Just before 1 p.m. Sunday, something that at times throughout the spring and summer seemed as if it might never happen finally did – Quinton Dunbar took the field at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, officially a Seattle Seahawk.
Dunbar was acquired by the Seahawks from Washington in March to much fanfare, Seattle giving up just a fifth-round pick to get a player who was having a Pro Bowl-worthy 2019 campaign at cornerback before a hamstring injury ended his season after 11 games.
Then came the craziest story of the team’s offseason. Dunbar was arrested in May and charged with four counts of armed robbery the night before he had spoken to media via Zoom. The charges were dropped on Aug. 7, and Dunbar was taken off the commissioner’s exempt list shortly after, clearing the way for him to finally come to Seattle.
Now that Dunbar has arrived, the Seahawks can finally start piecing together a secondary that has the potential be vastly improved from last season, when Seattle allowed 4,223 passing yards, the most in team history.
Dunbar didn’t do much Sunday. Since there was no on-field offseason program and Dunbar’s arrival to training camp was delayed, he has a lot of catching up to do.
Just how much seemed evident early in Sunday’s practice when coach Pete Carroll took Dunbar aside and spent a minute or so appearing to go over some basics of how Seattle wants its cornerbacks to play, Carroll showing the ideal placements for hands and feet.
Dunbar took part in some early drills, but stayed on the sidelines when team sessions began.
Still, now that Dunbar is in the fold, the Seahawks can begin to answer how their nickel package will come together, and specifically, what the fate of Marquise Blair, the team’s second-round pick in 2019, will be.
The starting four in the base defense seems pretty set: Dunbar at right cornerback – replacing the starter there of the last two years, Tre Flowers – with Shaquill Griffin at left corner, Jamal Adams at strong safety and Quandre Diggs at free.
Blair, meanwhile, has spent the first four days of practice as the top nickel, with Ugo Amadi backing up.
For Blair, nickel back (which means coming in when Seattle goes to five defensive backs and takes a linebacker off the field) is a new position after he played his rookie season at both safety spots.
But Seattle’s trades for Adams and Diggs since Blair was drafted means the team has to find a new role for him or basically consign him to the bench.
So the Seahawks have moved Blair to the nickel spot, hoping he can help revive a spot that was a constant problem for Seattle last year.
The Seahawks tried Jamar Taylor, Akeem King and Amadi in the slot last year, but mostly decided to just play base defense, leaving three linebackers on the field for roughly 70% of snaps, by far the most in the NFL.
One reason was their confidence that Mychal Kendricks could cover well enough to make it work. But another was simply not having a nickel corner they felt was good enough to make it worth taking Kendricks off the field consistently.
Seattle, though, would like to get back to playing nickel more and as of now Blair appears to be the front-runner there.
Before practice Sunday, Blair talked to the media via Zoom and said his snaps at nickel so far in camp are the first he’s played there in his career.
“It’s good,” Blair said of the move. “I like it. … I feel like I can cover. I feel like I can blitz. I can fit in run gaps. Just everything that a nickel does.”
Said Carroll: “He can do everything that you need to do there. He just hasn’t had the background of experience doing it. So he’s a rookie at that spot.”
Dunbar isn’t, having gotten ample snaps in the slot during his five years with Washington, which has led to the thought that the Seahawks could consider using him there, moving inside on passing downs with Flowers entering in those packages to play right corner.
Ray Horton, Dunbar’s position coach last year at Washington, told the Seattle Times in March that he could definitely see the Seahawks using Dunbar at nickel.
“He’s got a lot of position flexibility,” Horton said. “ … You wouldn’t want him on the small (Julian) Edelman-type guy. That’s not his deal. He’s just too tall (listed at 6-2). But he can play inside. He can play on tight ends. He can play left. He can play right.”
Flowers had a tough end to last season, especially in the wild-card playoff win against the Eagles when he was flagged for two pass-interference penalties.
Still, most of his statistics in 2019 were better than his rookie year of 2018, such as allowing a passer rating against of 72.5 compared to 106.9, according to Pro Football Reference, and the Seahawks are far from ready to write him off.
Blair generated much fan excitement with a few highlight plays in the 2019 preseason. But Carroll also noted that he needed to have a little more discipline to his game – after a preseason game against Denver he cited a play when Blair gambled and rushed the passer, leaving a man open for a big gain – and Blair’s three starts last season came only as an injury replacement.
The team did incorporate him some down the stretch in a six-defensive-back package, foreshadowing how he might be used this year, though he lined up as a safety in those schemes.
Blair seemed to acknowledge the need to show the coaches he has a full command of the scheme this year when asked what he learned during his rookie season.
“Just study a lot more,” he said. “Pay attention to the little details in my game. Stuff like that.”
He said that was also the advice of former Seahawks great Kam Chancellor, with whom he worked out a few times this offseason.
Blair said Chancellor told him “just to stay in the playbook and don’t move around before the ball is snapped, get lined up so you know what’s going on. Just little stuff like that.”
With their season opener at Atlanta about a month away and the first padded practice expected Monday, the Seahawks don’t have to rush any decisions.
“It’s gonna take some time,” Carroll said last week of figuring out the nickel position. “We’ve got a month to figure it out.”
Answers, though, may start to come more quickly now that Dunbar is finally on the field.
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