Out of the Slot...and Into the Fire

For the second straight year, the Seattle Seahawks will ask a player more attuned to the slot position to move outside and star at split end. Doug Farrar looks at the roles for Seattle's receiver corps in the 2006 season.

New Seahawks receiver Nate Burleson, acquired from the Minnesota Vikings, caught 68 passes for 1,006 yards and 9 touchdowns as a slot receiver for the Vikings in 2004. With Randy Moss in his last season in Minnesota before departing for Oakland, Burleson was able to use his short-burst speed, toughness, ability to adjust and yards-after-catch ability to excel in that position. In the games Moss missed or was a secondary factor due to injury, Burleson averaged 5.8 receptions and 72 yards per game while scoring three times. In that season, Burleson topped 100 yards four times and scored in eight regular season games.

After Moss left, Burleson was projected as the top man for the 2005 season. But a knee injury – and the weight of expectation for a player so young - stilted his development, and Burleson fell to 30 catches for 308 yards and only 1 TD in 2005.

After the season, Minnesota extended the lowest qualifying offer possible for the restricted free agent receiver - $712,000, which would require any team matching the offer to give up a third-round draft choice if they signed the 24-year old Burleson, who was drafted in the third round of the 2003 draft. Had the Vikings tendered the high offer of $1.5 million, they could have effectively taken Burleson off the market, as a first-round pick compensatory pick would have been required.

Seattle’s signing of Burleson was the last in a series of one-up moves between the Seahawks and Vikings that have been detailed elsewhere ad nauseam. Now that Burleson is here, the question becomes his role in an offense that requires versatility from all its receivers.

In 2004, slotman and ultra-reliable veteran Bobby Engram was asked to move outside after Koren Robinson was asked to turn in his playbook. Robinson’s inability to get his life right at the time had placed a pall over Seattle’s offense, and his June release was no surprise. Though Seattle had added Joe Jurevicius to the mix, the former Buccaneer was seen more as a tough inside receiver and tall red-zone target. The Seahawks needed Engram to move outside. They required this even more when #1 receiver Darrell Jackson was injured in Week Four against the Washington Redskins and missed a total of nine games with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Engram missed the three games after that same week with cracked ribs, but his return signified a new beginning for Seattle’s offense.

Engram, despite several scouting reports that questioned his ability to separate from physical cornerbacks and get any room at the line of scrimmage, led the 2005 Seahawks in catches (67) and yards (778). Seattle altered its passing attack from a hit-and-miss prospect to one of the most reliable aspects of the team’s game.

The Seahawks are fond of the three-receiver set, even on obvious rushing downs, and the excellence of their offensive line allows them to get away with that tactic. Head coach Mike Holmgren has said that he doesn’t actually know where Engram and Burleson will line up full-time, or if or how often they might alternate. “I haven't decided exactly yet how we are going to plug everything in here,” Holmgren remarked in April, right after Burleson signed his contract. “The trick is to get them all in the right positions for the routes we run.”

However, a league source recently told Seahawks.NET that Burleson has impressed coaches when split wide. He has been lined up there most often during Seattle’s off-season programs and minicamps, and his ability to gain yards after the catch – a key element required of any receiver in Seattle’s version of the West Coast Offense – was specifically cited.

Nate Burleson won’t have to be “The Man” in Seattle, as it was expected of him in Minnesota. All he has to do is what he’s already done – bring his game every week as a vital cog in a bigger machine. Seemingly, it’s the role he was born to play.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him here.


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