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Larry Stone: Shaquem Griffin, an inspirational NFL story, might be on the bubble to make the Seahawks roster

Seattle Seahawks' Shaquem Griffin (49) stands with teammates at an NFL football training camp Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Renton, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It was one of the feel-good stories of the sports world last year when the Seahawks drafted Shaquem Griffin in the fifth round out of Central Florida.

It satisfied on multiple levels, reuniting Shaquem with his soul mate twin brother, Shaquill, while giving a deserved NFL opportunity to a player who had excelled in college without his left hand.

It had inspiration and pathos. It had enough heartwarming elements to make the younger Shaquem (younger by less than 2 minutes, technically) the sentimental favorite of fans of all stripes, and the role model for those trying to overcome their own adversity.

It was a made-for-Hollywood true tale that inspired a book, as well as interview requests from around the networks and around the world. It hardly seemed to matter that Shaquem’s season never took off. Inserted as a starter at weakside linebacker in the opener against Denver when K.J. Wright was hurt, Griffin struggled at the unfamiliar position. Other than special teams, where he shined, Shaquem barely saw the field again, playing just nine defensive snaps the rest of the way.

Now the Shaquem Griffin story has taken a new dimension in Year Two. While his ability to play at the sport’s highest level with such a disability is no less inspiring, this year it’s more about production than sentimentality. In fact, Griffin may well be on the bubble for making the Seahawks’ 53-man roster, a circumstance that would severely puncture the fairy-tale nature of the twins’ tale.

But Griffin is determined to forge his way onto the roster and remain embedded in Seattle with Shaquill, a mainstay in the Seahawks’ secondary as their starter at left cornerback – Richard Sherman’s old spot.

How close are the two? On Shaquill’s birthday last month, Shaquem tweeted:

“Happy BDay to my brother, my best friend, my left hand everyone thought I was missing, it’s truly an honor and a blessing to call you my twin.”

Shaquem’s quest has been complicated by an injury that knocked him out of last Friday’s practice. Coach Pete Carroll said a bruised knee suffered in Seattle’s preseason opener against Denver had “kind of flared up a little bit again, so we chilled out today.”

Griffin also didn’t play in last Sunday’s second exhibition game against the Vikings in Minnesota, a big setback for someone with limited time to make his case. It may come down to Griffin or Ben Burr-Kirven, a fifth-round pick in 2019 out of UW, for the final spot at linebacker, a deep and talent-laden position for the Seahawks.

Speaking last Thursday, Griffin had both acknowledged, and embraced, his situation.

“Every day, you’re fighting for a spot,” he said. “Nothing’s given. You wouldn’t want to be at a stop where everything’s given to you anyway, because you’ll get complacent and you won’t want to work as hard. It’s kind of good everyone is out here battling, and everyone gets a fair shot, because that’s the team you want to be around when you know you can create opportunities for yourself by putting in the work.

“No spots are given. I’m going to work my butt off to make sure I get on the 53-man roster.”

During minicamp in June, Griffin had welcomed the absence of the glaring spotlight that followed his every move as a rookie. The scrutiny of being the first one-handed player in modern NFL history has passed. Now the focus is on how well he can adjust to a position change to the more comfortable strongside linebacker spot (while still playing weakside in nickel situations).

Griffin said back at minicamp he was glad to not “have to worry about all the extra, everybody trying to hype your head up and get you bigheaded and stuff like that – tell you what you can and cannot do. … Let’s focus on my stuff, instead of letting everyone focus on me.”

Griffin showed his explosive special-team potential on the opening kickoff against Denver when he was the first one down the field to meet Broncos running back Devonte Booker, forcing a fumble with his tackle. He is on nearly every Seahawk special team, which will add to his case.

But Griffin must also show that he can thrive in his new role as a “SAM” linebacker, where he’s deployed similarly to his collegiate days at Central Florida in setting the edge and chasing the ball. That’s a good thing – Griffin had 18.5 sacks as a two-year starter.

“For me to be back in that position, it feels comfortable, it feels good, and allows me to kind of be myself out there,” Griffin said last Thursday. “As soon as they put me back there and let me run around for the first day, they could already see the comfort level I have out there in that position.”

The Griffin twins shared a personal chef in the offseason, presumably to allow Shaquill to trim weight and Shaquem to put on good weight, with a goal of 230 pounds. He’s listed on the Seahawks’ roster at 227, but Carroll on Friday indicated he’s down from that.

Asked about Griffin’s role as a pass rusher, Carroll said, “He has had to be available to stay inside and do all that stuff, as well as the outside stuff. He has some chances to pressure and he has looked OK doing that. At 219, I don’t see him as a defensive end. He’s definitely a guy that will come off the edge and give you some problems because he is so fast.”

Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. also lauded Griffin’s speed and said, “Combine that speed with his brain, and it’s amazing to see the things that he can get done.”

Shaquem Griffin’s path to the NFL is still wondrous to behold. Now he’s trying to stay there by showing what he can get done.