Seahawks tight end Luke Willson looked spry on the field last week and is feeling good off of it after a torturous free agency period led to him staying with the Seahawks.
This was the kind of leap Seahawks tight end Luke Willson prefers.
Midway through the second quarter of Sunday’s 12-9 win over the 49ers, Willson took a short pass from Russell Wilson, quickly turned upfield and after a few steps saw San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt coming his way.
Willson had a split second to decide whether to fight through the hit from Tartt, try to maneuver around him, or jump over him.
The 6-5 Willson — never one to back down from adventure — chose the latter and aided by what he correctly assumed would be Tartt’s decision to go low, took flight long enough to clear the way for a 19-yard gain that led to a rousing chorus of “Luuuuukkkkeeeee” from the CenturyLink Field faithful.
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“It was kind of a natural reaction,’’ Willson said this week. “I got a pretty good head of steam, had a little space to run there. So that makes it a lot easier than all of the sudden. And it’s a smaller guy and most smaller guys in the league are going to try to tackle me low. So the timing was right.
“I figured ‘let’s give it a shot’ which is kind of a dangerous move because it can work out very poorly sometimes. So I’m not expecting to be trying that again anytime soon.’’
The play was indicative, though, of how well Willson is feeling this season after battling a knee injury last year that led to him missing five games and catching a career-low 15 passes for a career-low 129 yards — he had three receptions for 32 yards against the 49ers Sunday, the latter total more than in any game in 2016.
Willson might see the ball come his way even more this Sunday at Tennessee with starting tight end Jimmy Graham listed as questionable with an ankle injury though it is expected that Graham will be able to play.
For a torturous few days last March, though, Willson didn’t know if he’d be around to help pick up the slack for the Seahawks when he made a jump into the unknown that didn’t turn out as pleasant as the one he made against the 49ers.
Willson’s original four-year rookie contract with the Seahawks ran out last March making him an unrestricted free agent.
For many players that moment is the fulfillment of a career goal, the chance to land a second contract — which are often more lucrative than the first — with the opportunity to pick where you want to play.
But for Willson none of it went as planned.
The injury and resulting lack of production in 2016 along with a few other high-profile tight ends also becoming available via free agency (such as Martellus Bennett) and what was perceived as an historically deep group of tight ends available in the draft combined to shrink the market for Willson in ways he hadn’t imagined.
When free agency opened on March 9 Willson found himself waiting and waiting and waiting some more.
“I was expecting it to be different,’’ Willson said. “And then once the (NFL) Combine happened (and NFL teams assessed the deep crops of rookies available) I was kind of bracing myself a little bit. I didn’t really know what was going to happen. It’s an interesting situation because it was like every minute I felt like something changed. There are a million factors that play into it, it seems like.’’
The uncertainty, he said, ultimately drove him fairly crazy.
“To be honest with you it was a miserable process,’’ said Willson, originally a fifth-round pick out of Rice in 2015. “Not what I expected. I don’t know what day I officially signed back but it wasn’t the first few days and it was, whatever it was — four days of being unemployed felt like about four months.’’
In fact, Willson had to wait almost a week before finally agreeing to terms with the Seahawks — who had kept tabs on him all along but had let Willson know they had a budget they had to consider — on a one-year deal worth up to $1.8 million.
That means Willson may well enter free agency again next March unless he comes to an agreement with the Seahawks before then. If Willson does become a free agent again he says he’ll be better prepared. But he also wants to make clear he understands he’s still in pretty rarefied air.
“Obviously the dream is to sign a long-term deal that is worth a lot of money,’’ he said. “That being said, I am making quite a bit of money playing football. So you are not going to hear any complaining out of me.’’
Willson, in fact, decided to have some fun with the news that he had re-signed, sending out a Tweet that played off a famous scene featuring Leonardo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street in which he declares he’s not leaving.
“I had just watched that movie and was kind of laughing about it,’’ Willson said this week. “And that was the time I was in negotiations with Seattle and I said ‘if this things works out, I’m going to try do to that.’’’
The signing indeed worked out and judging by more than 7,000 likes, his Tweet did, too.
He only wishes that maybe he’d had the same confidence that he’d be back in Seattle that coach Pete Carroll says he had throughout the process.
“No, I never had that in mind (that Willson wouldn’t return),’’ Carroll said. “I knew that we could lose him, but I was hoping that he would be back. He’s such a magnificent part of the spirit of this team and the way that he carries himself. He’s a great teammate and he demonstrates that regularly, and we just wanted him on our club. He’s off to a great start.’’