SEATTLE — The night before the first round of the 2023 NFL draft, Pete Carroll had a hankering, and then a hunch.
On his way to Popeyes, the Seattle Seahawks head coach stopped at a red light near the fast food restaurant and saw an Illinois license plate on a car in front of him. Funny, Carroll thought, because he had just been thinking about Illini cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who along with Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. was one of the two highest-rated defenders on the Seahawks’ draft board.
Seattle is 1,900 miles away from Illinois’ western border, so you can imagine Carroll’s surprise when he pulled into the drive-thru and found himself right behind another car with an Illinois plate.
“I thought, ‘Whoa, what kind of sign is that?'” Carroll told Seattle’s Sports Radio 93.3 KJR-FM. “… The fact that it all came through, what the heck, all those mock drafts, all those times, I should’ve just looked at the cars in front of me. I would’ve figured it out.”
Few mock drafts, if any, predicted Seattle would take Witherspoon with the fifth pick. Many had the Seahawks going with quarterbacks Anthony Richardson or Will Levis. Others had them taking defensive end Tyree Wilson.
But perhaps the player most commonly mocked to Seattle at No. 5 was Jalen Carter, the All-American defensive tackle out of Georgia who would have filled by far the biggest hole on the Seahawks’ roster. And to some, he was exactly the kind of game-wrecking interior defender Seattle had been trying to find for years, a search that continued in October when it traded a second-round pick for Leonard Williams.
But the Seahawks had concerns about Carter, who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing in March after being involved in a crash that killed a Georgia teammate and a recruiting staff member.
Seattle instead used the highest selection of the Carroll/GM John Schneider era on Witherspoon. Four picks later, the Philadelphia Eagles traded up one spot to grab Carter at No. 9 overall. The Eagles knew the pick came with risk, but they believed in his upside.
The roads each team took will converge Monday night at Lumen Field (8:15 ET, ABC/ESPN). The Seahawks’ and Eagles’ respective choices in Witherspoon and Carter have both seemed to pay off — as the two rookies are looking to strengthen their cases for Defensive Rookie of the Year in front of a national audience. Carter leads in DROY odds (-900), and Witherspoon is second (+650), according to ESPN BET.
Here’s where each road has led them.
THE SEAHAWKS’ DECISION to pass on Carter wasn’t a product of pure talent evaluation.
“We thought he was a great player, we really did,” Carroll said of Carter last week. “He was dynamic physically, so explosive and strong, played aggressively, played tough, played on a great team, a great championship team. There was a lot of real positives there.”
But inside Seahawks headquarters, there were a lot of questions about Carter’s off-the-field behavior and his on-field motor. In addition to his involvement in the fatal car crash, some of the team’s decision-makers — who had met with Carter during a pre-draft visit to the Virginia Mason Athletic Center — had reservations about his work ethic and love for football. They weren’t eased when, according to a team source, Carter admitted to Seattle that he didn’t always play hard against lesser competition.
The Seahawks had gambled unsuccessfully on Michigan State’s Malik McDowell at the 35th pick in 2017, believing the veteran leaders on their Legion of Boom defense could help guide him. After an ATV accident and legal issues, McDowell never played a snap for Seattle.
But taking Carter at No. 5 represented a much bigger risk in terms of the high draft pick and the fully guaranteed $31.86 million contract.
The Seahawks, according to a team source, would have considered drafting Carter with the second of their two first-rounders, at No. 20. But with the Eagles willing to make a leap of faith, he was long gone by then.
After drafting Witherspoon, Carroll likened his aggressive style to another defensive back he coached at USC, Troy Polamalu. Schneider raved about Witherspoon’s energy and “juice.”
“He’s a great guy,” Schneider said of Witherspoon. “He had a great visit, loved the area, and loved the organization. We had a lot of people that spent time with him … He’s going to be a great character, interview and he’s going to bring a lot of juice and a lot of energy. He’s a smart, energetic guy … You know exactly what you are getting with this guy.”
With the two rookies’ careers linked from the get-go, Carter got off to the faster start, helping seal an Eagles win over the New England Patriots in Week 1 with a late sack of quarterback Mac Jones. Witherspoon, meanwhile, didn’t play in the Seahawks’ opener because of a hamstring injury that had limited him in the spring and then sidelined him for most of training camp plus all three preseason games. He also missed the first two days of camp amid an ill-fated holdout.
But Witherspoon’s quiet start gave way to a loud arrival in Week 4 as the Seahawks pummeled the New York Giants on “Monday Night Football.” His coming-out party included an interception returned 97 yards for a touchdown, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits and 7 total tackles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the third time since 1982 (when sacks became an official stat) that a rookie recorded a pick-six and two sacks in the same game.
That performance earned Witherspoon NFC Defensive Rookie of the Week honors. He was later named NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month for October.
“Exactly what we expected of him,” Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith said after the Giants game. “He’s such a competitive dude. So talented, so smart. He’s got what it takes to be one of the best, and when he plays the way he played tonight by just doing his assignment, the ball will find him because he’s a playmaker.”
Witherspoon’s understanding of the game was one of the reasons the Seahawks thought he could double as a nickelback in passing situations. That dual role requires a player to know a second position and to rapidly process information while lining up inside, where plays unfold more quickly than on the perimeter.
