Seahawks' Devon Witherspoon becoming vocal leader in Year 2

Devon Witherspoon enters his second season with the Seahawks after being drafted No. 5 overall in 2023. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

RENTON, Wash. -- Seattle Seahawks practices under new coach Mike Macdonald don't just look different. They sound different, too. The music that Pete Carroll constantly had cranked up was noticeably quieter during the offseason workout program, with teaching and communicating taking priority over replicating the din of game day as they install new schemes on both sides of the ball.

Players could hear coaches. Defenders could hear each other, which is key in a complex system that will require plenty of pre-snap talking.

And anyone standing on or around the outdoor practice fields at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center could hear Devon Witherspoon.

Whether he was celebrating after a decisive win in coverage -- "Oh yeeeaaahhh!"-- or angrily lamenting a poor series from the defense -- "C'mon, (expletive)!" -- no voice was more consistently audible than that of Seattle's second-year cornerback. Following the final practice of minicamp, he crashed Macdonald's interview session with reporters to make sure everyone knew what had just happened:

"Just tell 'em that we got on the offense's ass today."

After a strong rookie season in which he made the Pro Bowl, there's a case to be made that the 23-year-old Witherspoon is already Seattle's best player on either side of the ball. After watching -- and hearing -- him during spring practices, there's little question that he enters Year 2 as the Seahawks' defensive energizer.

"We have to communicate a lot, especially in this defense that we have, this new system," defensive tackle Leonard Williams said. "But also just defense is, in my opinion, the heart of the team. We're going to have the most energy, we're supposed to be the dogs, we're supposed to be the rowdy guys barking and stuff like that at the other team -- and that's what Spoon brings to the defense, which I really like."

To understand why Witherspoon's personality is vital to the Seahawks' defense, consider how that unit and their locker room as a whole have evolved in recent years.

The Legion of Boom was a brash and ruthless bunch that carried Seattle to the most successful stretch in franchise history, but the underside to all those Alpha males included frequent clashes with coaches, executives and each other. Tired of dealing with the headaches, the Seahawks began favoring more even-keeled players, such as the three defensive backs they drafted in 2017 -- Shaquill Griffin, Lano Hill and Tedric Thompson -- as their LOB stars were approaching their 30s.

In retrospect, they over-corrected. The new approach yielded less discord, but it came at a cost, with the locker room losing too much of its edge. In that sense, the Seahawks thought Jamal Adams would revitalize the defense when they acquired him in a blockbuster trade in 2020. And while the star safety did imbue the unit with some needed intensity, he missed almost half of the team's games due to injuries over his four seasons in Seattle, precipitating his release in March.

Now it's Witherspoon's turn to give the Seahawks what they've been missing.

"When I got traded here in the middle of the season last year, I was just like, 'Dang, who is this guy?'" Williams said. "Because he does have just very outrageous energy -- in a great way. And also for a small guy, he plays very physical and rowdy. He almost reminds me of a defensive lineman or something like that. Defensive linemen have certain personalities. Corners are usually quieter guys, they're more finesse guys a lot of times, whereas this guy wants to put his face in there, get dirty, and I love seeing that in the secondary."

Chosen fifth overall in last year's draft, Witherspoon was a bright spot on an otherwise lousy Seahawks defense in 2023 and arguably that unit's MVP while filling a dual role that had him playing on the outside in base then moving into the slot in nickel situations. His rookie season got off to a rocky start thanks to a brief holdout from training camp and a lingering hamstring injury. But then he broke out in Week 4 with a 97-yard pick-six and a pair of sacks, announcing his arrival to a national audience on "Monday Night Football."

Witherspoon finished the season with 3.0 sacks, eight tackles for loss, a forced fumble and 16 passes defensed, which was tied for fifth-most in the NFL. He was voted into the Pro Bowl on the initial ballot and was squarely in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year until he missed two games and most of a third in December with a hip pointer.

Witherspoon also missed the opener with a hamstring injury that sidelined him for most of the summer, which is why one of his goals for 2024 is to play in every game. He said he wants to remain at around 190 pounds after he got well below that weight late last season.

"It's exciting because I had a good year, but it could be a lot better," Witherspoon said. "That's what Coach keeps telling me every day. He's like, 'You had a good year, but you've got so much more potential, and I can't wait to exploit that.'"

Macdonald, who moved safety Kyle Hamilton all over the field as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, has sounded open to letting Witherspoon and/or Riq Woolen travel with certain receivers based on matchups. That wouldn't be new to Witherspoon, who did it in college at Illinois, but it would be a significant change from how Carroll almost always had his perimeter cornerbacks stick to one side of the field. Of Witherspoon's 848 snaps last season, he was lined up wide to the left on 362 of them and wide right only once, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

To hear Macdonald describe him, Witherspoon has the brain to handle an even more expanded role than the one he excelled at last season.

"I told him today that I couldn't believe that he was the smartest football player of all time and it's only his second year in the NFL," Macdonald joked in June. "He's got an answer for everything. But no, it's like, 'Hey, man, be yourself.' That's who he is. We love him. He's a great player already in this league. We're really excited about him."