Seahawks Preview 2015: Receivers

It’s a common cliché to refer to a sports team’s years of having championship caliber squads as a “window of opportunity,” but the cliché is apt. When applied to the Seattle Seahawks, the window of opportunity appears that it will coincide with the ability of team’s receivers to create windows in which Russell Wilson could throw them the ball. Some might argue that it is the receivers’ inability to create space that hinders the Seahawks potential. In last year’s Super Bowl, for instance, Wilson not being able to throw to any open receivers stalled several second half drives. Those drives ended quickly giving the New England Patriots more time to score, which the Patriots did twice to win the game in the fourth quarter. Conservative play-calling also played a role in those unsuccessful drives, but the weakest unit of the Seahawks may have played a part in creating those decisions. Injuries and trades made the receiving group even thinner as the season went on, but the Seahawks made it a priority to get better in the offseason. Did they get better? That is one of the main questions as the Seahawks head into the 2015 season.

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For the purpose of this preview of receivers, tight ends are being included. Though the Seahawks tight ends are capable of catching the ball, they have mainly been relied upon to add to the running game. That said, the biggest offseason acquisition was, of course, Jimmy Graham. Graham plays at an extremely high level. Graham’s ability potentially changes the entire passing attack. He is a big target at 6’7” and 265 pounds. He scores, he runs. His stats last year (85 catches, 889 yards, 10 touchdowns) dwarf the whole of the Seahawks tight ends (48-757-6). Of course, Graham played with the New Orleans Saints the past several years, and they throw the ball a lot more than Seattle. Graham probably will not match the numbers he put up last year. But he will be productive and the simple threat of Graham will open up other possibilities. The only two questions are 1) how well will he block? and 2) how the other Seahawks will view him if he does not perform well in big games? These are questions that cannot be answered yet, but we can assume that his pass catching abilities will more than make up in what he lacks in blocking. The other question is how the Seahawks view him, and that is a tougher one. When he played for New Orleans, Graham had a well-reported argument with the Seahawks in warm-ups prior to a 2014 playoff game. That game Graham caught only one pass, but lost the respect of many Seattle players – players who are still with Seattle. The Seahawks are a welcoming group, for the most part. They have achieved the highest level of success and expect new players to understand the goals of the team. But there intentionally is no hierarchy; players help other players learn the systems. The Seahawks only care if a player shows up and does his best to help the team succeed. There are no prima donnas. Wilson, for one, has attempted to build chemistry between the two, including missing the first day of OTAs while going with Graham to Miami for the funeral of Graham’s personal manager, Tammy Meyerson. The team understands how important Graham is, and while no player is more important than the team, he could be the difference between the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl or not.

Depth at tight end is fairly solid, thanks to Luke Willson showing some flashes of playmaking potential last season. Willson is possibly an even worse blocker than Graham, but having both on the field at times could be interesting. Beyond Willson are tight ends better known for their blocking, Cooper Helfet and Anthony McCoy. McCoy is attempting to come back from missing two years with injury.

The wideouts are more of a question because of youth, injury or size. Angry Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks in catches and receiving yards last season with 66 and 825, respectively. But he only had three touchdowns, and that is part of the issue. Baldwin’s only catch in the Super Bowl was for three yards and a touchdown, but if not for an unintentional pick set by the umpire, the pass would probably not have been completed. A number one receiver, which Baldwin almost by default is for Seattle, on an NFL team should have the ability to create space for his quarterback. Baldwin does not do this well. Also, he is not big enough to overpower defensive backs. Seattle does not want to have to throw the ball to win a game, but it does want to have the ability to do so if needed. Wilson has proven he can win games with his legs and arm, but the Seahawks receivers need to make it easier for him. Mostly, the receivers have not shown the talent to make it easier for Wilson to throw to them. This is epitomized in Baldwin: he is not a bad receiver; he is just not good enough to be the top target.

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Jermaine Kearse is a bigger receiver than Baldwin, but only had one touchdown reception in 2014. His hands are extremely inconsistent. In the NFC Championship game last year Wilson had four interceptions. Two of those were intended for Kearse, and both should have been Seahawk completions. However, the post play that ended the game saw Wilson throw a perfect pass which Kearse caught after using his size to shield the defender from the ball. It was a perfectly executed play. In the Super Bowl, Kearse had three receptions for 45 yards, but almost all of those were on a pass late in the game that bounced off a Patriots player and Kearse had the presence to stay with the ball to make the catch. For almost the entire game, though, Kearse, like Baldwin, could not get himself open. For Kearse to improve, he must become more consistent.

Chris Matthews may be the biggest question mark of all the receivers. Before anyone else playing in the Super Bowl had a clue who he was, he had four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. Those four catches were the first ones Matthews had in his NFL career. The fact is that Matthews did look like an NFL receiver when he caught those passes: he played tall and used his hands and caught the passes cleanly. He has size at 6’5” and 218 pounds.  He has had a very circuitous route to the Seahawks having not played at all in 2011 and was in the Canadian Football League before signing a two-year contract with Seattle in 2014. What Matthews does in 2015 is anyone’s guess, but he will definitely get a chance to prove he belongs on the team.

The Seahawks are hopeful that three young receivers will produce solid numbers in the near future. Tyler Lockett will be a rookie, but he will start immediately returning punts and kickoffs. He might take a bit more time to acclimate to the speed of NFL defensive backs, but he also has the speed to compete. Like Kearse, Lockett will need to get more consistent with his hands, however. Kevin Norwood is a second year player out of Alabama who does not possess elite speed, but does have strength and the ability to catch in traffic. Also, he is an excellent route runner. Paul Richardson, who might miss at least the first six games of the season due to tearing his ACL in last season’s first playoff game, was starting to become a solid option before his injury.

This year might be, unfortunately, a wasted year for Richardson, but in 2016 the Seahawks will have a healthy Richardson and second-year Lockett and still have Jimmy Graham. Doug Baldwin will still be under contract, and if Matthews performs well will mostly likely stay in Seattle. The future is looking better for this unit. So, did the Seahawks get better this offseason? Without a doubt they did, if only because of trading for Jimmy Graham. But they could be even better beyond this season, and the group that was probably the weakest on the Seahawks the last couple of years could turn into a strength. Even a modest improvement in 2015, grouped with possibility the best entire roster in the NFL, might be enough to push Seattle to their second championship in three years.