Making the most of Zach Miller’s absence

Posted Jul 27, 2013

With do-everything tight end Zach Miller sidelined by a foot injury, the Seahawks are getting needed looks at the other players who are vying of the second and third spots on the 53-man roster.

Zach Miller has been conspicuous by his absence during the first three days of the Seahawks’ training camp.

For starters, he is – the starting tight end, that is. Then there’s the unnerving fact that the other six tight ends on the 90-man roster have combined to start a total of zero NFL games, compared to 91 for Miller.

“There’s no question that Zach has established himself as a fantastic part of our football team,” coach Pete Carroll said after Saturday’s practice, the first with the players wearing shoulder pads. “This is not going to hurt his development at all. He’s really close to being back.”

With Miller sidelined by a sore foot, the coaches are getting a chance to not just look at but examine the less-experienced tight ends who are competing for the other two spots on the 53-man roster. Right?

“Sure, and I’ve got a lot of guys to look at,” tight ends coach Pat McPherson said.

At the head of the line are Luke Willson, who was selected in the fifth round of April’s NFL Draft; and Sean McGrath, who spent most of last season on the practice squad but was signed to the 53-man roster in December.

“It really does give Luke and Sean a chance to really be up in there with the No. 1 offense and do some good things and see if they can be the No. 2 and No. 3 guys for us,” McPherson said.

The competition had been for the No. 3 spot, but incumbent backup Anthony McCoy was lost when he ruptured an Achilles tendon during an OTA practice this offseason. So this extra work really is benefitting Willson and McGrath.

“Luke is continuing to progress,” McPherson said of the 6-foot5, 252-pound Willson. “He came back a little bigger, but with the same speed.”

And it was Willson’s speed that attracted the Seahawks, because he can provide an element that has been missing at the position.

“We’re only on our third day of install,” McPherson said of the seven-practice process of installing the offense to open camp. “So we need to get everything in to really take advantage of all the things that he can do.”

It’s doubtful that anyone worked harder in the offseason program than McGrath, who was signed as a rookie free agent last year. If want-to is any kind of a factor, McGrath will be around after the final roster cut.

“Sean has had a great offseason, he really has,” McPherson said. “He did a nice job in the spring. He’s a steady dude and he’ll catch the ball. But we’ve got to see him be real physical, too.”

And that won’t really happen for McGrath and Willson until the preseason games start on Aug. 8 with the opener in San Diego against the Chargers.

“You’ll be able to tell some stuff out here, like how they keep up mentally and how they run routes,” McPherson said. “But you really can’t know if a guy’s going to be that guy until he starts playing against other teams.”

The other tight ends, meanwhile, are also getting additional reps in practice as they try to move up the depth chart. Here’s McPherson’s take on each:

Michael Palmer (6-5, 252) – He was signed this week after playing the past three seasons with Atlanta Falcons. Palmer had 21 catches for 123 yards and three touchdowns while in Atlanta.

“He’s a pro. He’s learning the system really quick,” McPherson said. “He’s very smart, very accountable. And he seems like he’s a tough guy and knows how to play football. But he’s still learning the system.”

Cooper Helfet (6-3, 239) – He was in camp as a rookie free agent last summer and spent some time on the practice squad last season.

“Cooper does some good things,” McPherson said. “He missed most of the spring (with an injury), so he’s getting some needed reps.”

Darren Fells (6-7, 281) – A basketball player in college, Fells is trying to make the quantum leap from being an all-CIF tight end at Fullerton (Calif.) High School to becoming an NFL tight end.

“Let’s see what Darren Fells can do. Today is the first time he’s worn football pads (in a long time),” McPherson said. “He did fine today. But he’s 6-8, so he’s always going to be dealing with that. He’s got to be able to play low and get himself underneath a defender more. He’s athletic enough that he can do it, he’s just got to get used to doing it more.”

Victor Marshall (6-4, 225) – He did play college football, but as a wide receiver at the University of British Columbia. So Marshall is making a transition of a different kind.

“He’s got some growing pains getting into the physical part of it, just because he’s never really done it that way,” McPherson said. “But he put on some weight over the summer and he’s carrying it fine. He catches the ball fine. He runs great.”

Then there’s Miller, who has been there, done that. He is, not surprisingly, the best blocker of the group. He is a proven receiver, also no great shock because he had a pair of 60-plus catch seasons while with the Oakland Raiders before signing with the Seahawks as a free agent in 2011.

“Zach being out it is certainly giving guys a chance,” Carroll said. “It’s giving Luke a great shot. He’s getting first-team work every day, and the demands of that are great. But it’s good for him to have the heat on him a little bit.

“He’s pushing to get his stuff right and he’s doing a very nice job, too.”