RENTON — John Ursua is 27 years old, entering the third season of an NFL career in which he’s made one catch and playing for a team that used its first pick in the draft on the same position he plays — receiver.
If that sounds like a harsh assessment of his situation, don’t worry.
During a recent interview, Ursua made clear he knows better than anybody the stakes at hand as he begins another training camp.
“Since day one that I stepped back into the facility, my mindset was that this is make-or-break, this is do-or-die for me,” said Ursua, a seventh-round pick in 2019 out of Hawaii. “It’s extremely rare to be in your third year and not have any production. So I need to make plays. I need to go out there and show that they can trust me. I’ve got to get on the same page with Russ (Russell Wilson) and just show them that I have been on top of my stuff.”
The 5-9, 182-pound Ursua appeared as if he might be one the team’s latest late-round draft gems during the preseason of 2019 when he displayed a knack for the big play, making four catches for 100 yards, a team-high 25 yards per reception.
His proficiency working in the slot drew some comparisons in style to Doug Baldwin, and his play in the preseason made it look like the Seahawks had won their gamble late in the 2019 draft. Seattle traded a sixth-round pick in 2020 to Jacksonville to get a seventh-round pick, No. 236, to take Ursua. (The pick Seattle dealt turned into the 206th pick in 2020 that the Jaguars used on tight end Tyler Davis, who played in eight games last season.)
Ursua’s preseason play won him a spot on the 53-man roster as a rookie. While working behind not only Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf but also more experienced players such as David Moore and Jaron Brown — and then Josh Gordon when the Seahawks claimed him at midseason — Ursua found playing time difficult to come by.
He saw action in just three games, on the field for just 11 snaps. But on one of those he almost turned in the biggest play of the season, making an 11-yard catch on fourth-and-10 in the waning seconds of the regular-season finale against the 49ers with the NFC West title on the line.
Alas, on what was the first catch of his NFL career, Ursua was stopped at the 1-yard line. While that seemed just fine in the moment, it turned into a huge “what might have been?” when the Seahawks were stopped and the 49ers held on to win.
The play pops through Ursua’s mind often — not always pleasantly.
“Honestly it’s kind of almost been a nightmare for me because it was such a bittersweet moment,” he said. “I’m glad I got my first catch. I gave us four more opportunities. At the same time, I was so frustrated with myself that I didn’t get in where I felt like that’s kind of my thing is after the catch and making somebody miss. I slip somebody and I get up and score. So it’s kind of been a bittersweet thing for me.”
Ursua hasn’t played in a game since.
Seattle spent the 2020 season going with five or six receivers each week, and Ursua was essentially the sixth or seventh, stashed on the practice squad and relegated on the depth chart behind rookie Freddie Swain and free agent Penny Hart for the final spots on the active roster.
The biggest reason was a subtle one — special teams. Players who are backups at just about every position on an NFL roster have to play a significant number of special-teams snaps.
Last year, that helped Hart earn his spot on the roster as he was particularly good on coverage teams, making five tackles.
Asked last week if Ursua had regressed, coach Pete Carroll responded “not at all” and pointed to Hart simply winning the job and not Ursua necessarily losing it.
“Penny had a fantastic camp and played well whenever we gave him a chance,” Carroll said. “He had a lot of multiplicity to him, stuff that we could do with him, and he helped us in special teams.”
Ursua said he understands fully that special teams could be the difference in making the roster this year. He played defense in high school so he’s hardly foreign to it. But he didn’t have to do much of it at Hawaii due to his status as one of the team’s main receivers.
“The reality is I’ve got to showcase what I can do on special teams, whether it’s returning or covering kicks,” he said. “I’ve got to showcase that I’m flexible in that world. Because there are not a lot of opportunities where you are just going to play your position. You have to make sure you can play all three phases of the game. So that’s kind of the biggest mindset for me, showing I can do more than one thing out here.”
So for Ursua, every play and every day right now is the biggest of his football career, especially the chances this year to play preseason games, something not available last year after all exhibition games were canceled due to COVID-19.
Ursua said he realized after his rookie season just how critical the preseason games were in proving what he can do to the coaching staff.
Even Sunday’s mock game at Lumen Field, he said, “for a guy in my position is extremely important.’’
With 11 other receivers on the roster — including second-round pick Dee Eskridge, who has yet to practice while dealing with a toe injury but could be back soon — Ursua knows that the tiniest of things could make the biggest of differences when it comes time for the Seahawks to set their roster.
“I am taking this very, very seriously because I don’t want to lose this,” he said. “This is something I want to do, and I feel I can be extremely good at doing it and I can do it for a long time. But I’ve got to make the most of my opportunity.”