Thursday, January 8, 2009

End Of Season Position Analysis, Part Six: Receivers

by: William T. Tommisser

It could be argued that the single most important event that triggered the dismal season of football we all endured in 2008 while watching our beloved Seahawks just get pounded in game after game was the demise of their receivers.

The Seahawks were so desperate at one point they signed and released unknowns like Billy McMullen and traded a 5th draft pick away for Keary Colbert while desperately trying to find someone who could play. They even brought back Koren Robinson to try and salvage their season before it got totally out of control and Seattle fell hopelessly behind in even the lowly NFC West standings. Would you have believed that one if told before the season started?

They were ultimately unsuccessful and as a result, we'll be drafting very high in the first round in April for the first time in over a decade the fourth pick overall. Mike Holmgren said that in all his years of coaching he'd never seen a year in which a whole squad of players got wiped out let alone two which is what happened to Seattle's receivers and then their offensive line as well in 2008.

Here's what the receivers looked like at the end of the season:

To Continue.....


* Koren Robinson (free agent)
* Bobby Engram (free agent)
* Mike Hass (just signed)
* Deion Branch
* Jordan Kent
* Courtney Taylor
* Nate Burleson (injured reserve)
* Ben Obomanu (injured reserve)
* Logan Payne (injured reserve)
* Trent Shelton (practice squad)
* Michael Bumpus (practice squad)
* Keary Colbert (hired and released during the season)
* Billy McMullen (hired and released during the season)

Tight Ends

* John Carlson
* Wil Heller (free agent)
* Joe Newton (practice squad)

Going into the season, Engram and Branch were both riding the pine and the team was trying to get through a couple of games using Burleson and a couple of the younger receivers on the roster (Kent, Payne, and Taylor). They were hoping that Engram would be back soon and Branch would follow after the bye week.

There might have been an ominous event that was a harbinger of things to come when Ben Obomanu, who was expected to make a good case for making the roster, injured his shoulder in the final preseason game against Oakland and was placed on injured reserve. What happened next though boggles the mind. With Branch and Engram already nursing injuries which were keeping them out of the lineup, Burleson was injured in the first game at Buffalo and Payne quickly followed in the second game against San Francisco.

At that point, the entire receiver’s corps from the 2007 team except for D. J. Hackett, who was lost in free agency, was unavailable to the team either suffering an injury and working through rehab or being placed on injured reserve and lost for the season.

Of all the receivers who started 2008 on the roster, only Courtney Taylor and Jordan Kent remained standing, two of the so called young guns. Taylor was thrust into a starting role and after he dropped too many balls was demoted and benched. Kent wasn’t ready to play in a starting role either. The Seahawks were desperate.

They quickly signed Billy McMullen, Keary Colbert, and even Koren Robinson. Of course, with the Seahawks luck running generally in the toilet, Robinson promptly hurt his knee and was out for the third game against the Rams and beyond.

Seattle entered the Rams game with 4 active receivers two of whom had only been with the team for a week, one who was in the doghouse and benched and the fourth who was entering his fourth year of playing the game of football with two years in college and one year on the Seahawk’s practice squad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that either.

By the way, we just killed the Rams that day 37 - 13 in what turned out to be the best game of the season for those Seahawks fans into annihilation. Go figure.

Everyone pretty much knows the rest of the story and how it wasn't until the later part of the season after the Seahawks were totally out of the playoff picture that they finally got their receivers back healthy and producing again.

Engram was very inconsistent right after he came back dropping several balls and finally started playing good ball like we're used to seeing him play for the last 4 or 5 games of the season.

About the same time, Branch returned to form and started playing well again too. The Seahawks took New England to the limit and generally played well for the last 4 games also denying Brett Farve a win he needed to get the Jets into the playoffs.

Looking towards next season, K-Rob is a free agent and not necessarily likely to be resigned since his advocate in Holmgren is gone and out of influence. Engram is a free agent too and could be resigned if the price is right but most likely won't be giving the Seahawks any home town discounts. If he gets a good offer from say Jim Zorn and the Washington Redskins, he’s probably gone. Yesterday, Seattle signed another receiver, Mike Hass, from Oregon State giving the team 9 receivers under contract fighting for maybe 5 or 6 spots at the most.

Greg Knapp, Seattle’s new offensive coordinator will by most accounts not be running as many 3 and 4 receiver sets so it's a possibility that he will only carry 5 receivers. Holmgren was prone to carrying 6 or even 7 at times. Carrying only 5 receivers would make a place on the roster a premium piece of real estate with so many competing.

Knapp prefers a running game as the primary focus of the offense so it's likely that the receivers aren't going to be quite as big a part of the picture as they were with the Holmgren regime with a lot more play action being called set up by the running game.

Probably, the top 3 receivers will be most important with the last couple of positions for backup and bringing up younger receivers. That could place a different emphasis on how the receiving corps is valued as an area of critical need.

