Compared to past seasons, Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider has it pretty easy heading into March’s free agency period. There aren’t any superstars hitting the end of their deal, no key pieces about to land a big payday elsewhere. Schneider’s biggest decision may be whether or not to re-sign the recently struggling kicker Steve Hauschka, or to bring in a cheaper option.
Of course, like in every year, cheap role players are going to see their deal run out and go off to greener, richer pastures elsewhere. In past seasons it has been Byron Maxwell, Jeron Johnson, Jason Jones or Chris Maragos.
This year’s most likely candidate is tight end Luke Willson.
Despite being a backup to high-priced starters in all four seasons with the Seahawks - first behind Zach Miller, then Jimmy Graham - Willson has enjoyed a largely successful beginning to his career. There was a Super Bowl victory in year one and a career-high ten starts and three touchdowns in year two.
Due to injuries suffered by both Graham and Miller throughout Willson’s time in Seattle, he’s started 30 games in four seasons, while suffering through his own injury problems. Even when he was mainly backing up high-priced starters, Willson has done more than enough to garner some attention on the open market. He’s been a steady blocker - even getting a couple games at fullback this season - and fairly reliable in the passing game. His natural pass catching ability and sneaky-albeit-clunky athleticism was put on prime display in prime-time in 2014 against the Arizona Cardinals, when Willson went off for 139 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by an 80-yard catch and run.
Heading into free agency, Willson’s closest comparison is former Charger and current Pittsburgh Steeler Ladarius Green. Green was the heir apparent in San Diego, all set to take the reigns from the legendary Antonio Gates, before running into two problems: Injuries were a constant for Green, and Gates was/is/always will be ageless. Despite never fully reaching his potential with the Chargers, Green was given a four-year, $20 million dollar deal from the Steelers. Willson could receive a very similar offer come March.
The two tight ends have very different styles of play - Willson is a much more complete tight end - but Green and Willson’s numbers through the first four years of their career are extremely similar, as are the circumstances surrounding the start to their careers.
In four seasons in Seattle, Willson totaled 74 catches for 976 yards and seven touchdowns, while playing behind Pro Bowl tight ends and struggling with concussions.
In four seasons in San Diego, Green totaled 78 catches for 1087 yards and seven touchdowns, while playing behind an all-time great tight end and struggling with concussions.
Like in fantasy football, tight ends are a hot commodity. There simply aren’t enough good tight ends out there to satisfy all 32 franchises. It’s why you see teams with great quarterback play cycle through league-average tight ends like it’s the waiver wire, and it’s why teams will often gamble on unknowns. Delanie Walker finally hit free agency after seven years as the backup in San Francisco, signed a well-paying deal with the Tennessee Titans, and neither team nor player has looked back. It’s the lack of supply and the cases like Walker’s that will make teams gamble on unknowns at tight end time and time again, and it’s why Willson will likely depart the Seahawks and make a lot of money.
Willson’s preference could very well be to stay in Seattle, and Pete Carroll admitted they tried to work out an extension earlier in the 2016 season, but at the end of the day, Willson is going to go to a team that can afford to pay him fair market value, and in all likelihood that won’t be in Seattle. And that’s probably okay. They drafted Nick Vannett in the third round in 2016 and got a good number three in free agency with Brandon Williams. Look for them to target another tight end in the draft this year as well, or at least, on the undrafted market.