Building to Win in 2013: Running Backs, Tight Ends, and Wide Receivers

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Running Backs

Name Position Age Games Played (2012) 2012 Salary 2013 Salary Final Year of Contract
Michael Robinson FB 29 16 $1.5 M $2.5 M 2013
Leon Washington RB/Ret 30 16 $3 M $2.5 M 2014
Marshawn Lynch BM 26 16 $4 M $7 M 2015
Robert Turbin RB 23 16 $390k $570k 2015
Derrick Coleman RB 22 - PS $405k Res/Fut
Vai Taua RB/FB 24 - - Free Agent -
Kregg Lumpkin RB/FB 28 0 ? Free Agent -
Totals - - - $8.89 M $12.975 M -

Starters

Out of all the wheeling and dealing that John Schneider has done since he took over as general manager, his finest moment to date has to be engineering that trade with Buffalo partway through the 2010 season that brought Marshawn Lynch to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for a fourth and a fifth round choice.  Seriously, landing someone that young and talented in a trade is about as common as having a unicorn show up on your doorstep; landing that same player with nothing more than two mid-round picks is like having a unicorn show up on your doorstep carrying a basket filled with red emeralds and winning lottery tickets.  And yes, I realize that for some inexplicable reason I am using unicorns to illustrate a point in an article about football, and for that I promise that I will feel very slightly ashamed at some later date1.

I can’t stress enough how exceedingly rare a player like Lynch is.  His combination of tackle-breaking power, breakaway speed, and instinctual field awareness are a privilege and a joy to behold, doubly so because we get to see him showcase his talents in a Seahawks jersey.  No one runs on the 49ers for 100+ yards, but Lynch does.  No one can move a swarming, angry mass of blockers and defenders for three or more yards to get the ball across the first down marker, at least not on a regular basis, but Lynch does.  No one rams his way through a couple of linebackers and then outruns the defensive backs to the end zone, but Lynch does.  All that, and he’s only 26 years old.  Does it get any better than that?

Fullback Michael Robinson gets a lot of accolades for his lead blocking, and rightfully so.  Focus in on him on tape sometime, the man’s technique is superb.  He was also pretty handy in short yardage situations, converting six of his seven carries on 3rd & ≤1 during the regular season, and he also managed to catch 11 of the 13 passes thrown his way for a team-leading catch percentage of 84.62%.  However, only half of Robinson’s playing time came on offensive plays; of the 628 snaps he played this season, 299 of them came on special teams2.  I know fullbacks are supposed to be going extinct, but I have a hard time believing that lead blockers with skill sets as versatile as Robinson’s will ever die out completely.

Backups

Robert Turbin didn’t get a lot of playing time in 2012, but he showed enough potential in the few touches he received to make me hope we’ll see more of him in 2013.  He isn’t the bruiser that Lynch is, but he’s much faster than I thought he would be when he was taken in the draft and he really shines as a receiving option out of the backfield.

Leon Washington is a running back, or at least that’s what it says on paper, so I’m listing him here with the other running backs.  I’m halfway convinced, however, that he should be listed with the specialists instead.  A full 141 of the 200 total snaps Washington played in 2012 were on special teams, where his ability as a return man more than justified his unusually high price tag for a backup RB3.  Thanks to the top scoring defense in the league, Washington didn’t get nearly as many opportunities to return kicks in 2012 as he did in his two previous seasons with Seattle (27 returns, as compared to 43 in 2011 and 57 in 2010), but he made the most of them by averaging 29 yards per return (3rd best in the league) and scoring his eighth career return touchdown.

Derrick Coleman spent at least part of the year on the Seahawks’ practice squad, and he will be going to training camp with them this offseason after signing a reserve/futures contract back in January.  Coleman projects to be an understudy for Michael Robinson as an athletic fullback and special teams ace (he was second team All-PAC-12 as a special teamer with the Bruins).  He’s hearing impaired, for which he compensates on the field by wearing hearing aids and reading lips, and he has a reputation for being a tough, mature, high-character player.  His ability to play in the NFL will probably depend heavily on whether he can add enough muscle to his frame to be an effective lead blocker, but Coleman might just end up being a fan favorite in camp this year.

