The true NFL off-season is almost upon us. Those of us who have effectively hibernated during this soul-sucking lockout can be excused if we feel the need to reacquaint ourselves with what exactly the 2010 Seahawks were. This is the fourth in a series of articles examining that team, and the implications for the imminent 2011 off-season.
Golden Tate was the prize the Seahawks won for holding steady in the 2nd round of last years NFL draft when many fans were begging the team to trade up or trade back. GM John Schneider happily told reporters later that the team had a 1st round grade on Tate, and were thrilled to grab the play-making wide receiver late in the 2nd. Tate's legend grew in mini-camps and training camp as he seemed to be awarded "play of the day" honors almost every practice. Teammates talked about his raw talent, but some of the enthusiasm was tempered due to just how raw that talent was.
Tate was late to football, and had very little formal coaching on how to play the WR position. He beat his college competition largely on pure athletic ability. Route running and separation were less important than just jumping over the nearest defender and snatching the ball. Tate had special ability to "high point" the ball, grabbing it at the peak and was also a gifted runner after the catch.
When the season started, fan expectations had been raised for Tate. Surprisingly, Tate was not on the active roster for the first game of the year. It was a blow to Tate's ego, and sent the message that he had not arrived just yet. He responded with an impressive outing in Denver, breaking tackles on the way to a big punt return and flashing his determination on a long reception.
That game would be the high point of Tate's season. An injury kept him out for a while, but even when he returned, he was behind players like Ruvell Martin on the depth chart. The season ended and players like Matt Hasselbeck were openly questioning Tate's preparation. Instead of a guy who appeared to have imminent impact, a picture was emerging of a player who may not have the work ethic and discipline required to realize his potential.
Tate is not tall. He is not especially fast, or even all that quick. He struggles to get off of press coverage and runs sloppy routes. He will not become an impact player without some serious focus and practice. Pete Carroll has talked about making a more concerted effort to involve Tate in the offense. It is possible to mask some of Tate's shortcomings and exploit his talents by moving him around and throwing short passes and screens that allow Tate to just catch and run.
As a 2nd round pick, Tate will be given every opportunity to become a valuable player. The front office already wasted a 3rd round pick on Charlie Whitehurst, and the glow of that 2010 draft would fade if they swung and missed on their 2nd round pick as well.
History will tell you that wide receivers rarely burst onto the scene in their rookie seasons. Getting used to press coverage, complicated offenses, and the blinding speed of the game takes some time. Tate deserves the same leeway that any of those young receivers get. History, however, also shows that players far more talented than Tate have washed out of the league due to lack of discipline and effort. There are serious questions about his maturity that have nothing to do with "Donut-gate" or "Nascar-gate." Fans will know within a week if he has taken the off-season seriously and comes to camp in great shape. If you hear players and coaches glowing about his fitness level and his grasp of the offense, that's a great sign. If there is general silence, or comments about how he needs a few weeks to get in shape, fans should brace for the worst.
If I was a betting man, I'd go all in on Tate never becoming a valuable player. I would love to be wrong. This offense needs playmakers. The hope has to be that either Tate has matured and grabs the opportunity in front of him this season, or that Carroll and Schneider remain committed to the theme of competition and allow the best players on the field instead of the highest draft choices.