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Seattle Seahawks

Mike Macdonald heads into first Seahawks season with turnkey secondary

Veteran Rayshawn Jenkins listens to instructions during Seattle’s second Organized Team Activity on Wednesday afternoon at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Wash.  (Kevin Clark/Seattle Times)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

RENTON, Wash. – When Pete Carroll arrived as Seattle Seahawks coach in 2010, one of his first undertakings was to tear down a struggling secondary and, in the span of two offseasons, assemble a new one that will forever be remembered as one of the best in NFL history.

As Mike Macdonald takes over as Carroll’s successor, he doesn’t need to perform a drastic makeover of the secondary.

What he needs to do is make the pieces already there fit a little better.

The Seahawks return four players who were essentially starters last year – cornerbacks Devon Witherspoon, Tre Brown and Riq Woolen and safety Julian Love – while adding veteran Rayshawn Jenkins, a starter the last four years with the Chargers and Jaguars.

Love and Jenkins – who have a combined 124 career starts – take over as the primary safety duo, replacing the departed Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams.

All three corners have at least one season of being a full-time starter under their belts, two of whom have made Pro Bowls – Woolen as a rookie in 2022 and Witherspoon as a rookie last season.

When the Seahawks held their second OTA (Organized Team Activity) on Wednesday, those five comprised the team’s starting secondary, with a five-defensive back nickel look likely to be the defense the team plays the most.

Witherspoon worked primarily at nickel with Brown at left corner, Woolen at right corner, and Love and Jenkins at safety. Love is listed as the free safety and Jenkins at strong, but Macdonald’s defense calls for the safeties to work interchangeably.

Barring injury or something unforeseen, that quintet projects to be the Seahawks’ primary secondary alignment come opening day.

It’s a group Macdonald raved about following Wednesday’s OTA.

“We are really excited about our secondary,” Macdonald said. “And I think there is some flexibility there. We can get some personnel groups for guys moving around, play matchup ball a little bit. They’re in a good spot.”

Carroll made his name overseeing the secondary of some great Minnesota Vikings defenses in the late 1980s, and was widely regarded as one of the best coaches of defensive backs in league history.

That reputation was only burnished by the Legion of Boom.

Finding a group to duplicate that group’s success was never going to be easy.

A pass defense that finished 21st in yards allowed and 22nd in yards allowed per attempt last season was not up to the usual Carroll-era standards and indicative of an overall defensive performance that was a key reason they decided to make a coaching change.

Macdonald arrives with a defensive background, spending the past two years as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, with all of his previous position-group work with linebackers or the secondary.

Better health and added experience among the Seahawks’ DBs, of course, could also make this the perfect time for Macdonald to take over.

A year ago at this time, neither Woolen nor Witherspoon was on the field consistently. Woolen was sidelined entirely after suffering a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, and didn’t return until the preseason.

Witherspoon arrived with a lingering hamstring injury and was limited during the offseason program and dealt with another hamstring injury during training camp.

Wednesday, both were every-down presences with the first-team defense.

Defenders are not allowed to move aggressively and create contact to make plays on the ball during OTAs, but they can make a play if they are essentially in position to do so.

Twice Wednesday, that was the case with Witherspoon, who batted down two passes, drawing praise from the veteran Jenkins.

“His breaking on the ball is just elite,” Jenkins said. “It’s some of the best I’ve probably ever seen. I was literally just thinking about it today. I saw him break up two passes and the receiver had a step or two on him and closing speed is crazy. He just gets right to the ball, undercuts the ball. He’s going to make a lot of plays as he has been doing coming off of last season.”

Witherspoon, the fifth overall pick in 2023 out of Illinois, started last year at left cornerback in the base defense but saw most of his time inside – 535 of his 883 snaps were inside last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Macdonald, who said he scouted Witherspoon intensely before the 2023 draft in case the Ravens had a chance to get him, seemed to hint that percentage could be even greater this year.

Asked what he likes about Witherspoon playing inside, Macdonald said, “Where do I start? Great feel for the game. I mean, just picks things up really quick but just understands ball and plays at a really, really fast speed. At nickel there is a lot of action in there, and so when guys have that type of skill set you can get them right around the action as much as possible. He’ll do all the things. He’ll blitz, man, zone, play deep in the field, so it’s a fun positioning to play.”

Woolen’s truncated offseason a year ago led to some struggles during his sophomore NFL season that included being benched for a late-season win over the Eagles.

After picking off six passes to tie for first in the NFL in 2022, he had just two in 2023 when he also saw his run defense questioned at times.

The Seahawks drafted two cornerbacks in the fifth and sixth round – Nehemiah Pritchett and D.J. James, each of Auburn.

Their additions, along with retaining veteran Michael Jackson, a full-time starter in 2022, and backup Artie Burns led some to wonder if Woolen has a tenuous hold on his starting job.

There was no evidence of that Wednesday as Woolen consistently worked with the first-team defense.

“I think Tariq is in a great spot,” Macdonald said. “Great spot. We had a great conversation today. Expecting big things from him, just like everyone else on the defense and on the rest of the team. We’re going to be pushing them because there is greatness in there.”

Brown could get some competition from Jackson and Pritchett on the left side but for now appears the leader.

Then there’s the safety tandem of Love and Jenkins.

A year ago, Love was just arriving as a free-agent signee and working primarily with Diggs with Adams still rehabbing a knee injury. That means the Seahawks spent the offseason program never practicing with their projected primary safety combo.

There’s no such issue this year, which is vital as the Seahawks need all of the defensive players to get every practice they can as they learn Macdonald’s new defense.

“Very talented and a guy we can play matchup with,” Macdonald said of the 30-year-old Jenkins. “He can do all the things we ask from a safety in our system. So off to a great start. We expect a big year from him.”