Kregg Lumpkin and Vai Taua were basically fighting for the same job last offseason, as both are big running backs who have the versatility to play fullback, too.  Taua ended up getting injured in the final preseason game and has yet to be offered an invite to this year’s camp, but I liked him enough that I hope he gets another chance to land a roster spot.  Lumpkin ended up earning a spot on Seattle’s final roster, but was never activated for a game and was eventually cut a couple weeks into the season to make room for an injury replacement signing.  He later signed with the Giants and played in five games for them, but according to Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson the team has already told him that they have no interest in re-signing him for next year.  Honestly, I liked Taua a whole lot more than I did Lumpkin (he’s a harder runner, for one), and it wouldn’t break my heart to see Lumpkin go to camp elsewhere this year.

Free Agents

The only reason I can think of for the Seahawks to sign a free agent running back or two is if they want to grab a couple of camp bodies in preparation for this year’s offseason training regimen.  That’s a good thing, because the sorts of running backs who become available in free agency each year are not players you want to have on your roster if you can help it.  Playing running back is a young man’s game, and backs who are available to shop themselves around to other teams are generally too old or broken down to be useful anymore, or if they’re still young without a lot of wear and tear then you can almost bet the farm that they either have serious, crippling issues or that they’re simply not very good.

This year’s crop of RB free agents are either good players who are almost definitely going to re-sign with their old team (Danny Woodhead, Darius Reynaud) or the usual mix of too old (Steven Jackson, Michael Turner), too broken (Brian Leonard, Felix Jones), too ineffective (Jackie Battle, Reggie Bush), or too screwed up (Peyton Hillis, Cedric Benson) to be worth signing.  One of the few exceptions is Tyrell Sutton, who the Seahawks released in their final cutdown last offseason.  He isn’t terribly big (5’8”, 211 lbs) or fast (he runs the forty in 4.75 seconds), but he’s a great receiver and he’s a more powerful runner than his size would seem to indicate, as he proved last preseason by gaining 59 yards on 7 carries.  If he shows up on special teams and can improve in pass protection he could once again have an outside shot at a roster spot, assuming that Carroll and Schneider feel like extending him an invite to this year’s camp.

On a semi-related note, I noticed that Jerome Harrison appears on Rotoworld’s list of 2013 free agent RBs.  For those of you who don’t remember him, Harrison was brilliant when he finally got a chance to start a whole season his senior year at Washington State back in 2005 (he broke WSU’s single season rushing record, for one), but after he hit the pros he ended up inexplicably buried on the depth chart in Cleveland for years.  For a long time there I hoped the Seahawks would make a trade for him so we could have a better RB to root for than Julius “Run to Darkness” Jones, but alas.  When Harrison was finally given a real chance to play for the Browns in late 2009, he broke Jim Brown’s franchise record for most rushing yards in a single game.  Naturally, the Browns rewarded him by trading him to Philadelphia in 2010, where he sat on the bench behind LeSean McCoy. 

In 2011, he signed with the Lions, who then traded him back to the Eagles.  However, that trade was voided when a physical revealed that Harrison had a brain tumor, after which Detroit promptly placed him on IR.  There were serious complications during the surgery to remove the growth, but Harrison survived.  He was quadriplegic following the operation and suffered a series of minor strokes (assuming there is such a thing as a “minor” stroke), but today the guy is walking around and even making some noise about maybe trying to play football again.  It’s incredible that he didn’t end up in the obituaries, and now his name is showing up on a list of potential free agents, even if he most likely won’t ever return to the game.  (To Detroit’s credit, they’ve been helping Harrison out by sending him a paycheck these past two years by keeping him on their IR list.)  For a more in-depth story on him, check out this article on MLive.com by Anwar S. Richardson.

Keep on keepin’ on, Harrison.  For what it’s worth, the first thing I always did on Madden’s franchise mode was make a trade to put you in a Seahawks uniform.  You helped me bring a lot of digital Lombardi trophies home to the Pacific Northwest.

Tight Ends

Name Age Games Played (2012) 2012 Salary 2013 Salary Final Year of Contract
Cameron Morrah 25 IR $615k Free Agent 2012
Anthony McCoy 25 16 $540k $575k 2013
Darren Fells 26 - - $390k 2015
Sean McGrath 25 2 $390k $405k 2015
Zach Miller 27 16 $6 M $9.8 M 2015
Cooper Helfet 23 - PS $405k Res/Fut
Evan Moore 28 more than he deserved ? Free Agent -
Totals - - $7.545 M $11.575 M -

Starters

After spending most of the previous year hanging back in pass protection to shore up a patchwork offensive line, Miller entered the 2012 season with a lot of folks loudly questioning the wisdom of paying $6 million for a guy who caught just 25 passes in 2011.  This time around he’s scheduled to make $9.8 million, but after the season he just had I don’t think there’s a Seahawks fan alive who thinks that isn’t money well spent.

