There were a good number of Seattle Seahawks fans caught scratching their heads when TE Luke Willson was announced as the teams’ fifth-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. The young man from Rice had failed to garner much pre-draft hype, given the fact he had been a backup in college. More specifically, Willson was a backup to his future division rival, San Francisco 49ers TE Vance McDonald.
To make matters even worse, McDonald was selected three rounds earlier than Willson in the exact same draft class. The way people saw it, there was only one “premier” tight end coming out of Rice in the draft. In fact, most draft pundits didn’t think Willson would get drafted higher than the seventh round, if at all.
In the end, Seattle took a flier on the speedy tight end anyway, and head coach Pete Carroll definitely believes he hit this one out of the park. Although the Canadian-born tight end posted a meager total of nine receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns during his senior season at Rice, the Seahawks once again think they’ve found a diamond in the rough.
Shockingly enough, they may be right. Since his arrival in Seattle, Willson has shown flashes of brilliance at the tight end position. While his career receiving production is less than stellar (20 receptions for 272 yards and a touchdown), Willson has made significant strides as an in-line blocker.
What most fans don’t realize is that after Willson’s rookie season, he was rated as the No. 2 most valuable rookie tight end (catching/blocking, DVOA/DYAR rank). Not bad for a career backup. Of course, Willson has his sights set much higher than backup. Inevitably, he wants to take incumbent starter Zack Miller’s job, and that day may be quickly approaching.
Miller was signed early in the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era in Seattle to be a staple on offense. His versatility as a receiver and run blocker increased his value exponentially when coach Carroll realized the need to rebuild the offensive line through the draft. Therefore, Miller became somewhat irreplaceable for a short time.
Now that the Seahawks boast one of the league’s better offensive lines, they’re valuing different qualities in their tight ends. It seems apparent that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell plans to use Seattle’s tight ends as receivers in the passing game more often. With Willson’s size, speed and hands, he will become far more valuable to the future of the Seahawks’ offense.
That’s likely the reason Seattle seemed perfectly comfortable releasing Miller this offseason (prior to his willingness to take a substantial pay cut of course). That decision certainly shouldn’t reflect poorly on Miller’s effectiveness, however, nor his leadership abilities.
Rather, it should simply reflect the fact that he held a high salary cap number and the Seahawks needed to re-sign defensive superstars like S Earl Thomas and CB Richard Sherman.
In the end, it looks like the passing of the torch at Seattle’s tight end position is beginning. With Willson’s pass-blocking ever improving, and his timing with QB Russell Wilson apparently doing the same, the 24-year-old former backup from Rice may be on his way to being named the starter for the first time since high school.
After all, “Wilson to Willson” has a nice ring to it, even though it sounds a bit like a PI drama on cable.