Friday, February 1, 2013

2013 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part I: Receivers & Tight Ends

I love the football season. I almost equally love the off-season. Anything is possible. Your team could draft the next great quarterback, or sign a free agent that re-shapes the product on the field. Each action has a cascading effect through the existing roster. Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst can turn into Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn. Marcus Trufant and Ken Lucas can turn into Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Deon Grant and Jordan Babineaux can turn into Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Seattle fans have come to expect a bonanza every year since Pete Carroll and John Schneider have taken over. A full 19 of the 22 starters on offense and defense for the 2013 Seahawks will have been added since those two took over. Throw in Red Bryant, who was a bench player, and that makes 20 of 22. But this off-season will be different. Few starting jobs are up for grabs. Rookies will struggle to make the roster. Free agents will have to fight for playing time. I will be dissecting the roster position-by-position in an eight-part series, culminating in a recommended off-season recipe for the Seahawks.

Part I: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Part II: Defensive Line
Part III: Secondary
Part IV: Linebackers
Part V: Offensive Line
Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
Part VII: Quarterbacks
Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations


State Of The Position
Seattle entered the 2012 season with real questions at receiver. Sidney Rice had been signed with concerns about his ability to stay healthy, and sure enough, he was not able to stay healthy. Golden Tate had been taken near the top of the draft, and was not producing on the field. Doug Baldwin had done what no undrafted free agent had accomplished since the AFL/NFL merger by leading his team in receptions. Braylon Edwards was brought in to provide another big target to compete with Tate on the outside.

They exit the season with Rice playing all 18 games, Tate emerging as the play-maker they had always hoped he would be, and Baldwin regaining some of his 2011 form late in the year after struggling with injury for most of the season. This position group will be one of the most competitive and unpredictable on the roster heading into next year. Both Baldwin and Tate are entering the final year of their contracts. As much as Tate improved in 2012, he is still more of a specialized receiver. He is special at going up for jump balls along the sidelines, he has fantastic hands, and is relentless and creative after the catch. These are all great attributes, but he has a long way to go in terms of getting open reliably with well run routes and reading defenses. That is why he struggles mightily in the slot, but succeeds more on the edge. The same way many analysts will tell you that Russell Wilson will need to make more repeatable passes in the pocket, on rhythm, they would also tell you that Tate needs to create more separation more often to become a reliable target. No coach would choose a jump ball over an open receiver, even with Tate's skill in that situation.

Tate's strongest case for a long-term spot on the roster may be his improvisation ability with Wilson scrambling. He was by far the best at finding Wilson's sight lines and making himself available. Baldwin struggled with this at times this year. He started to add that to his game as the season wore on, but needs to spend a ton of time with Wilson this off-season to get the chemistry required to be the clutch slot player he is made to be. It is crucial to make the right read, run the right route and be in the right place on 3rd and 3 with a blitz in your quarterbacks face. This is where Baldwin is a very different player than Tate. Those things come far more naturally to Baldwin than they ever will to Tate. Players like Baldwin are hard to come by, and Wilson just started to take advantage of him down the stretch. Baldwin's biggest competition probably will not come from Tate, but from greater use of the tight end.

Zach Miller is a fantastic player. He does everything well, and some things extremely well. Fans may want to believe the Falcons game was a sign of things to come, but that was much more about a Falcons scheme that encourages targeting the tight end. They were among the worst in the NFL in giving up yards to the tight end position all season, and the playoff games against Seattle and San Francisco were just more of the same. Miller will not steal reps from Baldwin, and neither will Anthony McCoy, who enjoyed a sterling season in a supporting role. The major hole that Schneider and Carroll have been trying to fill since they got here is the speedy "joker" tight end. They tried John Carlson, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Evan Moore. They will get serious this off-season and find the guy they will rely on for years to come. That player could lead to fewer snaps for a slot receiver. That is not a given. Just look at the Patriots with Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. It is something that could shift the balance of a team that already throws the ball less than any other in the NFL.

2012 Seahawks Free Agent Receivers & Tight Ends:


  • WR Deon Butler
  • TE Cameron Morrah


Seahawks Receivers & Tight Ends Under Contract:


  • WR Sidney Rice
  • WR Golden Tate
  • WR Doug Baldwin
  • WR Jermaine Kearse
  • WR Ben Obomanu
  • WR Charly Martin
  • TE Zach Miller
  • TE Anthony McCoy
  • TE Sean McGrath


Free Agents

Free agent wide receivers are spendy, and the Seahawks already sunk a big chunk of change into Sidney Rice. They did the same for Zach Miller. It is hard to imagine them going big again here, but there are some tempting options that could get a sniff.

