Overview: Seattle drafted John Carlson with the 38th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. He was the second tight end taken, and as seems to be the case, the NFL Draft process made the average mock draft look foolish. Carlson, and first tight end taken, Dustin Keller, were easily the two most valuable rookie tight ends. Carlson played in all 16 games and started nine. "Start" is a misleading stat in this case, meaning only that in seven games, Carlson did not take the field in Seattle's first offensive formation. Carlson participated in 72.3% of all plays, the fourth most plays of any offensive player and far and away the most of any skill position player. Carlson led Seattle in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
What went right: Carlson was a polished tight end, so his ability to start week one was not surprising. Seattle had no other steady receiving option, so his high number of targets and receptions was not surprising. That Carlson was able to start right away, be targeted so often on a team with no other rushing or receiving threat, outproduce Antonio Gates, Chris Cooley and Heath Miller, and continue to do so as teams assigned safeties and linebacker double-teams to cover him is still surprising.
Tight ends develop slowly. Why that is I am not entirely sure, but a tight end hasn't had a rookie season like Carlson's since Jeremy Shockey in 2002. Carlson did it with great hands, a good ability to box out and separate, and exceptional technical and effective route running. He can run a route like there's a line to follow and is so skilled and talented at route-running that he improvises with the harmony and augury of Charlie Parker.
He was a good but never dominant in-line blocker and a good run blocker in space.
What went wrong: Carlson was not a great pass blocker and showed inconsistent blitz recognition. In many ways, concerns about his speed proved justified and he was not a seam-stretcher or deep threat. He had some hamstring problems in late spring.
Outlook: It's easy, because he doesn't have exceptional top speed and because he's white and so can't be a great athlete (right?), to see 2008 as a great season, but also a great season that accurately portrays his potential. I think that's wrong. Carlson has great skills and adjusted to the league quickly, but even great skills grow and there's no sure limit on how fantastic a route runner he could become, how keenly he could carve a zone, or how ruthlessly he could box and bully safeties and linebackers. He's also sure to become stronger. But to say he can grow, especially grow as a blocker, is not to say we should expect Carlson to "break out". He's already one of the ten best tight ends in football and should stay so as long as he's healthy. His receptions may dip, or more likely hold but in a more productive offense, but unless Seattle suffers another great receiver die-off, he's not likely to push one-thousand receiving yards in a season.