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The Mike Williams Conundrum and the Big Slot Receiver

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I recall that prior to this last season, Rotoworld/NBC/PFT writer and fantasy football expert Evan Silva was arguing Marshawn Lynch was the worst starting RB in the league. That bugged me. Not in a "argh how he dare speak ill of a Seahawks player?!" way, but more in a "that can't be right" way. Excepting the New Orleans game, Lynch had indeed looked pretty awful in his time with us in the 2010 season. But I never felt he was as bad a player as he looked to be in those games. Twitter is not a good medium to argue indepth tho', so I just settled for a half-hearted "Well, Cedric Benson is worse", which Silva acknowledged, though he still doesn't seem to like Lynch very much nowadays.

Mike Williams - while not as good as Lynch - conjures up similar sentiments from me. Following the 2010 season, the main debate was about whether or not he was a legit #1. I ended up arguing that he is not (while acknowledging arguments that he might be), though I certainly didn't expect the collapse that followed this season, which I've tried explaining. Both times I got some strong counterarguments against my viewpoints that he is a very limited wide receiver, and that his ceiling and collapse or both tied to these limitations.

BMW was a very popular player. Now he's all-but-forgotten when I see people discuss our WR situation. Sometimes he's not even mentioned. This doesn't sit well with me for much the same reason the Lynch discussion didn't sit well with me. BMW is not as bad as people seem to feel he is, now. Nor is he the #1 receiver others were once ready to crown him as.

The NFL does have transcendent talents, and it has some players that are just not good enough to start at all. But the vast majority is somewhere in between. Sometimes they're just not outstanding at anything. Sometimes, like with BMW, they have significant strengths and significant weaknesses. BMW has good hands, a tremendous wingspan and great body control and coordination, which combines to give him his outstanding "put it up and he'll come down with it" ability. But one the other hand, he lacks burst and short-area quickness, and doesn't have noteworthy routerunning. This means he takes longer to top off most routes, and it leads to a lack of separation on most plays. And I don't mean that as a mild criticism, I mean it's a huge problem, and it didn't improve much from 2010 to 2011. I remember looking at the tape for wide receiver notes, and observing at one point that Doug Baldwin was already topping off his route 10 yards deep, while BMW was only just then hitting stride in his route about 5 yards deep. It looked farcical.

So, time to give up? I wouldn't say so, no.

I don't think this receiving group absolutely needs additional investments. That doesn't mean it couldn't use them if opportunity permits. The Packers have shown the wisdom of constant investment even if you do have solid, reliable starters in place (which we don't). Nor does it mean I'd shed a tear at Floyd or Blackmon at 12. But we do have bigger needs. I don't think our receiving situation is as much about needs as it's about puzzling how best to use the current, often high-potential talent.

Sidney Rice has the WR1 spot well locked up. We hired him knowing he is an injury prone player, and he showed he is an injury prone player. He looked like a legit number one on the field, and the front office will definitely keep trying a while longer keeping him on the field before moving on, and justifiably so. Kris Durham and Golden Tate both have the ability to be solid starting perimeter receivers and both should get an honest chance to challenge for said spots this off-season. I have a soft spot for Tate, but regardless I don't think it unreasonable to expect that between the two we can expect a competent perimeter starter this season already.

The question remains: what to do with BMW. I believe his statistical drop is more about context, that he has the same strengths and weaknesses as before, and is capable of starting as a possession receiver type across from Rice. But at the same time, when looking at our receiving depth and writing about our slot receivers, I kept thinking "Tate as our second-best slot guy doesn't make a ton of sense", and later I found myself speculating (and talking with Danny about) "what if Mike Williams is our second-best slot receiver?"

Crazy? Yes, probably. But not as crazy as you might think. The prototype of the slot receiver is the small, shifty guy with excellent hands and routes. But as regular readers of my work know, I like keeping my eye on emerging trends and atypical types, because I firmly believe it's important to maximize talent by keeping an open mind to unconventional options. One of those trends is the emergence of the big slot, commonly WR/TE tweener types for teams that lack a Joker-type TE.

Marques Colston - a guy I like to bring up often when discussing BMW - is probably the prototype. Colston dropped to the 7th round because he lacked vertical route abilities, but he possesses a wide wingspang as a 6'4 receiver, as well as good hands and body control. But he didn't fit the mold of a starting wide receiver, so he dropped, and many thought he'd have to convert to tight end, but instead he's been the Saints' best, most reliable receiver, despite not being a WR1. Danny pointed out the Bills ran with a similar experiment, putting second-year UDFA David Nelson, all 6'5 215 lbs of him, in the slot, and got some very good results from it, especially in the redzone. Cosell recently noted he could see draft prospect Alshon Jeffery in a similar role.

The reason the big slot is so efficient is the same reason the pass-catching tight end haunts defensive coordinators - you're isolating huge guys on linebackers or nickel corners and that's an easy matchup if you can create it. The problem is that the space are a lot smaller in the shallow middle, and while shorter routes would help offset BMW's deficiencies, his lack of fluidity and short-area and change-of-direction quickness will still hurt in the shallow middle.

Now, obviously we have a good slot receiver in Doug Baldwin, and I'm not suggesting unseating him. Nor do I have any idea if our coaches are thinking anywhere along these lines, or even if this could work. That said, since we keep coming back to the concept of touchdown makers, lining up Rice and Durham on the perimeters and BMW in the slot on red zone passing downs could cause quite a few problems for the defending team, and rotating out BMW's WR2 spot regularly to give Durham and Tate more time seems like a good idea anyway. Not an obvious move, but an intriguing possibility, in my opinion.