Eventually, the Seahawks will have some tough choices to make when it comes to a deep and talented group of cornerbacks, both in terms of who will start and also who will make the 53-man roster.
The unfortunate reality of the NFL is that not everyone in camp now will make the team or win a starting job, but with fierce competition going on at that position group, everyone should benefit.
“I tell the coaches every time, they’re creating monsters,” said cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who is heading into his second season with the Seahawks. “You can’t keep all these monsters, but you’re creating them. We’re just stacking them up, and let the chips fall where they may, baby.”
Thorpe is currently in the middle of one of the more intriguing competitions of training camp, battling with the likes of Jeremy Lane and rookie Shaquill Griffin for the starting job at right cornerback. Last year’s starter, DeShawn Shead, figures to factor into that competition at some point this season, but he is currently sidelined while recovering from knee surgery.
Four days into camp, Lane has been the cornerback opposite Richard Sherman in Seattle’s No. 1 base defense, with Thorpe usually coming in as the third corner when the Seahawks play nickel defense. In those situations, Thorpe is outside at right corner with Lane sliding into the slot where he played last season. Though it is worth remembering that it’s still really, really early in the competition, especially for a rookie like Griffin who is just now getting a chance to show what he can do when practices get more physical.
“It’s going to be four or five weeks before we know,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the cornerback competition.
One thing that is pretty clear early on, however, is that Lane is going to be tough to unseat. A sixth-round pick in 2012, Lane has taken on a bigger role on defense the past three seasons after initially making his mark on special teams, and he came back a different player in Carroll’s eyes.
“Jeremy Lane had a fantastic offseason,” Carroll said. “He made a big shift in his mentality and his approach. He is so serious, he studied so much. He has applied himself in his conditioning work, his strength work, his focus on the field. He has been fantastic. You ask anyone in the program and they will tell you Jeremy Lane is on fire right now. I think he sees the opportunity and he wants to go for it and he wants to own it and we couldn’t ask for more. He is off to a great start and he looks fantastic.
“He sees things differently. He is looking at the world a little different. He has just continued to grow up. When you stick with guys, you see this happen all the time, all of our guys have gone through it and thankfully for him and for all of us that he is ready to bring his very best right now.”
Lane isn’t sure how much more mature he is, but he definitely agrees with his coach that he is better, physically.
“Mature wise, I don’t know, but body-wise, I think I’m stronger and faster this year,” he said. “I’m as big as I’ve ever been, like 197 right now, biggest I’ve ever been, strongest I’ve ever been. I’m feeling good, confidence is through the roof.”
One reason Lane feels like he’s different, physically, is that he is further removed from the injuries he sustained in Super Bowl XLIX when he broke his arm and tore his ACL on the same interception return. Lane made it back for the second half of the 2015 season and played all of last year, but he didn’t quite feel the same as he does now.
“I feel so much better this year,” Lane said. “Last year was working my way in from that injury, still kind of suspect about everything. But I’m feeling good right now.”
Thorpe, meanwhile, is hoping to join a long list of Seahawks—one that includes both Shead and Lane—who have used a big role on special teams as a platform to earn more playing time on offense or defense. After signing with Seattle last year, Thorpe quickly established himself as one of the team’s best special teams players, and also saw limited time at cornerback due to injuries. Now, he has a chance to take on a big role on defense, even if Lane’s the starter—the Seahawks played nickel for well over half of their snaps last year, so the third corner is essentially a starter.
“I did a couple good things last year, but I want to come back and have an even better year,” Thorpe said. “I’m very excited. A lot of people just pray to get this opportunity, and I don’t want to take it for granted. I’m just trying to go hard every day to show these coaches that I can be a starter.”
Carroll has talked in the past about how special teams play can show a lot to coaches, from athletic ability to toughness to work ethic. Shead, Lane, Jermaine Kearse, Mike Morgan, and most notably, Kam Chancellor, all spent a season or more playing primarily on special teams before earning bigger roles.
“Neiko’s going to get a shot to see where he fits in to in the corner rotations,” Carroll said. “He did some good stuff back at the Raiders and we had a good chance to watch him on film. We had high hopes for him. He’s taken to the technique stuff that we’re doing. He’s a real competitive guy, that’s why he’s so good on special teams. He’s got a good nature about him. Handling the struggles that happen—you gotta bounce back fast—and he’s got a good mentality about that. So he’s right in the middle of competition. He’s working as the third guy, maybe the fourth guy, maybe the second guy. You know he’s got a good chance to show what he can do. It’s going to be another four, five week before we know.
“He’s right in the middle of it. Big strong guy too. Tough and real fast. He showed all of that in the kicking game, we were thrilled with the work he did last year. So this is the next step for him.”