No NFL team wants to go a single practice, let alone the entire preseason, without one of its best players on the field.
Yet as much as the Seahawks want to have Pro-Bowl receiver Doug Baldwin back in action—and he is expected to be ready for Seattle’s regular-season opener—there has been a silver lining in his absence, as well as in Tyler Lockett sitting out last week’s preseason game with a sore toe. With Baldwin sidelined by a sore knee, and with Lockett’s brief absence, what has become evident is just how deep and competitive the Seahawks are at receiver.
“For the other guys, yeah, this is a big opportunity, because we give Doug the best routes for the most part, but now we’re getting to see what the other guys can do,” receivers coach Nate Carroll said. “If you don’t ever give them the chance, you’ll never know, so this has been great to see these young guys getting that opportunity.”
Baldwin and Lockett are Seattle’s top returning receivers from last season, and their spots on the 2018 roster are all but etched in stone, but coming into camp there was a lot of uncertainty beyond those two, especially with 2017 starter Paul Richardson leaving in free agency. Yet during training camp and two preseason games, any concern there might have been about that position group has been replaced by excitement about the players who have stepped up and turned the competition for playing time and roster spots into one of the best position battles on the team.
“I really like it,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the competition at receiver. “It’s a diverse group. There’s different styles of players in this group and it is probably the one I’m thinking about the most, because I’m trying to figure out who’s going to fit in, who’s going to complement each other and all that.”
In last week’s loss in Los Angeles, free-agent signing Jaron Brown led the team with 74 yards on two catches, just ahead of David Moore, who had two catches for 71 yards. Cyril Grayson Jr., meanwhile, added a 39-yard grab to help set up a late touchdown to Malik Turner, then Grayson did his best Baldwin impression on a 2-point conversion, using good footwork at the line of scrimmage to get wide open in the end zone. Meanwhile veteran Brandon Marshall, a six-time Pro-Bowler, has been one of Russell Wilson’s most productive targets in practice, and we still haven’t gotten to Amara Darboh, a 2017 third-round pick for whom the Seahawks still have high expectations, or Marcus Johnson, who was a part of the trade that sent Michael Bennett to Philadelphia and who in addition to making plays in practice has also been a core special teams player in two preseason games.
Add it all up, and as Nate Carroll put it, “John (Schneider) has got a really tough job making decisions.”
At times in various seasons, the Seahawks have kept as few as five and as many as seven receivers on the 53-man roster, but six has been the most common number, and if the Seahawks indeed open the season with six receivers, there are going to be some very difficult decisions to make for those final spots.
“How I’m going to settle that is wait and be patient and just wait it out,” Pete Carroll said. “See how it goes, get guys lots of opportunities and every day, we’re spotting guys in different places to make sure that they get their opportunities to show what they can do so we can keep it as competitive as possible because all these guys are battling. They’re all battling and doing good things.”
And while Marshall was the biggest name added this offseason—and has been very impressive since joining the team—he is just one of several new players making their mark at receiver. Brown, who has been one of the team’s most productive receivers in practice and preseason games, spent his first five seasons in Arizona primarily in a backup role. Brown has seen a lot of time with the No. 1 offense and is looking to show he can be more than the role player he was on an offense that featured the likes of future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
“I love the opportunity,” said Brown, who came into the league in 2013 as an undrafted free agent out of Clemson. “I’m coming in here trying to prove myself to the team, so I’m just trying to become a big part of the offense… I don’t take anything for granted. Being a former undrafted guy, I’m of the mentality that I have to make the team every year.”
Johnson, who played at the University of Texas, also went undrafted before signing with Philadelphia. The Seahawks were one of the teams pursuing him as an undrafted free agent, Johnson said, and though they didn’t get him at the time, they were able to acquire him this offseason as part of the Bennett trade. Johnson has made a lot of plays in practice as a receiver, but he also knows his best chance to make this roster might be by standing out on special teams.
“It’s huge for me, being undrafted and in this league in general, it’s what have you done for me lately?” said Johnson, who started at receiver along with Brown in last week’s game.
And while Johnson obviously didn’t have any say in his fate this offseason, he does appreciate that the Seahawks thought enough of him to make him part of a trade for a Pro-Bowl defensive end.
“I don’t know how the trade went down, I don’t know how all this worked out, but it’s a blessing to be here, and it’s not by coincidence; I’m here for a reason,” he said. “… They could have chosen a lot of guys, but me and a fifth-round pick, that’s heavy weight for a guy like Michael Bennett, who has proven himself. It’s not something for me to get caught up in, I’m just going to keep being me and try to help this team, but it’s definitely nice to be wanted. Going from undrafted to somebody trading for me is a big step for me.”
In addition to newcomers making their mark, there’s a group of young returning players looking to step into bigger roles, led by a pair of 2017 draft picks, Darboh and Moore. Darboh, a third-round pick, has been limited by injuries in camp, but when he’s healthy he’ll be right back in the competition to show what he can do. Meanwhile Moore, a seventh-rounder, has made one of the biggest leaps of any second-year player. After spending most of last season on the practice squad, Moore earned a late-season promotion, and returned this year looking not just like a player who can make the team, but like a player who could really help the offense.
“He’s expressing really good all-around feel and skill,” Pete Carroll said. “He’s got strength, he’s got power, his timing is really good, (and) he’s got really strong hands. He’s stronger than most receivers and he plays like that. We haven’t had a chance to see him run with the football but we know that’s a strength of his. He looks to be a guy that you really want to involve and he’s a playmaker. He’s exhibited that with the only chances that he’s had.”
Or as Brown put it when asked about Moore after last weekend’s game, “Baller, baller, he’s a baller. He’s showing up every day in practice and he’s having a great camp.”
It’s too soon to know what receivers will end up on Seattle’s 53-man roster or will earn significant playing time at that spot, but what is clear following training camp and two preseason games is that, despite some uncertainty heading into camp, receiver has become not only one of the most competitive positions on the roster, but also one of the most fun to watch.
“There’s definitely a lot of camaraderie,” Nate Carroll said. “Guys are competing for the right things. A lot of young talent, a lot of veteran talent, with the young guys learning from the veterans. They’re doing a really good job working together and everybody is for each other. When good plays happen, it doesn’t matter who it is, we’re all celebrating, so it’s been a blast, they’re having fun.”
Photos from Wednesday's practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center in preparation for Friday's game against the Minnesota Vikings.