Saturday's Combine performances showed this is a strong year for tight ends in the NFL Draft.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll answered with his trademark optimism when asked at the NFL Combine this week if the team still hopes to re-sign free agent tight end Luke Willson.
“Sure,’’ Carroll said. “We love Luke.’’
But if the Seahawks do lose Willson — who stands as the most high-profile Seattle position player set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 9 — Seattle is picking a good year to dip into the draft for a replacement.
Many draft analysts said coming into the combine that this year’s corps of tight ends is as good as any in recent memory.
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The tight ends then reinforced that opinion when they hit the field for workouts in Indianapolis Saturday, especially with their performance in the 40-yard dash. According to the NFL, the average 40-yard dash time for the 14 tight ends who ran was 4.66 seconds, the fastest for the group as a whole since 2003.
Leading the way was Mississippi’s Evan Engram with a 4.42 followed by Alabama’s O.J. Howard — generally considered the top tight end available — at 4.51.
But not far off that pace was a player with local ties — Washington’s Darrell Daniels — who was fourth with a 4.55.
That speed coupled with his 6-3, 247-pound frame makes Daniels an intriguing prospect. But the depth at the position means he projects as a late-round pick in the eyes of most, and he may have to go the undrafted free agent route.
“I’m just trying to show my athleticism to everybody,’’ Daniels said Friday.
Daniels signed with UW in 2013 as one of the gems of a recruiting class that is destined to go down as one of the best in school history, generally considered among the top 20 receivers in the country.
But his size and the presence of other receivers such as John Ross compelled then-UW coach Steve Sarkisian to ask Daniels to move to tight end shortly into his freshman season.
Daniels said he initially resisted the move “because coming in as a four-star receiver you want to go out there and play receiver. And being out there with those guys, John Ross and Damore’ea Stringfellow, I seen those guys in the receiver room and I wanted to be a part of that. But the transition ended up being easy and smooth.’’
Daniels had another transition the following year when Chris Petersen took over for Sarkisian, which Daniels said changed the roles of the tight end a bit.
“With coach Sark it was a lot more routes for the tight end,’’ he said. “With coach Pete it was a lot more blocking and the routes weren’t that extensive. So it was way different.’’
Had he been in a different offense Daniels says there’s no question he would have caught more passes than the 47 he had in his four years at UW, which included 17 for 307 yards and three touchdowns as a senior in 2016.
And it’s that relative lack of production compared to other tight ends that remains the biggest question about Daniels.
But his 40 time Saturday also should have been enough to make scouts take a closer look, which is what Daniels wanted out of the Combine.
“Definitely my speed and my playing ability — definitely going to try to showcase that because I don’t really have that much film coming out of college,’’ he said.
Saturday, though, also confirmed that a team such as the Seahawks could either look early in the draft or wait a while and still find a good prospect at tight end.
And if Willson indeed departs, tight end could turn into something of a need for Seattle from a depth standpoint both for 2017 and into the future.
Jimmy Graham has one year left on his contract, with the team squashing any speculation that he will be back in 2017 this week at the Combine and Nick Vannett, a third-round pick a year ago, would likely slip into a backup role in Willson departs.
Carroll cited each player as a source of optimism in 2017 at the Combine, noting that Graham should be positioned to have a better year in 2017 than he did last season thanks to having a full off-season to prepare.
“It’s really one of the beautiful things that’s happening this offseason is that Jimmy has a chance to work out and get better,’’ Carroll said. “Last year, he was just rehabbing (following a patellar tendon injury). If you can imagine at this time last year, he was looking at that scar and wondering if he’s ever going to be able to run again. He barely made it back to camp then barely made it into the season, then had a marvelous season under all of those circumstances. Under any normal circumstances he had a marvelous season. In communicating with him, he feels great. He’s thrilled about the chance to work out, he’s going to be working Russell (Wilson). … so we’re really looking forward to what comes up, and I know he is too and everybody’s pumped up about it.”
As for Vannett, Carroll said he expects him to make vast improvement in his second season.
“He’s going to be a big factor for us going forward,’’ Carroll said.
But otherwise, the tight end options are somewhat uncertain, and with Graham’s status beyond 2017 unclear and Willson maybe gone, the Seahawks could look to this draft to re-stock the cupboard a bit.
“This class is deep, man,’’ Daniels said. “To be around these guys is great and there is definitely going to be a lot of competition out there. I see myself competing with them and I’m going to be one of the top guys, too.’’