He still did plenty of in-line blocking for Seattle in 2012 (he’s pretty great at it, after all), but he also became an increasingly bigger part of the passing game as the season wore on.  According to my numbers, Miller had a 71.70% catch rate (38 receptions on 53 targets), which was the highest percentage among all the tight ends and wide receivers on the team, and he was at his best when Wilson targeted him on deep passes (11 receptions on 15 targets for a 73.33% catch rate).  He’s a strong route runner, he’s just fast enough to get behind safeties up the seam, and he showed off his great hands and body control on catches all season long, most notably on a go-ahead TD reception in the fourth quarter of the game versus the Lions.

Also, if you’re worried about Miller becoming prohibitively expensive after this season, I’ve got some good news for you.  The way his contract is structured, the 2013 season is his biggest payday by far.  After this season, his salary drops to $5.8 million in 2014, then drops again to $4.8 million in 2015.  Whoever Miller’s agent is, he’s damned good at his job.

Backups

Anthony McCoy was heralded as a sixth-round steal in the 2010 draft, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching him play those first two seasons.  He didn’t record a single catch his rookie year, and in 2011 he caught just 13 of the 24 passes that targeted him for a dismal 54.17% catch rate.  He was a strong blocker, but one with zero consistency; in some games he dominated with crushing blocks, but in several others he seemed to miss almost as many blocks as he made.

Luckily for McCoy, 2012 was something of a breakout year.  He routinely made key blocks and didn’t miss often, and he improved in the passing game with 18 catches on 28 targets for a 64.29% catch rate (ESPN’s stats have him at just 27 targets, which would improve his catch rate to 66.67%).  He still isn’t a strong enough receiver to give the Seahawks the one-two receiving TE punch they envisioned when they originally signed Miller to pair with the since-departed John Carlson, but he’s no longer a liability in that phase of the game, either.

Evan Moore was signed at the beginning of the season to potentially become that receiving threat, but he failed miserably, catching just one of six targets in limited playing time (and wiping out a second catch with a painfully blatant offensive pass interference penalty).  He was released following the game against the Bills in week fifteen, after which the Eagles signed him to a two-year deal for the veteran minimum.  As the cherry on top of the hugely disappointing sundae that was his 2012 season, he dropped a pass in Philadelphia’s week 16 game, then was an injury scratch for their season finale.  Amazingly enough, he’s still under contract with them for next year.

I like Cameron Morrah’s potential, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.  His blocking skills seem to be limited, but he’s a deceptively fast, athletic receiving threat in the mold of a Jimmy Graham or Kellen Winslow, Jr.  Eric Williams over at the Tacoma News-Tribune seems to believe there’s a good chance Morrah will re-sign with Seattle and go to camp with them, but I think the coaching staff will likely decide that he hasn’t done enough in his four seasons with the Hawks to warrant another opportunity.

If Morrah doesn’t return, the third TE spot will be wide open for either Sean McGrath, Cooper Helfet, or Darren Fells to secure, with McGrath being the likeliest of the three to take the job.  He’s just fast enough to get the job done and he looked competent as a blocker in preseason action, but the main thing working in his favor is that he has good hands.  The word all through last training camp was that McGrath was a favorite target of all three QBs that were on the roster.  Apparently he can also long snap, so I suppose there’s that, too.

Cooper Helfet had positive reviews all through training camp last year and looked good as a receiver in preseason action, but McGrath’s presence on the team stole some of his thunder.  Still, he persevered on the practice squad throughout 2012 and he’s been invited to this year’s camp on a reserve/futures contract.

At 6’7” and 280 lbs, Darren Fells is an intriguing physical specimen, but he also hasn’t played football since he left high school seven years ago.  Instead, he opted to play basketball in college, then spent the past three years as a pro basketball player overseas (¡Segui a Libertad de Sunchales!4).  He clearly impressed the coaches enough to give him a tryout, and Antonio Gates is living proof that basketball players can excel as tight ends even if they never played college football, but Fells is still a long shot to make the team.

Free Agents

Next to running back, tight end is probably the diciest position to pick up in free agency.  By its very nature, the position lends itself to injury — they’re asked to block like linemen but don’t have a lineman’s strength or size, and they can count on getting slammed by a linebacker or safety nearly every time they make a reception.  There are still quality signings to be made (see Miller, Zach), but you have to wade through a lot of injury-plagued detritus to find it (see Heap, Todd).

