There were some things that he saw last week (against the 49ers) that he did better this week.”
Still, Carroll said more change could still come.
Seattle is likely to activate rookie Tre Brown off IR to take the spot of Flowers on the 53-man roster — Brown returned to practice last week but got little work with the Seahawks playing Thursday.
“He’s full go and ready to go,” Carroll said of the fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, who has not played since the preseason because of a knee injury.
Brown played on the left side in camp, and Carroll said he was “right at the verge of competing to be on playtime” before his knee acted up.
Carroll deflected a question of whether Brown is still on the left side. And with Reed on the right side, leaving Brown on the left side would raise the question of whether Carroll would really be comfortable starting two corners who stand 5-10 or shorter. But the left side is where Brown had been playing, and with Reed seeming to have solidified the right side, it would also seem that’s where he’d have a quicker shot to playing time.
Carroll said he talked to Brown on Wednesday and reminded him of the opportunity he now has.
“Like I said to him today, ‘Let’s pick up where you left off and show us that you’ve got your stuff together, and let’s see where that leads you,’” Carroll said. “So he’ll be battling.”
As are the Seahawks, as midseason approaches still searching for the right combo at corner.