It’s that time of year again as we all look ahead to the 2016 NFL season. The draft is in the rear-view mirror and training camps are a stone’s throw away. It’s the time of year where fans everywhere ponder their team’s possibilities with open hearts, irrational expectations, and a tendency to overlook the reality of most situations.
However, regardless of which fan base you find yourself rooting for this summer, there is always room for hope, most commonly due to the influx of young talent across the league. Therefore, it seems only appropriate that we at SportsTalkLine.com take an updated look at the incoming rookie class. In this case, we’ll be starting with the perennial NFC powerhouse Seattle Seahawks and a case by case look at how their draft class fits into the organizations short and long-term plans.
Following their first two selections in the 2016 NFL Draft, the majority of fans in the Pacific Northwest were generally content with Seattle’s methodical approach to strengthening their trenches. First round draft pick Germain Ifedi filled a glaring need along the offensive line—regardless of where he eventually lines up—while defensive lineman Jarran Reed seemed to fall right into the Seahawks lap, immediately becoming the likeliest replacement for recently departed nose tackle Brandon Mebane.
However, it was Seattle’s selections in the third round that seemed to draw the most widespread intrigue amongst fans and draft pundits alike. Armed with three picks in the round, General Manager John Schneider and Head Coach Pete Carroll remained masterfully patient, allowing the round to unfold naturally knowing they had an abundance of quality players left on their draft board. After landing C.J. Prosise—a potentially game-changing running back from the University of Notre Dame—with the 90th overall selection of the draft, the Seahawks remained committed to improving their offensive firepower by drafting tight end Nick Vannett just four picks later (94th overall).
For the other 31 teams around the league, seeing the Seahawks draft a tight end probably didn’t come as much of a shock. After all, Seattle had invested heavily in the position prior to the 2015 draft, sending their first round selection as well as Pro Bowl center Max Unger to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for All-Pro Jimmy Graham. While the blockbuster trade saw mixed results for Seattle last season, it eventually ended with the Pro Bowl tight end tearing his patellar tendon in a week 12 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers just as he seemed to be developing a solid rapport with quarterback Russell Wilson.
However, it wasn’t just Graham’s devastating knee injury that had Seattle’s coaching staff looking to upgrade their tight end group this off-season. In all likelihood, Vannett probably would’ve been targeted by the Seahawks regardless of Graham’s health. The fact of the matter is that even when he was healthy, Graham and second-string tight end Luke Willson were often incapable of performing well as in-line blockers. In Graham’s case, this particular shortcoming had been covered up for years by his former coaches in New Orleans. Rather than being utilized as a traditional tight end, Saints Head Coach Sean Payton developed a specialized role for Graham, using him more like a big-bodied wide receiver and splitting him out wide or using him in the slot to create mismatches.
Obviously, this approach was less successful last year in Seattle’s offense, which requires its tight ends to run-block more often than Graham was used to. However, with the addition of Vannett via the draft, Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell will now have the option of allowing Graham to go back to what he does best: creating mismatches as a receiver. After all, Vannett is a run support specialist making a name for himself as a blocker throughout his time as a Buckeye. In fact, he was so good at it, he was commonly viewed as the top-rated “Y-tight end” or “inline tight end” in the entire draft class. What that means for Seattle is that he is quite comfortable lining up alongside his offensive tackles and acting like a sixth offensive lineman on the field. Clearly, this is an aspect of Seattle’s offense that has been missing since Zach Miller’s departure.
While it was blatantly obvious that Vannett could block with the best of them, his receiving abilities were often overlooked throughout the draft process leading to his fall to the bottom of the third round. The reality of the situation is that Vannett is an incredibly versatile receiving threat, despite the fact that he was rarely allowed to showcase those skills during his time at Ohio State. Since his arrival in Seattle and throughout OTA’s, however, the rookie third rounder has routinely impressed bystanders with his soft hands and underrated athleticism. These previously overlooked qualities allow him to create separation on short and intermediate routes with consistency. While the organization likely viewed Vannett purely as a blocking tight end prior to the draft, what they ended up with is a prospect with a far greater skill set then they possibly ever envisioned; one whose mere presence on the field should allow the offense to become more creative and diverse. Additionally, Vannett could very well be the catalyst that leads Jimmy Graham back to All-Pro status.
Jarrod M. Patterson is an NFL/Seattle Seahawks beat writer and analyst in Aberdeen, WA. #GoHawks