A troublesome back issue fixed, the third-year player out of Ohio State says he's ready to

Share story

Nick Vannett isn’t the oldest guy in the Seahawks’ tight end room. That honor falls to free agent signee Ed Dickson.

But he is, despite having played in just 24 games in two seasons with six starts, suddenly the leader of the Seahawks’ tight end corps, the only one on the roster who has played in a game for Seattle (unless you count the two snaps Tyrone Swoopes got last season).

And when Luke Willson and Jimmy Graham departed via free agency in the offseason, they also left Vannett with a most important task — as the arbiter of the tight end group’s elaborate structure for levying fines on each other for any number of offenses.

As Vannett explained it recently, anyone in the tight end room (including position coach Pat McPherson) can be hit with what is called a “homeland fine” if they are caught wearing clothing related to their school or hometown or state. There’s also an Uncle Rico fine (named for the fictional character in Napoleon Dynamite) if someone veers off topic to start talking about their school days or something similar (Vannett says McPherson has been the one most guilty of this offense).

Most Read Sports Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Then, there’s also an “initiation fine” when someone new joins the team — Vannett said rookie Will Dissly of Washington had to pay $1,000 after signing a contract that included a $650,268 signing bonus. The initiation fine is determined based on how much the player has signed for.

There’s also, as Vannett said, a “no-fine fine.”

“If you go the whole day without getting fined, you are going to get fined,’’ Vannett said. “It just goes to show you, you are going to get fined.’’

A typical fine, Vannett said, is $20. At the end of the year, half of all the money collected goes to a charity the group chooses while the other half goes to fund a year-end group trip.

Last year, if there were disputes about what and wasn’t a fine, it fell to Willson, who had been with the team since 2013, to settle the issue. But now that Vannett is the most senior Seahawk of the six tight ends on the roster, he gets the final call.

“What I say goes,’’ he said. “If I think it’s a fine. Sometimes I run it by the room if I’m on the fence about it. But generally what I say, that’s a fine.’’

Dissly, he said, has been the biggest offender so far, racking up fines of about $2,700 (Vannett said they may lessen the damage in the regular season to $10 an offense). It’s all in continuing the traditions established by those before him, Vannett says.

But, aside from keeping the fine tradition alive, Vannett knows what’s more important is trying to replicate what Willson (now in Detroit) and Graham (now with Green Bay) did on the field.

Graham’s Seattle tenure will always carry a mixed legacy. But he also had 10 touchdowns last season and broke just about every team single-season and career receiving record for tight ends. Willson, meanwhile, was a more-than-capable number two tight end with a knack for the big play and a rep as a solid blocker.

Dickson, 31, signed as a free agent after eight years with the Ravens and Panthers (he had 30 catches last year for Carolina and a career-high 54 with Baltimore in 2011) to step in as the starter. But Dickson has yet to take the field in camp, remaining on the non-football injury list with a quad injury suffered during summer conditioning.

That leaves the number one tight end role for now to Vannett, a third-round pick out of Ohio State in 2016.

Even when Dickson gets healthy, the Seahawks will count on Vannett to assume a more significant role than in the past, not only to potentially produce as the number two tight end, but also because new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense will demand more from the tight ends.

“They have us do a lot of things we haven’t done before,’’ said Vannett. “Both in the running game and the passing game.”

The good news is that Vannett has never felt healthier or more prepared to assume that challenge. Vannett learned a lot about the NFL over the past two seasons,  but in the last few months, he also finally figured out what was causing a nagging lower back pain — a herniated disc — that has ailed him for most of his time with the Seahawks.

“It’s been tough,’’ he said. “There have been times where I can’t really bend into like a three-point stance. Been times I could barely run out of a cut. But I’ve gotten it squared away.’’

Vannett didn’t have surgery but said a prescribed exercise and treatment program has done the trick.

“This is the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here,’’ Vannett said. “I just feel like I’m running around a lot better, more smooth running in and out of my cuts, getting leverage lower on my blocks. So I’m really happy where I’m at from a health standpoint.’’

He felt it pay off last Thursday when he played a starring role as the number one offense drove for a touchdown on Seattle’s first series of its preseason opener against the Colts.

Vannett first caught a 15-yard pass on third-and-16 to set up a fourth-and-one conversion on the next play, in which his blocking was a key. A few snaps later, he caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson, moving to create just enough space to get open as Wilson roamed to his right.

“Really good camp,’’ Schottenheimer said, referring to Vannett. “You saw he had the big third-down conversion, which put us into the situation for fourth-and-one. Had a really good block on the fourth-and-one play, and of course, the scramble play that he made was terrific. The guy kind of had him boxed out. He came back up underneath him. So I think Nick is playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

Vannett, however, realizes there’s a long way to go before he can truly say he is picking up where his predecessors left off.

“I don’t lose sight of that,’’ he said. “Every practice, every drill, everything we do, focusing on what I need to do what I need to improve on and what I need to show my teammates and my coaches that they can have trust in me.’’