Mike Wallace
I covered Wallace some in an earlier article. He will almost certainly be out of the Seahawks price range, but that doesn't mean the team should not have a conversation. In a lot of ways, Wallace would be an ideal compliment to Rice in terms of size and speed. He is young enough, at 26, to be part of a extended series of Super Bowl runs. Signing him would likely require some other contracts to be re-worked. He is a huge long-shot for a variety of reasons, but he is not out of the question.

Dwayne Bowe
I covered Bowe in the same article mentioned above. Bowe only makes sense as a hedge against Rice's health. He would better be able to take over that #1 receiver mantle as a flanker than someone like Wallace who is more of a pure split end. Bowe is already 28, and far too expensive. No way he comes here.

Domenik Hixon
Hixon is an interesting prospect. He is 28, and has been a bit of an enigma in New York. He has great size, and would be similar to Braylon Edwards, except younger and healthier. Hixon would be a depth addition, and again, will likely find a better opportunity with more cash somewhere else.

Brian Hartline
Hartline is a poor man's Bowe that will cost just a bit less. He won't be in Seattle.

Jared Cook
Cook is a prime target for Seattle. He is 25, is a big man at 6'5" 248 lbs, and has been explosive in the passing game. Nearly 20% of his 131 career receptions have gone for 20+ yards. Miller, by comparison, checks in at around 16%. Sidney Rice is just over 20%. Keep an eye on him in the early days of free agency. I would be surprised if he is not on a flight to Seattle.

Delanie Walker
Walker may be the first of the key cogs in the 49ers roster to find greener pastures elsewhere. Their cap situation could make it prohibitive to keep Walker unless he gives them a discount. Walker is only 6'0", but is tougher than a cheap steak. He is a ferocious blocker and runs routes like a receiver. He would arguably be the fastest player on offense if he came to Seattle, and don't think Carroll wouldn't enjoy taking him away from San Francisco.

Martellus Bennett
Bennett is the flavor of the month after a breakout season with 55 receptions for 626 yards and 5 TDs. He is big (6'6"), but he does not stretch the field. His price and fit don't make him a good match here.

Tony Gonzalez
It is not as crazy as you might think. He is set to retire, but he just got a taste of winning in the playoffs. He was born and went to college in California, and has said he wants to get back to the West Coast. He saw first-hand how great Russell Wilson can be. Carroll can be pretty darn convincing when he wants to be. Unfortunately, much of the same logic applies to the 49ers, especially if they lose Walker. They do have more cap restrictions, however. Gonzalez no longer stretches the field, but he is a deadly red zone target and has fantastic hands that make him worth deviating from the speed requirement.

Draft

Schneider has already tipped his hand that there are more receivers in this class that he finds appealing than last year. He specifically talked about the variety of receivers that are available. Green Bay had a history of finding receivers in later rounds. People want to talk about first round players like Robert Woods, but that essentially pushes Tate off the team before camp even begins. I am not convinced (a) that they want to do that (b) that they do not see the receiving tight end as a bigger need. If the team does not sign someone like Cook or Walker in free agency, it becomes far more likely that they spend that first round pick on a guy like Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz or even Vance McDonald.

Bottom Line
The Seahawks are going to add a tight end to this roster that will challenge the middle of the field. There are great options in free agency and the draft. They have to feel good about getting a guy they love. That will be the move that changes the weaponry on this offense more than anything else.

They will add at least one receiver, and probably two. The most likely scenario is that they will add these guys in the draft, starting in round two or later. They need to hedge their bets with Tate. He is not the key player that must be re-signed at all costs, and is due to hit free agency after next year. The better he plays, the more expensive he will be to re-sign. Should he falter, the team will need alternatives. A player with elite speed and size is something the team keeps trying to add into the mix. Those guys are not always great receivers. Tate will never have elite speed and is unlikely to become a premier route runner. It makes for a great competition, which the staff loves.

Baldwin is entering an off-season that will determine whether his career is here in Seattle, or he gets snatched up by a team that can better utilize him. His is an ideal fit in the slot. Tate is not an ideal fit at split end or slot, which is part of why it has taken so long to work him into the offense. A silent battle will be waged this year between those two. One will get re-signed, but probably not both. Most fans would bet on Tate after he had the more productive 2012. Cost and fit favor Baldwin.

Either way, the offense will benefit from both players coming into 2013 with something to prove, a new speedy tight end and at least one big and fast receiver added to the pile. It should be fascinating to see it unfold.

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