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Seahawks on tape: John Ursua has been the perfect slot receiver in preseason

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NFL: Preseason-Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

John Ursua is making the Seattle Seahawks final 53. The slot receiver has had an impressive preseason, to such an extent that it would be shocking to see Ursua play in Exhibition Game 4. Cutting the 7th round rookie would be disappointment in a totally different stratosphere to the level of departures like Kasen Williams or Troymaine Pope.

Shedding Ursua would be a miscalculation. The former Hawaii offensive star has played with prototypical Seattle slot receiver traits. As Field Gulls’ Mookie Alexander pointed out: “At 5’9” and about 180 lbs, he has a fairly similar physical and athletic profile to #89, who just happened to wear #15 in his rookie season when he was a preseason star.”

There’s a distinctly Seahawks-feel to Ursua. He has the Golden Tate-style backwards hop, the Tyler Lockett upright style and the Doug Baldwin dead-leg skip. And he is visibly enamored with run-blocking.

Not the fastest receiver, running a 4.56 forty, Ursua is one of the quickest. His 6.77 second 3-cone and 37-inch vertical are testament to his explosiveness and agility. There’s a long history of NFL stars who have been 3-cone kings and it makes sense that Ursua was a three-sport athlete in high school.

Post-draft, Ursua’s fit in the Seahawks’ offense was obvious too. John Schneider reacted: “John has been honestly one of our favorite players throughout the whole process. He had an awesome visit with us, led the nation with 16 touchdowns. He is going to come in and compete for that slot spot.”

In a pass-heavy, Run N Shoot Rainbow Warriors attack, Ursua still managed to receive 27.9% of the targets which placed 10th in Sports Info Solutions’ target share charting of draft eligible receivers. SIS recorded that Ursua spent 92% of his final season in the slot. Asides from a 2017 ACL injury, Ursua was a reliable college player—starting 32 of a possible 33 games.

It’s still surprising to see Ursua’s traits translate so well to the professional game though, even if he hasn’t enjoyed snaps with Russell Wilson—mainly because Tyler Lockett has been the slot receiver when the first-team offense has been on the field.

Ursua’s route-running intelligence has been most obvious against Middle of the Field Open pass defense on two third-and-long catches. He has been smart with his route-stems, out-leveraging the reroutes of underneath zone defenders and quickly identifying what the coverage is. The timing of his routes is a quarterback’s dream.

Ursua then nestled away from dangerous defenders—such as the backside safety in cover 2/match quarters—and was wide open for the reception. Finding, recognizing and staying in space are invaluable skills for a receiver.

On this 3rd and 14 against the Broncos, Ursua got his Tate-style hop going after the catch:

Ursua also converted against the similar Middle of Field Open Vikings defense on a 3rd and 10. I had to blink to make sure this wasn’t Tyler Lockett on the field (it was also 5am in England):

This “catch” against the Broncos’ Middle of the Field Closed Cover 1 pressure illustrated different elements to Ursua’s game. Seattle has protected the receiver from pure press coverage by aligning him off the line of scrimmage on each of his snaps. In this rep, we still got to see Ursua avoiding a man-to-man reroute though. This suggests promising potential for the future.

Ursua stemmed well, employing a shoulder feint and jab step to win clean, outside leverage and get on top of the nickel cornerback quickly. He made sure to run his route well past the sticks and showed some semblance of stacking the defender to sell the deeper route and create more space to the sideline.

There was ample room for the ball to be squeezed in but Paxton Lynch didn’t step into his throw properly. Ursua still managed to adjust to the underthrown pass and come back to the football. He also wasn’t touched down by the defender.

This was preseason officiating at its most rampant, but it did give us this gift of a gif:

Ursua avoided the tighter reroute of a redzone adapted cover 3 zone defense too. The Vikings were in their red 3, with the hook curl defender looking to catch and ride with Ursua to the endzone unless the #3 receiver went to the flat. Ursua was too quick and smart for this. He sold the out-breaking route with a stutter, then darted open on the skinny post making sure to stay away from the lurking Middle of Field safety.

Ursua executed perfectly for a well-earned touchdown. Two “ifs” broke the play. If Seattle’s #3 receiver, tight end Jackson Harris, had done a better job of clearing out the Strong Hook defender, the throwing window would have been wide open. If Paxton Lynch had shown anticipation and thrown this earlier, no near-interception would have happened.

It’s Ursua’s ability in staple offensive concepts of Brian Schottenheimer that has been so impressive. This is the biggest reason for excitement. The Seahawks offensive coordinator loves running play-action with just two downfield route concepts—a deep route and then an intermediate over route. There is then a shallow checkdown route and the rest of the players stay in to protect.

