May 30, 2012; Renton, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice (18) participates in a running drill following an OTA practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE
The wide receiver group is quickly becoming the second most interesting training camp battle (behind quarterback, doy) as the Seahawks shuffle in veterans and rookie free agents alike to compete for roster spots. I tried to watch the receivers closely during my two days at camp and and came away with some general observations. First of all, Sidney Rice didn't do much at all either day - he was in a red jersey on Saturday and switched to his normal blue on on Sunday and appeared on mostly run plays on offense - and for the most part he was quiet. Regardless, we know what Rice can do when healthy so that's all I have to say about that.
Ben Obomanu and Deon Butler, to echo what Davis said this morning, had a good couple of days catching the football. Obomanu had one impressive catch in particular when he went up between two defenders and plucked the ball at it's highest point, and though this is not something I'm really used to seeing from Ben, it was an exciting play. His veteranosity was on full display though - solid not spectacular and he caught pretty much everything that went his way. He ran his routes and helped the offense move the chains on several occasions.
Butler, in particular, seemed to have really nice rapport with Matt Flynn - and he really separates himself from some of the rest of the group with his crisp routes and extremely quick change-of-direction ability. For all the talk of Butler's straight line speed you hear, his in-route cuts are what impressed me the most. He was able to gain separation easily in this way and I came away impressed with his play. The problem I see though is that he still can find himself being manhandled at the line of scrimmage. I realize that he's not going to be going up against a 6'4, 220 corner on most Sundays like Brandon Browner or Richard Sherman, but I did see several plays where he was just completely taken out of the action (borderline defensive holding... maybe) by both Browner and Sherman as they pressed him at the line. It's part of Seattle's defensive identity so in that sense it's good to see from the corners, but it does make me doubt Butler's ability at the X-receiver position with consistency.
More likely, I could see Butler's value as a Z or slot receiver backing up Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin, where he's able to go in motion and play off the line a few yards to avoid getting hung up on a jam. In any west-coast offense, and particularly if Matt Flynn ends up playing quarterback, timing is essential and even a second or two lost in getting around a defender can completely throw off the timing and rhythm of a pass play. Flynn's feet will be set, and Butler will still be fighting past a corner, thus forcing Flynn to move on to his next option. These plays and decisions happen in fractions of a second.
At this point, I just don't think Deon is an ideal fit at X - I could be wrong - but if I'm not, that's fine - a solid, dependable backup for Sidney Rice is valuable, and an ability to perhaps play in the slot makes Butler versatile enough to consider keeping on the 53-man roster. Most important, Butler didn't drop any passes that I saw over the two days; remember that drops were Ben Obomanu's main issue in 2011 and ultimately this front office's decision may come down to either Ben or Deon. At this point, for me personally, I would probably favor Butler over Obomanu in the age/money departments, but you have to take into account Ben's special teams contributions and whether there's another player on the team that can take over his role there, effectively
Ricardo Lockette looked very good on Saturday and though I didn't notice him as much on Sunday, I came away impressed with his play. He had several long receptions on 9-routes, which we all know he can run, but he also caught a couple of slants and out routes, and his competence there was encouraging. Most important, he appears strong at the line, perhaps a bit bigger than last year, and does have that tantalizing speed and acceleration that prompted John Schneider to note recently that Lockette was their highest graded receiver, physically, in the entire NFL Combine last year. On at least two occasions on Saturday, he blatantly shoved off on the defender prior to the catch, once directly in front of the defense's sideline. On that play, Red Bryant rushed onto the field, picked up the flag, and emphatically threw it down again at Lockette's feet, drawing hoots and hollers from the crowd. Somehow though, on several occasions, he was able to come up with tipped or defender-batted passes and that shows nice concentration. Still, as we've seen over the years, Training Camp All-Stars do not always have the staying power of, for example, a Doug Baldwin into the regular season, and I think Lockette is much more raw than many believe.
Also, it's important for a young receiver to be able to read the defense and react accordingly -- we learned recently that the Seahawks' offense is rife with conversion routes and sight adjustments, and downfield blocking is also very important. I didn't see evidence one way or another that Lockette has or hasn't mastered these areas as of yet but I would wager he's well behind Golden Tate in both, particularly in the ever-important downfield blocking area. Nonetheless, it seems realistic that Lockette will at least challenge for a roster spot and I'm more convinced now, than I was prior to camp, that he has a legitimate shot to stick on the 53-man roster come cuts. If he does make the team, it will most likely be at the expense of a veteran like Obomanu or Butler, which, I suppose I could live with.
As for the above mentioned Golden Tate, I would say that it would have to be a toss up between he and Doug Baldwin as to who had the most steady and impressive weekend performance of the receiver group. Tate looks like a man possessed, and grabbed impressive downfield throws several times on deep corner routes against the 2-man coverage soft spot - over the top of the corner and out of the range of the safety. He's shifty at the line and beats press seemingly with ease. He has the Butler 'drives like it's on rails' change-of-direction but is much more physical as a runner and in fighting for the football in the air. I've been reminded that Golden Tate has looked this way in training camp before and that's true, but combined with his strong finish last season, what I'm seeing looks like the probable answer at X-receiver.
I think his track record as a great downfield blocker further separates him from his competition but only time will tell if Golden can finally realize his potential, not on the practice field, but on game days. Right now, I'm optimistic that Tate can be that guy for the Hawks, but as I've said elsewhere, it's still very early.
Phil Bates was impressive. We've talked about him here already quite a bit and he lived up the hype that I'd been hearing about him. He made several high-difficulty catches falling out of bounds on Saturday in 11-on-11 drills, and in what's usually a very good sign, was targeted very frequently. He had a drop here or there over the two days, but overall I thought he really looked strong as a receiver, 'didn't shirk going over the middle' as Rob Rang recently put it, and moves very, very well for a guy his size. At 220 pounds, he looks more like a small linebacker or safety than a receiver and his size, coupled with his speed, makes him a likely candidate for special teams duty. As I've stated before, this makes him infinitely more valuable to the team as a back-of-roster receiver, because the more jobs you can do for a team, the better chance you have at sticking. From what I understand, he was also working out with the kick/punt return units on Monday so that's encouraging to hear.
Overall, I really do think Bates has a shot at the roster -- it's an outside shot and will ultimately come down to the Seahawks' desire to hold on to veterans like Ben Obomanu and Deon Butler, but if the team decides to go with a cheaper player with more years of club control to his name, Bates is a definite option. Also important, I do think he's got the versatility to play inside or outside, which certainly helps.
Kris Durham is another player that I watched a lot and overall I wouldn't say I was as down on him as some others have been. He had at least one inexcusable drop - the ball hit him on the hands for what would have been a first down in the 2-minute drill - but as a whole his performance wasn't as damning some have described. He still does do a good job using his big frame to fight for balls and from what I've seen he runs his routes well -- he's consistently where he needs to be and caught a lot of passes over the two days I was in attendance. I know that he'll be fighting for the X spot on the outside so every drop does count, but Durham's ability to play inside and up the seam in certain situations makes him a versatile option for the Seahawks at all three spots. I'll admit that both Bates and Lockette are more physically impressive and do offer very good competition with Durham for a roster spot, but I would say it's a bit early to be talking about the team giving up on him as a project, which we all knew he'd be. We'll find out, I guess.
I was interested to watch Lavasier Tuinei this weekend but must admit he didn't really show up much. I've heard some good things these past two days just from twitter, but at this point he seems more like a practice squad candidate. Same goes for Charly Martin and the mystery of Cameron Kenney is over, now that he's been released. I can't comment either way on Antonio Bryant because he watched from the sidelines both days I was at the VMAC.