The Seahawks are definitely in the market for a tight end with stronger receiving skills than McCoy’s to pair with Miller.  Jared Cook is probably the top free agent TE available this year, but he’s almost certain to want more money than Seattle can afford to pay him, plus there’s a better than average chance that he’ll just re-sign with the Titans after spending a few days driving up the price for his services. 

Thankfully, there are a few more economical options available this year like Martellus Bennett, Brandon Myers, and Dustin Keller.  Bennett was an immature, underachieving jackass throughout his four years with the Cowboys, but he shut up and played reasonably hard last year for the Giants. 

Myers was brilliant last year with the Raiders, but that may simply be an indication of how weak the rest of Oakland’s receiving threats were.  He’s pretty average in terms of physical ability, and he was a virtual non-factor his first three seasons with the silver and black. 

Keller missed half the season for the Jets last year with injuries, but he was highly productive in his four seasons prior to that.  New York is expected to take a pass on him, and there’s a possibility he could be picked up on the cheap.  Assuming he’s healthy enough to revert to form, Keller would be a dangerous new weapon for Seattle’s passing game.

Wide Receivers

Name Age Games Played (2012) 2012 Salary 2013 Salary Final Year of Contract
Deon Butler 27 1 $615k Free Agent 2012
Doug Baldwin 24 14 $465k $555k 2013
Golden Tate 24 15 $540k $575k 2013
Charly Martin 28 4 $465k $555k 2013
Ben Obomanu 29 8 $2 M $2.3 M 2013
Jermaine Kearse 22 7 $390k $480k 2014
Stephen Williams 26 - - $555k 2014
Sidney Rice 26 16 $7 M $8.5 M 2015
Phil Bates 23 - PS $405k Res/Fut
Bryan Walters 25 - PS $480k Res/Fut
Braylon Edwards 30 10 ? Free Agent 2012
Totals - - $11.475 M $14.405 M -

Starters

Because of his stats, a lot of people seem to believe that Sidney Rice is not playing like the number one receiving threat the Seahawks are paying him to be.  Had he suffered through another injury-riddled season like he did in 2011, I would probably agree, but he didn’t.  Instead, he didn't miss a single game, and in all the coach’s tape I watched during the 2012 season I saw a receiver who sure as hell looked like he was playing like a number one wideout.  He doesn’t have blazing speed, but his exceptional body control and ability to shield defenders away from the ball are well worth the price of admission.

I would also argue that Rice’s receiving numbers are artificially low. The Seahawks threw the fewest passes in the NFL — 79.5 fewer attempts than the league average of 338.5, to be exact — and Wilson overthrew Rice on more than a few deep passing attempts.  His catch rate of 62.5% on short passes is still a bit too low for comfort (25 receptions out of 40 targets), but not so low that I think the team would be better off finding someone else instead.

Golden Tate had a great year for the Seahawks, especially in the short passing game (36 receptions on 45 targets for a catch rate of 80%), but after watching him struggle badly through his first two seasons I’m going to need to see him prove he can do it again in 2013 before I start to believe he’s capable of being the starter for the long run.  Like Miles Austin over in Dallas, Tate is essentially a wide receiver who is built like a running back, and he’s at his most dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands with enough room to make some moves.  He’s exceptionally good at high-pointing the ball over the heads of defenders, and his ability to pirouette his way out of tackles is notable both because he’s so damned good at it and because he never seems to catch his cleats in the ground and tear out every ligament in his knee and ankle when he does it.  Again, I’m not convinced yet that he’s a long term answer, but I’d love for him to prove me wrong.

Technically Doug Baldwin isn’t a starter, but slot receivers are so important to the modern passing game that I’m listing him as one anyway.  Baldwin was hampered by injuries throughout the season, and there was a long, difficult stretch there where he dropped a whole lot of passes.  Injuries are a problem for most slot guys, but if he can stay healthier and build some of his confidence back up he should hopefully be able to get right back to being one of the best slot receivers around.  Baldwin has a knack for settling into soft spots in zone coverage, and he isn’t intimidated easily by big hits from linebackers and other defensive behemoths.

Backups

If someone had asked me back in 2006 to pick the player most likely to still be on the roster in 2013, Ben Obomanu would definitely not have been my choice.  Hell, he probably wouldn’t have even been one of my top fifty choices, and yet here he is.  Obomanu is a solid receiver, thanks in large part to his picture-perfect route running, and when he sees time on the field he gets behind defenses far more often than you would expect from a guy with his average speed.  His real saving grace, though, is his solid play on special teams.  In short, Obomanu is exactly the sort of dependable, Swiss army knife player that teams look for to fill out the lower reaches of the depth chart.