Ursua, in week 3 against the Chargers, ran an absolutely gorgeous over route on a Play-Action Waggle concept. It was full of the same intelligent route-running behind his college production and other impressive preseason plays.

Ursua understood that he didn’t need to get immediately open, somewhat selling the run-block initially as quarterback Geno Smith executed the play-fake. Ursua then quickly keyed that the cornerback was in zone coverage and would not follow him across the field. Yet Ursua still did not rush, waiting to fully clear the second level linebackers.

Then Ursua broke across the field, accelerating into his cut well behind the second level at the perfect time for Smith. Ursua understood when, and where, he needed to get open. This is route-running patience and intelligence that is borderline unique for a receiver. And he boasted it on a core Seattle play.

Ursua also thrived on a Play-Action Slide concept, designed to get him showing his dynamic, explosive ability after the catch. The play concept was drilled by Schottenheimer himself in the offseason, as the Seahawks’ Mic’d Up video series filmed and as this Seahawks on tape explains in detail.

Ursua ran the slide route, correctly going underneath the contain defender and getting open quickly in the flats for Smith to hit as soon as possible. He transitioned quickly from receiver to runner, turning up field with the ball secure and flashing more explosive fluidity in the open field. There was a Baldwin-skip. Finishing the run with more toughness was nice too.

The short area quickness that Ursua possesses, despite a mediocre forty-yard-dash time, saw Hawaii use his ball-carrying potential—he had 2 rushing touchdowns in college. Like how Seattle uses Tyler Lockett, Ursua can be deployed on end-arounds, fly sweeps and jet sweeps as a backside pursuit constraint and genuine ball-carrier.

Ursua’s 11-yard carry against the Vikings proved his ability. Despite two iffy perimeter blocks not fully sealing the outside lane for Ursua, the slot receiver still managed to beat all of the defenders to the EDGE and turn upfield.

Spending two years on a mission to Paris after graduating high school in 2012 does mean that Ursua is an aged rookie at 25-years-old. That doesn’t feel like a big issue though, given that Ursua understands how to get open. What he must continue to hone is his ability to get off press coverage, but that doesn’t feel like something limited by age.

Indeed, Ursua has played well despite missing rookie minicamp with a hamstring injury and struggling in OTAs. He told John Clayton: “You know OTAs were a struggle for me, I’m not going to lie. I came out almost every day and I got nervous every time I had to go in there and just hear the play call. Now that it’s becoming a lot more comfortable and I’m in the room studying and at the hotel, it’s just become so much more natural and I get to have more fun while I’m out there.”

Ursua is disadvantaged by his unfamiliarity in the offense still, with Carroll commenting in his pre-Raiders presser:

“It’s gonna take those guys a while. They’re not fully up to speed, both of them missed time—just John and Gary [Jennings] for instance—they both missed time you know. And it’s harder position than you’d think. There’s so many intricacies to it. We’ve had young guys where it’s taken them a while, it’s rare when the young guys really play well early.”

It’s partially why men like Malik Turner have received first-team playing time in-game. Said Carroll on “guys like Keenan Reynolds”:

“They’re really well-versed. They really know their stuff. They’re great. They can play multiple positions. They can run all of the routes. They can do everything. So, it does give them a real advantage and makes the decisions really challenging.”

Yet Schneider's post-draft comments made Ursua sound like the one player he personally had to draft. The General Manager traded back into the 7th round to take Ursua, giving up a 2020 6th rounder, after calling Ursua’s agent and learning that seven teams had already approached the receiver with offers in UDFA (per John Clayton).

Rivals for the pure slot role like Reynolds have done almost nothing in 2018 preseason games, playbook knowledge or not. Though Reynolds isn’t practice squad eligible anymore, surely Ursua is above him on performance? And that’s not to mention the disappointment of Gary Jennings...

With Ursua’s talent, Schottenheimer can pick the best match-ups—aligning Lockett outside and Ursua in the slot OR putting Lockett in the slot and Jaron Brown outside. There are things to clear up: such as not false starting (he did against the Chargers), and getting off pure press. The greatest challenge for Ursua feels like fully learning the scheme.

Ursua’s year one ceiling feels similar to Doug Baldwin’s rookie year; we will then see if Ursua can learn the masterful release plans to beat the press coverage of the outside despite his smaller stature.

For now Ursua is purely a slot. And he’s one that will consistently beat a variety of coverage. “He’s always been open. You see him,” Russell Wilson told The Athletic. “He’s got this catlike reflex. He’s got this ability [to] kind of make people miss. It’s pretty special.”

With the depleted nature of the Seahawks’ receiver room, Ursua’s cerebral route-running is a massive boost. Giving Wilson the talents of Ursua feels dangerous. Discarding Ursua would be the grossest of contradictions to Carroll’s driving philosophy of “Always Compete.”