Seattle Seahawks cornerbacks have combined for only six interceptions over the past two seasons, a steep drop-off from when their defense was at its Legion of Boom best.
From 2012 to 2016 -- a five-season stretch in which Seattle won a Super Bowl, reached another one and never finished worse than fifth in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA ratings (defense-adjusted value over average) -- Seahawks cornerbacks (including nickelbacks) combined to pick off 44 passes, an average of almost nine per season. Richard Sherman alone had a league-high 26 interceptions in that span, an average of over five per year.
The Seahawks don't need any of their cornerbacks to be the next Sherman nor should anyone be held to the standard of a surefire Hall of Famer. But they do need steadier play opposite Shaquill Griffin and more takeaways from that position group as a whole.
They believe Quinton Dunbar can give them both.
Not that Dunbar's ball skills were the only reason the Seahawks gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire him in a trade with the Washington Redskins last month. They also were drawn to his competitive makeup, instincts, toughness and physicality (though the latter might have contributed to the injuries that sidelined him for 14 games over the past two seasons). They like his study habits, his ability to play in the slot and how quickly he made the transition from wide receiver in his first NFL offseason. At 6-foot-2 with long arms and 4.4-range speed, he fits the Seahawks' specs for an outside cornerback.
But Dunbar's ball skills might be the biggest difference between him and Tre Flowers, the guy he is in line to replace on the right side. To hear scouts describe what Flowers struggled with most in 2019, it wasn't so much staying on top of receivers downfield as it was finishing plays. Flowers would panic at the last second and get grabby, even when he was in position to make a play on the ball.
That's what happened on both of his pass interference penalties in Seattle's playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles, part of a forgettable finish to his up-and-down second NFL season. Flowers' five DPI penalties in the regular season were tied with three others for the most among cornerbacks, according to ESPN charting.
Dunbar, on the other hand, has what one talent evaluator described as a "receiver's mentality" to locate the ball, time his jump, go up and get it. He has nine interceptions in five seasons, including four last year and two in 2018, when he became a full-time starter.
The flop that was Cary Williams' free-agent addition in 2015 has become a cautionary tale -- perhaps a slightly overblown one -- about the adjustment veteran cornerbacks face when joining Seattle's defense. Williams admitted that summer to having trouble picking up the step-kick technique that coach Pete Carroll has his cornerbacks use in press coverage, which entails footwork that is foreign to many. Carroll cited that difficulty when explaining why the Seahawks released Williams 12 games into a three-year, $18 million deal.
It's probably not a coincidence that the majority of the cornerbacks who have thrived in Carroll's Seahawks defense have been homegrown. But any notion that a veteran is bound to struggle with Seattle ignores how some -- most notably Brandon Browner -- successfully made the adjustment. Plus, Williams was older than 30 and on the last legs of his career by the time he joined the Seahawks.
As another talent evaluator put it well before the Dunbar trade, a veteran cornerback can make the adjustment with Seattle as long as he is sufficiently engaged. With Dunbar entering the final year of a contract that will pay him up to $3.5 million in 2020, he has plenty of incentive to buy in.
Expect Carroll, who cut his teeth as a defensive backs coach, to work hands-on with Dunbar this offseason the way he did when Flowers was transitioning from safety as a rookie in 2018.
It would make sense for the Seahawks to see how Dunbar fits into their defense and adjusts to their style of play before making a long-term commitment. That could set up a scenario in which both of Seattle's starting cornerbacks hit free agency at the same time, with Griffin entering the final year of his rookie contract, though the Seahawks could extend him.
As for Flowers, he still has two years left on his rookie deal and might still have a significant role in 2020. One possibility is for Flowers to serve as the No. 3 cornerback who enters the game in nickel situations and pushes Dunbar into the slot, where he was used at times with Washington. Ugo Amadi finished his rookie season as the Seahawks' nickelback, and he will again be in the mix for that job, just as the Seahawks will let Flowers compete to keep his every-down role at right cornerback.
The Seahawks haven't given up on Flowers. While it was clear that they needed someone to at least compete with him, Flowers was passable in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus data, he allowed a lower passer rating (82.6) when he was the nearest defender in coverage than Griffin (96.3), who made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. Flowers had all three of Seattle's cornerback interceptions.
The Seahawks believe Flowers still has lots of room to grow as he enters his third season as a corner.
They believe the same about Dunbar, who is still relatively new to the position himself.
"He's far from a finished product," one of the evaluators said. "And as good as Pete is with DBs, he'll get even better."