The recent and upcoming moves by the Seattle Seahawks involving their cornerbacks invite a closer look at where the team stands at the position.
The upshot is that it's now a major need, though one the Seahawks don't figure to fill by making a big splash in free agency.
That the Seahawks moved on from Lane on the same day they released Sherman was not the least bit surprising. No one expected Lane back with his $6 million salary for 2018, coming off a season in which he lost his starting job twice and was traded away only to return because of a failed physical. His fate seemed sealed long before his January arrest on suspicion of DUI.
And releasing Shead, which is expected to happen Monday, actually isn't all that consequential. The Seahawks are doing so because they already had promised Shead he'd be an unrestricted free agent, but that can't happen unless they release him because his contract is set to toll into 2018. Seattle wants to re-sign him and Shead has expressed a desire to return, but the fact that he's heading into free agency -- and already has a visit lined up with the Detroit Lions -- means anything can happen.
It goes without saying that the decision to move on from Sherman is by far the most impactful of the three. The Seahawks' stretch of historically good defense -- they allowed the fewest points in the league every season from 2012 to 2015 -- probably wouldn't have happened without Sherman locking down one side of the field as capably as he did. Sherman played the position as well as anyone in the NFL during his six and a half seasons as a starter for Seattle, a stretch in which he made four Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro three times.
His absence leaves the Seahawks without a true No. 1 cornerback even if 2017 rookie Shaquill Griffin has the potential to become one at some point.
Griffin is one of four cornerbacks the Seahawks have under contract and the only one among them who has seen extended playing time in their defense. In fact, only one of Seattle's top five cornerbacks from last season is currently signed for 2018, though nickelback Justin Coleman is under club control as a restricted free agent.
Shaquill Griffin. The third-round pick and twin brother of Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin had a strong rookie season. He beat out Lane for the starting job opposite Sherman and drew rave reviews from coaches and teammates for the poise he showed while being thrown into the fire right away. Griffin looks like he'll be Seattle's starting right cornerback for years to come.
Neiko Thorpe. He has mainly been a special teams player -- and a pretty good one -- during his two seasons with the team. Signed early in the 2016 season after his release from the Oakland Raiders, the 28-year-old Thorpe has played cornerback only in spot duty for the Seahawks and doesn't seem like a player Seattle would prefer to have starting. He's signed through 2018.
DeAndre Elliott. An undrafted free agent in 2016, Elliott played on special teams that season and showed plenty of promise as a developmental prospect. In fact, he probably would have made a push for playing time as a third cornerback last year had he not suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the final preseason game. He should factor into the team's plans to some degree next season, which will be the final year of his rookie deal.
Mike Tyson. A sixth-round pick last year, Tyson mainly played safety and nickelback in college but fits the profile of what Seattle likes in an outside cornerback. He spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before he was promoted to the active roster in mid-December. Tyson would have to make a big second-year leap to factor heavily into Seattle's defensive plans in 2018.
Restricted free agent
Justin Coleman. The Seahawks acquired Coleman from the New England Patriots in a preseason trade that paid off in a big way. Coleman capably manned the slot after overtaking that role from Lane and showed some big-play ability with a pair of interceptions that he returned for touchdowns. Seattle is likely to tender him.
Unrestricted free agent
DeShawn Shead. He spent all of two games on the physically unable to perform list last season while working his way back from a torn ACL that he suffered in a playoff game in January 2017. Since joining the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2012, he has worked at all five positions in Seattle's secondary, including a season and a half as a starter at right cornerback and one start in 2015 at strong safety while Kam Chancellor was holding out. That versatility would come in handy for the Seahawks with their need at cornerback and with Chancellor's availability in doubt because of his neck injury. But the fact that he's headed into free agency means the Seahawks will have some competition as they try to re-sign him.
Byron Maxwell. The former Seahawks draft pick and early Legion of Boom member was brought back in November following Sherman's season-ending Achilles injury. In his six starts, Maxwell gave Seattle as much as anyone could have expected given that he had been out of a job for a few weeks after being released by the Miami Dolphins. There may be something to be said for the fact that Maxwell, 30, has played much better in Seattle's defense than he has in either of his other two NFL stops. Another one-year deal could make sense for both sides.
Shead and Maxwell are part of a strong class of free-agent cornerbacks. ESPN's Kevin Seifert put together a list of this year's 100 best free agents and 11 cornerbacks cracked the top 50. The group includes Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler and Patrick Robinson.
But it's hard to imagine the Seahawks spending big money on anyone from that group. They have a spotty track record with free-agent cornerbacks under their current regime -- most notably Cary Williams in 2015 -- and that may not be entirely coincidental.
Williams struggled to pick up the technique the Seahawks teach their cornerbacks, so much so that he was released midway through his first season. Coach Pete Carroll said at the time that Williams was in a tough spot, having little time to adjust to a style of play that isn't common throughout the NFL.
But any veteran cornerback from another team who might sign with Seattle would face that same challenge. That's why it's easier to envision the Seahawks drafting another cornerback -- even one in the early rounds -- than wading deep into the free-agent waters to find a corner.
In the meantime, the Seahawks' plan may be to re-sign Shead, keep the door open on Maxwell and hope their defense can handle the inevitable drop-off from Sherman to whoever they have playing left cornerback next season.