The main thing working against Obomanu staying on for an eighth season with the Seahawks is the $2.3 million he’s scheduled to make this year.  I fully understand why the team signed him to that deal.  At the time, he was coming off a strong 2010 campaign in which he emerged as one of the team’s only reasonably healthy and halfway reliable receiving options so the team didn’t want to lose him, and giving him that contract served notice to the rest of the league that Seattle is a place where players who produce get the reward they’re due when it comes time to negotiate a new contract.  The question is, is his value to the team in 2013 still high enough to pay him that much money?

Out of all the backup receivers who played for Seattle in 2013, Charly Martin is my favorite.  He’s the only player on the roster other than Baldwin who seems to have any feel at all for the slot, he’s a surprisingly effective blocker in the run game, and he gets open more often than you would expect from a guy with his limited physical ability.  Admittedly, I have a weakness for try-hard underdogs like Martin, but I really do think he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL.  If Obomanu ends up on the outs, Martin would be my pick to replace him.

Jermaine Kearse is a raw but supremely athletic player who could be phenomenal if he can manage to learn to do all the little things it takes to succeed as a wide receiver in the pros.   My main concern with him is his hands, as he seems to drop a lot of passes that should have been easy receptions (that seemed to be his main problem in college, too).  If he can improve in that area, he has a shot at being the team’s next Golden Tate; if not, he’ll probably be the next Deon Butler instead.

Speaking of Butler, I highly doubt he’ll be returning.  He’s tough and exceptionally fast, but he doesn’t catch the ball consistently enough to justify keeping him on as a situational deep threat.  He was only brought back late in the 2012 season as an injury replacement, and while there’s an outside chance he could get an invite to camp this year I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes elsewhere.  Butler is a restricted free agent, which gives the Seahawks the right of first refusal, but as far as I can tell they’ve chosen not to present him with a qualifying offer sheet.

Phil Bates and Bryan Walters both spent time on the Seahawks’ practice squad last year, and both will be attending camp after being signed to reserve/futures contracts.  Bates generated a lot of buzz in camp last year for catching every ball that came even remotely close to him, but he ended up being cut after failing to do anything noteworthy during the preseason.  If he shows up this time, he’ll have an outside shot at a roster spot.  Walters looked promising in two seasons with the Chargers’ practice squad (apparently he was athletic enough to play Tim Tebow during scout team scrimmages), but last year failed to make the cut in Minnesota.  Past that, I don’t really have much information on the guy.

The Seahawks signed Stephen Williams the week of their divisional playoff game against the Falcons.  He looked promising as an undrafted rookie in preseason action with the Cardinals in 2010, but injuries and mental errors soon dropped him to the bottom of the depth chart.  He’s a mildly promising prospect if he can stay healthy, but that’s about all I’m willing to give him for now.

Braylon Edwards made a couple of nice plays for Seattle last year, but multiple dropped passes and a bum knee eventually resulted in his being released.  He was snapped up by his old team the Jets after the Hawks cut him, and he’s likely to sign a veteran minimum deal to remain there.  No loss there.

Free Agents

I’m rather ambivalent about the wide receivers available this year in free agency.  Part of that is because I don’t think the Seahawks necessarily need to sign a free agent WR, but also once you get past the big-money guys (Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson) there really aren’t any clear cut value choices out there.  Mark Clayton appears to be ready again after sitting out last year with knee problems, but he’s 30 and has never really lived up to his potential.  Greg Camarillo has some value as a possession receiver, but I don’t think he brings anything to the table that Obomanu and Martin don’t have.  Everyone else seems to fall into the usual avoid-‘em-if-you-can categories of has-beens, never-will-bes, the perpetually injured, and head cases.

*        *        *

1 Note: this will probably not actually happen.  As it so happens, I’m remarkably impervious to any and all feelings of guilt.

 

2 All data on snap counts in this article is courtesy of this handy sortable page Football Outsiders has on their website.

 

3 I know I’ve said in the past that the new kickoff rules made Washington a bit too overpriced to keep, but he proved me dead wrong this season.  A guy like that is a weapon worth holding on to.

 

4 I have no idea if this usage is even close to correct, so I apologize if I’ve just accidentally insulted everyone’s mothers or something.

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