In a regular NFL off-season, now would be the time to be all abuzz about your rookies. How each of them will be a starter, if not this year then next year. How your (list least favorite player here) will soon be replaced by the rookie who has none of the obvious glaring flaws that said player does, etc. We're not seeing much of that now, mostly due to the lockout, though no doubt also partially due to our draft, which I'd peg as "solid, but boring". There's not a lot of exciting debates you can hold about a right guard and right tackle, and a lot of the deeper picks are fairly obviously developmental picks.
I feel excitement about rookies often overshadows what really matters, especially for a rebuilding team like ours. More so than rookies contributing, what we need is key second- or third-year players showing growth and improvement. There are some players already getting buzz in this sense, despite the lack of open trainings, there are other players who are entering their make-or-break do-or-die seasons, and there are just some I'm personally curious to see develop. This series of posts, "On the Precipice", is about these players...
I have to start with Golden Tate. Other than Earl Thomas, Golden Tate is probably my favorite young player on our roster. When he was drafted 60th overall last year I was yelping with joy, as I personally considered Tate a borderline 1st round prospect. At that point our drop from pick 40 to pick 60 due to the Whitehurst trade seemed as good as irrelevant to me, as this is a player I think we could have taken at 40 as well.
What I love about Golden Tate is that he's a pretty unusual player. A running back out of highschool, Tate converted to wide receiver in Notre Dame and teamed up with Jimmy Clausen to break school records as a sophomore and junior in 2008 and 2009, before declaring for the draft. At 5'10 and about 200 lbs, he's not the biggest player out there, but his athletic abilities are through the roof. He's a stronger runner than you would expect for his size, using his lower-body strength to push forward through tackles for extra yardage. More than that, he has an open-field shiftiness which means he often avoids as many tackles as he breaks. In essence, Golden Tate runs like a tailback once the ball is in his hands, reminiscent of Percy Harvin or Carolina's Steve Smith.
The problem is getting the ball in his hands. Tate had to learn the receiver position in college. If I had to take a guess, I'd say this is the big reason he dropped as far as he did, as he had two major question marks: would his athletic ability translate well to the NFL considering his size, and would his rawness be a problem? The former hasn't been the problem from what we've seen in limited snaps, Tate's elusiveness and power translate well. But his rawness has been a big issue.
Now when I say raw the debate tends to focus on his route-running skills. Route-running is usually an issue for wide receivers coming out of college, as the NFL demands you to not only run much more diverse routes but also to run them much more accurately than you were asked to in college. Notre Dame's system isn't a bad one to come out of in this context, but it has become pretty clear that Tate's limited experience as a wide receiver means he has a lot to learn in this field, to the tune of making one mistake for every four plays in practice, as per Pete Carroll. However, focusing on this problem alone ignores another obvious weakness Tate had as a receiver coming out of college: he's not a great hands catcher. He tends to let the ball hit him on the chest and trap it with his arms rather than catch it with his hands, which creates problems as it is very hard to control the ball like that, especially if there is any defender closely covering you (and so far in the NFL Tate has shown little ability to gain consistent separation). To see what I mean, head to ProDraftParty's Highlights/Lowlights of Tate's college career and look at the plays at the 0:55 and 1:28.
The big thing about these issues is that both of them are very coachable, especially for someone willing to work on it like Tate. But they are problems that combine to make a wide receiver that is far from ideal, and one that Matt Hasselbeck in particular would not want to play with, preferring savvy veterans and precise route runners like any WC-offense guy would. And that's really the long and short of why Tate played so little last season, it's not just that he has weaknesses in his game, but that his weaknesses mesh up particularly badly with our quarterback's skills as a passer. Because of that, he spent a lot of time on the bench and did little when he was on the field, to the tune of a meagre 21 catches for 227 yards and no touchdowns. But what to expect this season?
Worst-case scenario: The shortened off-season means Golden Tate shows no progress at all in improving on his route-running skills or pass-catching mechanics. He's on the field more but doesn't make good use of his opportunities, either running his routes sloppily or dropping the ball, particularly when he's got a defender right on him. Similar numbers to his rookie season are the result.
Best-case scenario: Tate works hard at improving no matter how he's used, and Carroll and Bevell gratefully use this effort to put him on the field as much as possible, in special teams or on offense. Used as a runner (often out of the wild-cat) and a cog in the short passing game, and as a punt and kicker returner along with Leon Washington, Tate racks up between 900 and a 1000 yards on 70 catches and adds more than 400 yards in kick and punt returns.
My take: Golden Tate's been getting some off-season hype courtesy of Pete Carroll. And I expect him to wow again at mini-camp much as he wowed as a rookie in camp, because he's just the type of player to wow in those situations. But I don't think Tate's flaws are that easily fixed, and realistically we knew that when he came out of college. Little in how he's played has surprised me so far, positively or negatively. What I find interesting is the idea of Pete Carroll using him more extensively. While Tate is not yet ready for the traditional WR role, he is the kind of player where if you get him the ball, something happens - usually something interesting. For that reason I think he should see more time both on offense and as a punt returner. End-arounds and screen passes are the most obvious ways to expand his role as well as a few short routes that maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses, like simple drag or hitch routes. Additionally, he played as a runner out of the wildcat at times in college, and I'm curious to see if he could do the same in the NFL. Utilized enough, I would expect him to double his rookie numbers for about 500 yards from scrimmage, and add a healthy dose of return yards as well. In quality of play, I fully expect to see him drop balls and botch routes, but to also show marked improvements in this area. Not blowing anyone out of the water, but for a raw wide receiver like Tate two years strike me as the minimum buffer to grow into his role in the NFL.
On the long term, I think Tate is the best receiver prospect we have. Mike Williams is probably too much of a WR/TE tweener to be a WR1 (he's comparable to Marques Colston in that sense, but I I don't think he's as good), and guys like Butler or Obamanu are more situational supplements, great for multi-receiver sets, which I think is what we should expect out of Durham too. More than any of these guys, I have real hopes for Tate to be the WR1 - albeit a very unusual one, who plays better in the short than in the long passing game and will always be more of a yards-after-reception type guy. For me to cling to that hope, I'll want to see real improvement both in his catching technique and route-running skill this season.