With Witherspoon playing in the slot, the Seahawks have been able to take advantage of his blitzing skills. He has three sacks and has applied the first pressure eight times, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which leads all rookies and is tied with teammate Jamal Adams for eighth among defensive backs.
Witherspoon leads all rookies and ranks third among all defenders with 16 passes defensed. Maybe his most impressive came in Seattle’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night. With the Seahawks in zone coverage, Witherspoon peeled off Deebo Samuel as the wide receiver ran a shallow crosser, then turned his back to quarterback Brock Purdy to cover Brandon Aiyuk on a post route and blindly batted the ball away with his outstretched right arm, saving a touchdown.
“That was an outstanding football play,” defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said.
Witherspoon’s latest pass breakup came at a cost. He left last week’s rematch with the 49ers in the first quarter after suffering a hip pointer injury. Carroll said early last week that he expected Witherspoon to play. He was noncommittal when asked about Witherspoon on Saturday. He’s officially listed as questionable.
“We’ve all had an opportunity to evaluate Spoon,” Carroll said. “We’ve seen him in so many situations already. You can see the explosive makeup that he has … the playmaking, the toughness, the juice, the natural football instincts and all of that. He’s had a fantastic start. I would expect that he’s going to make it back this week and he’ll be out there battling again.”
PHILADELPHIA KNEW DRAFTING Carter came with risk.
Multiple Georgia coaches declined to go to bat for Carter during the pre-draft process, according to sources familiar with the conversations, in part because they had grown disenchanted with his practice habits and attitude. The lead-up to the draft generated further concerns. Carter left the scouting combine on March 1 to return to Athens, Georgia, to face misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing related to the fatal car crash in January. Two weeks later, he arrived at Georgia’s pro day nine pounds heavier than at the combine and was unable to finish his position drills.
But the Eagles did extensive background work on Carter and believed they were uniquely equipped to help him stay on the right path thanks to the presence of veteran leaders like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson as well as former Georgia teammates Nakobe Dean and Jordan Davis, who vouched for him. So when Carter was still available at No. 9, the Eagles traded up one spot — trading the No. 10 pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears — to select the defensive tackle.
And Carter has been a factor for the 10-3 Eagles so far this season.
He provided one of the few Eagles highlights in last week’s 33-13 loss to the Cowboys when he scooped up a Dak Prescott fumble in the third quarter and rumbled 42 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown.
“Unfortunately, you don’t get stops every time,” said Carter, who became just the second Eagles defensive tackle since 1950 with a fumble recovery touchdown, “but that was one time we got the stop to try and change momentum.”
Splash plays have largely defined Carter’s rookie campaign. He put the league on notice back in August by registering a quarterback knockdown on his first professional snap in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, and then pancaked All-Pro Cleveland Browns guard Joel Bitonio during joint practices several days later.
He carried that momentum into the regular season, racking up 3.5 sacks and 25 pressures over his first five games.
“Mr. Unblockable,” said cornerback Darius Slay following Carter’s two-sack performance against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. “That’s his name.”
Coach Nick Sirianni was careful not to feed into the growing hype around Carter in the immediate aftermath. He called him a “phenomenal player” who works hard but made a point by saying, “We won’t put him in Canton yet.”
“He has to keep proving it over and over and over again. Because if you want to be considered in the top part of this league as a football player, it’s about consistency and it’s about doing it year in and year out,” Sirianni said. “So, he’s had a good start. He has to continue to put the work in. We know he has the talent.”
Carter’s production has cooled of late. His 25 QB pressures during Weeks 1 through 5 ranked first among defensive tackles. He has been credited with 14 since then for a total of 39 pressures, which is tied for 13th among his position group. He has not registered a quarterback hit in his past four games after totaling seven QB hits in his first nine contests.
But he’s still impacting the game. He is drawing double-teams on 46% of his snaps, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and continues to find his way into the backfield, boasting the third-best get-off time (0.85 seconds on average) among defensive tackles.
“He’s done a good job and he’s had spots where he has done really well and some spots he knows he has to keep improving. He’s staying with it,” defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “He’s been able to help us, and so we have to keep him going that way and keep him trending in the right direction.”
One possible reason for his statistical decline relates to the effects of a long season. He played 392 snaps for Georgia in 2022 and has already surpassed that number this season (443 snaps). His usage has ticked up of late with the defense struggling to get off the field. He is averaging 49 snaps over the past five games compared to 29 snaps over his first seven games.
“I feel like I’m holding up pretty good,” Carter said. “That was the first thing that was said when I got to the next level — there’s more games, it’s going to be a long season, your body might hurt more, stuff like that — but that’s why we’ve got a training room, cold tub, hot tub, sauna, I take advantage of those every day.”
A defense that has yielded 30-plus points in each of its past three games and will turn to Matt Patricia for playcalling has to hope Carter can dig deep and deliver more impact plays down the stretch.
Both Seattle and Philadelphia are happy with the early returns on their top-10 picks. But does Carter have a little edge in motivation heading into Monday night knowing the defense-needy Seahawks went a different direction back in April?
“I did a [visit] with them, it was smooth, talked to the coaches, it went good,” Carter said of Seattle this week. “But they didn’t pick me. I’m with the Eagles, standing with the Eagles, and I’m ready to play.”