A week into training camp, the Seahawks are still without tight end Jimmy Graham, who remains on the physically unable to perform list, the result of a knee injury suffered last season. But while the Seahawks wait for Graham to return to practice—and Pete Carroll is optimistic that will happen any day now—they're getting a good look at the rest of that position group, and they're very encouraged by what they're seeing from everyone from veteran Luke Willson to rookie Nick Vannett to some of the other players you might not be familiar with just yet, such as former Carolina Panther Brandon Williams, a free-agent signing this offseason.
"Nick has done a great job," Carroll said. "Nick has really lit us up with the passing game and catching the football—he surprised us how natural he is. His sense for getting open, and feeling the routes for stuff like that, it's really good. Now it is really what we are focusing on, his blocking. It looks like he is very willing. Technique-wise, we have work to do and scheme-wise with the combination stuff that we do is intricate and is going to take some time, but I don't see any reason why he can't play and be effective. Luke is having a great camp. He is off to a great start. Then you haven't asked much about Brandon Williams yet, but Brandon Williams is a really special pick up for us. I don't know that you guys appreciate that he was a core special teams guys for the Panthers for a number of years and he played in a lot of games at tight end. He has done a lot of football in the league that we really respect, and he has come out here and really looked good as a blocker. He is fast and tough and all that stuff, but he looks like he's got a little more strength and power than guys we have had in a while. He has made a good impression, we see him fitting in too, so it is a good group."
While Willson is the known commodity of the group, there is a lot of excitement about two newcomers in particular, Vannett and Williams. Vannett, a third-round pick out of Ohio State, was drafted with the idea of using him as a "Y" tight end who could be a force at the line of scrimmage as a blocker. And while the Seahawks still see that potential in Vannett, the rookie has looked very good as a pass-catcher as well.
"He has done a really good job of catching the ball," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He has kind of been a big part out here in some of the passing game. So he looks really good at that, and I would say that's been a great surprise for us. I don't want to say a huge surprise but it's been a really nice surprise how adept he is at catching the ball, how soft his hands are. He's got no issues with that. He might end up being a real nice, solid combination tight end where he can be a solid blocker for you but not somebody that you would be afraid to put in the passing game."
Vannett is more than happy to take on any role the Seahawks ask of him, but he is less surprised in his ability to make plays in the passing game than his coaches have been in the early stages of his career.
"Honestly, I've always been a pass-catching tight end, but I never got those opportunities at Ohio State, so all I have on film is me blocking, so I think they were a little surprised to see how good I was (as a pass-catcher)," Vannett said. "But I've always been like that. I'm trying to be the guy who can do both and add value to this team."
"That's kind of how I've always been. In high school I was a receiver, then I started picking up the blocking in college. It just adds more value to me. I want to be a guy who can be on the field for all three downs, and block when I need to and go catch a pass when I need to."
Vannett credits both Willson and Graham will helping ease his transition from college to the NFL, with Graham occasionally acting as a coach while watching from the sideline.
"He has been there and he's done it," Vannett said. "Even though he's not practicing, he's off to the side helping me, telling me what I can do better. It's good to have a veteran like that to learn from."
While the competition for playing time and roster spots will be fierce throughout camp, the tight end group has also formed a close bond in the early stages of camp, whether it's in the form of Graham coaching up young players or Willson entertaining the group with his goofy sense of humor.
"We've got a great group," Williams said. "Everybody works hard, everybody is pushing each other and picking each other up."
As Carroll noted, Williams has pretty significant NFL experience, appearing in 25 games with Carolina over the past three seasons. His road to an NFL career wasn't easy, having been told while at Oregon that he couldn't play football because of congenital stenosis in his spine. He was later cleared by doctors, though too late to allow him to play his final year at Oregon, and in a last-chance effort to have a football career, he attended a regional combine at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center three years ago, earning a workout, and eventually a contract with the Panthers.
Three years later, he's trying to continue his NFL career at the same place where he caught the eye of NFL teams after nearly being forced to give up his dream.
"It's a blessing," Williams said. "It's kind of ironic that I did my regional combine here, then I ended up here a few years later. It's pretty cool. This is a great organization, I love it here."
Look through the best photos from the sixth day of training camp held at Virginia Mason Athletic Center.