If you concede a spot to Burleson and Branch and consider that a top tier free agent acquired or a higher round draft choice will make the team too, that leaves a couple of spots for about 7 players to fight over. That should be an intense competition.

I'm not sure that Seattle is really lacking talent at the receiver position as much as the talent has question marks. Branch played well during the last part of the season and barring any further injury, should come back and play at a high level again. Burleson suffered the same type of injury and it remains to be seen if his recovery will be as complete as Deion's appears to be.

Burleson figured to have a breakout year in 2008 before being injured and is an experienced and explosive receiver who can be a game changer. If he returns to form like Branch apparently has, the addition of a third talented receiver should give the Seahawks a solid group of receivers in 2009. They should be able to handle the demands of Knapp's offense as well as become solid targets for Hasselbeck or whoever is the QB.

The Seahawks don't want to be guilty of over thinking how to recover from the series of freak injuries that plagued them in 2008 and have to realize that it wasn't really a talent issue with our receivers. It was an enough warm bodies to field issue there for a game or two. We still have a couple of quality receivers in Branch and Burleson and need one good veteran receiver or a top draft pick to fill out the top 3 positions.

I listed the tight ends here as well as in the offensive line analysis but there’s little more to talk about than what was contained in that piece. Carlson had an amazing season for a rookie and looks like he’ll grow into a very fine player for us. Heller is a free agent and may or may not be resigned primarily as a blocker.

With the release of Putizer, there is a vacancy at tight end if Knapp wants to keep more than two. Joe Newton figures to make another attempt to crack the roster but I think 2008 might have been his last year of eligibility for the practice squad and the Seahawks probably have to decide on him one way or another this year.

The Seahawks might need to sign a couple of tight ends if Heller leaves and Newton can’t make the team. That’s actually one position that I’ve heard nothing about so far but there might be a real need there for backups.

Michael Crabtree from Texas Tech is the number receiver in the draft. Considered by most to be a top 5 pick as of the time I'm writing this article, he could go as high as number 1 to Detroit or Kansas City might also take a hard look at him at number 3. If he makes it to the number 4 pick, the Seahawks will certainly have to strongly consider him particularly if the two top offensive tackles are gone by then which is another definite possibility.

There are eight to ten other receivers who are projected to go somewhere in the first two rounds and into the top of the 3rd round in 2009. The Seahawks could grab a receiver somewhere in the first three or four rounds this season depending on how free agency went.

One bright side to picking at number four in the draft is that there are only three players who can go off the board before your pick and even if Crabtree, Bradford, Oher, and Smith aren't joined by any other players in the truly elite class of the draft this year, we'll still get one of them. If more players emerge worthy of top 5 consideration, we'll have our pick of them as well and then it's more likely the guy we really wanted anyway will be there for us since all the other teams will have more choices too.

Ruskell has been criticized at times for only drafting wide receivers in the 5th round and lower. Some fans feel that he should be spending higher picks to get a better quality player or going after a proven receiver in free agency.

He traded a third round pick to Minnesota for Burleson in 2006 and a first rounder to New England for the rights to Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, in September of the same year. Although both were injured in 2008, they figure to be ready for training camp in July. They remain Seattle’s top two receivers.

I don't know if Ruskell has a preference for proven veteran receivers over high draft choices but I suppose it's possible. If so, that could be a reason we don’t select Crabtree and go after someone else possibly a tier one free agent. Maybe Ruskell doesn’t trust high picks on receivers. It’s equally possible that circumstances have dictated what Ruskell did so far and Crabtree could be on the menu.

A lot of the hype about the Seahawks taking Crabtree is centered on the perceived need for receivers because they were all injured in 2008 at the same time and it made the news nationwide. The truth is that our top two receivers were both injured for most of the year in 2008. It's also true like Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’ll be back.

We might be looking at just going after one guy. Ruskell, Mora, and now probably Knapp have to decide whether to go after a proven free agent or draft Crabtree. They might think one of the other top 10 receivers in the first two rounds and the top of the third could come in and play right away too.

Ruskell seems to be making sure he has enough candidates that they should be able to find a couple of good young players to team with Nate, Deion, and either a free agent or a draft pick since he has 7 other receivers besides Nate and Deion under contract.

If they don't have a high level of confidence in Burleson's recovery or the ability of both of them to stay healthy, they might do both and draft a receiver in the high rounds and acquire a free agent. You’d have to figure that both the draft choice and the free agent would make the team under the circumstances so those 7 other guys would then be fighting for potentially one spot.

It could be that the awareness our receivers were injured at the first of the season influenced a majority of the mock drafts I've seen which seem to conclude that we will go after Michael Crabtree with the fourth pick in April. It's certainly a possibility. If he's becoming larger than life though, he might not be there when the Seahawks draft. That's also a possibility.