In the final three days of training camp let's review our three preseason position battles. Today we start with a battle that some may think has gotten short shrift at Field Gulls: Wide receiver. Notice I didn't say slot receiver, or #3 receiver, that's because I still think the team sees Courtney Taylor as a starting flanker and hopes to move Engram back to his natural position in the slot. Obomanu and Payne are both probably competing for the second slot spot, with Obo possessing a good lead.
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In his third year with the team, Obomanu might be the real reason Seattle hasn't felt pressed to add another receiver. A four year contributor at Auburn, Obo never excelled, never topped 400 yards or 35 receptions, but did enough on a rush first offense and showed enough physically at the combine to make an interesting developmental pick. Two years later, if my eyes don't deceiver me, he's tapping into that potential. His route running was always technically sound, but he's improving his ability to adjust to coverage and gain separation. Plus, his hands, ability to fight for the jump ball, ability to work underneath and across the middle are all finally getting up to speed.
Ideally, the team wants to make Obomanu the new DJ Hackett. Good value per reception, but not a player you run your offense through. A competent deep man and standout in the red zone. Over his junior and senior seasons, Obomanu caught 12 touchdowns on a pair of offenses that threw for only 44. He's long and has good leaping ability, but is slight and must improve his strength, timing and/or positioning.
Taylor wants to practice, but the team isn't letting him. That's typical for an injured veteran or superstar, but when a second year receiver with five receptions for his career is protected, it's probably because the team is counting on him. Throughout training camp, the story between the lines has read Taylor is the favorite, if healthy, Taylor should win the job. For Taylor, all that matters now is staying healthy and performing in the preseason. Accomplish both, and Taylor should be Seattle's starting flanker against Buffalo.
The Dark Horse:
It's little wonder Payne does so well in practice. He's dedicated, has good hands and runs tight routes. Practice is the ideal setting for Payne. The question is whether Payne's game will survive against less friendly competition. The early reports are no: In scrimmage, Payne dropped a pass in traffic. He was wide open, but also surrounded. That's the life of a zone busting slot man, lots of space, but twice as many hits. Being a bulldog and holding onto the ball is a prerequisite. On another play Payne probably fumbled, but in the quick and uncontested play of an intrasquad scrimmage, the pile was disbanded and the ball awarded to the offense. If the ball even came loose, regardless of possession, that's bad.
Payne has the most to prove and the most to lose in the preseason. He should play Bobby Engram when Engram sits, and should receive plenty of targets. As such, Payne will tally completions, amass yards, but it's the quality of those completions, the consistency of those yards that matter. Can he convert third downs? Convert 60%+ of his targets into completions? Be drop free, fumble free, mistake free? When you're natural talent is as close to league minimum as Payne's is, the requirements are stringent, but that's the job.
The Wild Card:
When you draft a player like Jordan Kent, you're awaiting a tipping point. A point when his skills have grown enough that combined with his athleticism a functional player is formed. From there, the project is left behind and that player irreversibly improves. At that point, when Kent can take the field without being a liability, Kent's athleticism will demand a roster spot. Kent might be nearing that point, but practice won't tell us.
Kent has the most to gain in the preseason. It's easy, when a player starts as unskilled as Kent, to celebrate how much he's improved. Why, last year Kent could have single handedly crippled the offense and now he's almost able to catch the ball! Jawsome! No. Improvement isn't enough. Kent must be a wide receiver, not a great, good, or even okay one, but when he takes the field he must present a viable, realizable receiving threat. Should he do that, become, minimum, a bad day Ashley Lelie or Koren Robinson, Kent's potential is too great to ignore and not only will he earn a roster spot, he'll earn regular looks in the regular season.
Michael Bumpus is making a strong push for the practice squad. His worst baggage: his size + athleticism are borderline NFL quality. His greatest asset: he's an NFL ready reinforcement should the worst case scenario occur and the Hawks have to pull a receiver from their practice squad.
Joel Filani is tall and runs fast out of pads, plus he posted back to back 1,000 yard seasons at Texas Tech. Those three facts should help him find another team after Seattle waives him. Already waived by the Titans and Vikings, FIlani plays slow and probably is not long for the league.
Bryan Gilmore is like zoom! He's agile and battle tested. Too bad his hands were blown off. Caught 37% of the passes targeting him in 2007; Gilmore has already earned a reputation for drops in practice. Methinks Gilmore was signed just to reveal the shadowy mysteries of Alex Smith's suck-pass. How does it wobble so violently? Where does it go? How does it suck so hard and still retain flight?--briefly.
Trent Shelton is a big, possession receiver without great hands. Probably has a slightly better chance of making the team than Gilmore. Just 23, the hands could still come.