With four tight ends on their roster, the Seahawks were able to ease rookie Nick Vannett into action after a long layoff due to an ankle injury. In Sunday's win over the Falcons, the third-round pick out of Ohio State saw his first game action since sustaining an ankle injury during the preseason, but with Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson and Brandon Williams all in the game plan, Vannett was on the field for only three snaps on offense and two on special teams.
Now, however, things have changed for Vannett, who figures to be a much bigger part of the offense thanks to the knee injury Willson sustained in Seattle's Week 6 win.
"Yeah, Nick will play more, and we're anxious—last week was his first week back and he only played a few plays—but he will be involved extensively now, and we're happy to see that happen," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "You've heard us say nothing but positive things. He's still new, he's still new out there playing but we're really excited about him."
Obviously no one wanted Vannett's opportunity to come thanks to another player's injury, but the timing did work out well that Willson went down with his injury not long after Vannett returned from his.
"It sucks to see one of your teammates go down like that, someone who helped me a lot when I first got here just showing me the way," Vannett said. "I feel for Luke, but at the same time, someone's got to step up. I think I'm going to have an increased role this week and I'm just looking forward to it. I'm ready to study the game plan and get after it… After being out for six week, you kind of appreciate the game a little bit more. It felt good to get my first action in front of that crowd, but I've got to be ready to play a lot more this week, and I'm going to be ready. Now it's my job to study the hell out of this game plan, execute and go into the game and do what I'm supposed to do.
Added offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell: "We're fortunate that Nick is just coming back and becoming a full, healthy Nick Vannett, so we're excited about him and his opportunity. It really is the next man up."
The good news on Willson is that he isn't expected to be out long after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday—"We call him Wolverine," Bevell joked of Willson's healing ability—but until Willson is back, Vannett will get a chance to show why the Seahawks were so excited about him prior to his injury.
In particular, the Seahawks realized after getting Vannett to Seattle that he was able to do even more than they were counting on when they selected him in the third round of the 2016 draft. After picking Vannett, Carroll and general manager John Schneider talked about Vannett as a potential Y tight end, meaning a more traditional blocking tight end that lines up next to a tackle. In Graham and Willson, the Seahawks have two outstanding pass-catching tight ends—though both are willing blockers as well—so acquiring a tight end to be more focused on blocking made sense. But when Vannett arrived for offseason workouts, the Seahawks realized that in addition to being the type of blocker they had hoped, he was also pretty impressive as a pass-catcher.
"As a matter of fact, we were surprised at how comfortable he was in the passing game, getting in and out of breaks and his sense for spacing, and his hands are really, really good," Carroll said. "Russell (Wilson) clicked with him right off the bat, we saw it right away. So we were really pleased that he's more of an all-around player. We were hoping he would be a Y and be a blocker in the future, and he's showed much more than that. That's why we've been so excited about getting him in there."
That ability to be a complete tight end, as well as Vannett's professionalism and work ethic, brought to mind a former Seahawks tight end for receiver Doug Baldwin.
"Nick reminds me of a young Zach Miller," Baldwin said. "Zach was a true professional in every facet, and Nick reminds me a lot of him. He's a little bit faster than Zach was when he was here, but he has great hands, he can block well, understands the schemes, understands his role in the offense. We can put him anywhere, and he's going to be very successful. Also his work ethic off the field, that stood out to me right away. In that facet he's very similar to Zach Miller as well.
Vannett liked that comparison to Miller, who was a starter in Seattle for three-plus seasons, because Miller "was a guy who did both, he was able to go block and be a receiver."
"That's my goal," Vannett said. "I want to be a guy who can stay on the field and do anything he's asked to do. I'm just going to continue to work on those things and get better each day."
Vannett's versatility means he could also do some of the H-back work Willson was doing in the offense, offensive line coach Tom Cable said, but while the Seahawks are excited about what he can bring, they also know that just like other rookies who have contributed this season such as Jarran Reed and Germain Ifedi, Vannett will have to learn to adjust on the fly to playing football at this level.
"I think he'll go through some of those young-guy things about trying to find his game and being able to adjust to the game," Cable said. "That's a constant thing for these young guys. We tell them when they first get here, there's a difference between just being in the NFL and being a pro; a pro can handle the ups and the downs and the can adjust and fix his problems during a game, and you have to. That's the way everybody attacks you and defends you. They don't line up the same way all the time, you don't see the same pressures all the time, the same coverages, so it's evolving throughout the game, and he'll have to do that."
Yet even if a few bumps in the road are inevitable, Vannett's return to full health couldn't have come at a better time for the Seahawks, who are excited about what the rookie might bring to the offense in Willson absence.
"We've really like what we've seen," Bevell said. "He catches the ball well. We're excited about him as a pass-catcher, but we really picked him and thought of him being a complete tight end, being able to handle the Y position, which is really important for us in the blocking schemes in terms of the run game and also in terms of protection. We ask the Y to do a lot, but he's versatile enough to be able to handle the Y, and if he needed to get moved over the U, he could do that as well. We like that versatility and we like what we've seen athletically from him."
The Seahawks and Cardinals have matched up 35 times throughout their history, with an even split of 17 victories each as well as a tie that came earlier this season. The two teams face off again this Saturday at CenturyLink Field to see who will lead the all-time series.