Is tight end a need for the Seahawks?

November 9th, 2012 | Written by Rob Staton

Stanford's Zach Ertz could be the first tight end off the board next April

Seattle needs to add at least one new receiver at some point in the off-season. The lack of production at tight end, however, has led some to wonder whether that’s an upgradeable position too.

Zach Miller’s numbers this season are not too different to most tight ends in the league. There aren’t a cluster of Gronkowski’s and Graham’s around and we may see a number of  ’copycat’ draft picks as GM’s try to emulate the Patriots and Saints. The thing is, both of those teams have great, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks and elite passing games. The Seahawks – sporting a rookie quarterback and leaning on the ground attack – are not running an offense that is going to be overly generous towards a tight end.

Part of the problem is Miller’s lack of production in Seattle compared to his time in Oakland. Fans feel underwhelmed by a guy who signed a big contract to join the Seahawks. Yet this is actually the greatest example as to why this isn’t a talent issue. Miller averaged 61 receptions per-year between 2008-10 for the Raiders. He has just 43 catches in 24 games for the Seahawks. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Miller has only been targeted 26 times this year with 18 completions. There are 31 tight ends in the NFL with more targets than Zach Miller. According to the websites ‘success rate’ (defined as ‘the proportion of plays in which a player was directly involved that would typically be considered successful’) Miller is ranked 6th in the league ahead of even Gronkowski and Graham. When the Seahawks use Miller, he generally has a positive impact. They just aren’t using him all that much.

In his final year with the Raiders (2010) he was targeted 92 times. That’s quite a substantial drop off compared to this years 26 targets in nine games. Miller is used largely to block and protect and his role within this offense shouldn’t be defined by the number of catches he’s making. And while ideally you’d like his touchdown numbers to be up, in Oakland he had a one score season in 2008 and only had three touchdowns in 2007 and 2009.

Drafting a tight end early will not automatically provide this team with a jolt of production unless they adapt the position to be more productive. And if you’re going to adapt, why not just put the responsibility on Miller? Although the Seahawks use a lot of 2TE sets, we haven’t seen a great deal from Anthony McCoy or Evan Moore. Spending a high pick on the position might be a wasted move whether it’s to compliment or replace Zach Miller.

The one thing that could provoke a change is the cap hit for Miller in 2013. He’s scheduled to eat up $11m in cap room in a year where the Seahawks may feel that money is better spent elsewhere. He could renegotiate his deal, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever see $11m next season whatever happens between now and the new year. Even in the most dramatic scenario where he’s released, is this really a position you spend a first round pick on?

The Seahawks clearly see the importance of the tight end position, which is why they spent $34m on signing Miller in the first place. That could hint towards a more productive role in the future for whoever plays tight end in this system and further investment. Whether it’s worth a first or second round investment remains to be seen. A lot will depend on how the Seahawks rate a relatively mediocre looking 2013 class at the position.

The two Stanford players are probably the most talented – Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Ertz is a solid all-round tight end who blocks well for his size and is capable of making plays in he passing game. Toilolo is a 6-8 beast who has shown he can get downfield – he’s averaging 19 yards per catch this year. At the next level he might struggle to have the same success rate, but he could be a force in the red zone. Tyler Eifert is the latest tight end off the Notre Dame production line and warrants a mid-round grade. One to keep an eye on is Gavin Escobar at San Diego State. Statistically he’s one of the leading tight ends in the nation and he’s more of a pass catcher than blocker. He’s 6-6 and 255lbs and has the best shot to be that modern day athletic, receiving tight end. Dion Sims at Michigan State warrants some attention as a possible second or third rounder.

It’s around about now that the Washington fans bring up Austin Seferian-Jenkins – the NCAA’s leading tight end statistically and future NFL star. He’s not eligible for the 2013 draft and when he enters the league in 2014, it’ll be as a top-ten pick. It’ll be very difficult to keep ASJ in-state unless the Seahawks take major steps backwards next season. Or they make a big move up the board, which almost never happens for a tight end – however talented.

I’ve included three games of tape for Stanford’s Ertz below, vs USC, Notre Dame and Washington.

26 Responses to “Is tight end a need for the Seahawks?”

  1. Prototypical TEs in this league are taking the form of ideal Power Forwards in the NBA. Ertz and Toilolo at (6’6″) and (6’8″), would definitely draw the eyes of Pete Carroll. Zach Miller has been an asset to the Seahawks offense and is under appreciated for the impact that he makes on the field. With Miller in the lineup, Lynch has been successful. Before he arrived, the run game was not even a shadow of the Alexander, Hutchinson and Jones years. Without Miller in the lineup, we will never know if Lynch would be having the success he has been or even be greater. In my generation, Miller is, by a mile, the best TE I’ve ever seen in a Seahawks uniform (all I can remember is Itula Mili and bust Jeremy Stevens). I think he stays and Seahawks grab one of the two or other potentials that measure up to today’s prototypical NFL TE. Good topic.

    • Michael says:

      When is the last time you saw an NBA power forward who was 6’6″? That’s shooting guard size.

      • The Ancient Mariner says:

        Charles Barkley was listed at 6’6″, and was really more like 6’4 1/2″; I think Jason Maxiell’s 6’6″. You’re right that 6’8″ is typically about the shortest a PF can be and be effective, but I think he was thinking less about pure height than about overall build.

  2. Jeff says:

    In a recent press conference,Carroll referred to Miller’s performance as “terrific.”

    He went on to say something like “there are only so many balls to go around” and that to him two catches a game were just fine. (I think he also said something to the effect that the main purpose of targeting Miller would be to keep the defenses honest.)

    So it can be concluded that the low catching totals are part of the overall strategy,not just a need to compensate for a weak offensive line.Likewise it looks like they’ll definitely want him back,though almost certainly at a lower price.

    Moore has produced nothing. They will definitely want to replace him.

  3. Colin says:

    Zach Miller has a knack for two things:

    1.) Making the big catch down the seam, something nobody else on this roster is capable of.

    2.) Versatile blocker/receiving threat. I think with as much as this team values running the ball, they need a TE like him around, and unless he absolutely refuses the paycut, he’s not going anywhere.

    It wouldn’t surprise me to see Tom Cable and/or Gus Bradley being hired away after this year, especially if we make the playoffs. What they’ve done in such a short time is astounding.

    • Michael says:

      I am so scared that you’re right about Cable and Bradley, especially with all of the HC jobs that will probably be available this off season. I just hope somehow the ending to this year is so magical that they want to stay here and be a part of it for a few more seasons, or that the league puts on their “national media hats” and forgets that Seattle exists for a while. I would really hate to lose either of those guys.

      Rob: If one of those guys did leave, are there any internal candidates to step in? You always hear from players that Cable is such a great teacher, so I would hope that he is grooming some young protege to eventually take his place. Does that sort of thing happen at all in the NFL?

  4. Nate Dogg says:

    Haven’t watched these guys a ton, but to me Eiffert looks like the better choice over Ertz. I’d be interested to hear a comparison of the two and why you have Eiffert graded so much lower.

    • Jmpasq says:

      Havent seen his grades but im guessing its because of his physical ability. He isnt as fast or as explosive as some of the other guys. Not a good blocker and his technique right now will draw flags for holding in the NFL.
      However Eifert is a strong route runner understands coverage, High points the ball better then anyone, and has terrific body control.

  5. AndrewP says:

    Rob- Are you of the same opinion as Hawkblogger in that McCoy still may have a solid NFL career as a starting TE ahead of him?

  6. adog says:

    I think McCoy could replace Miller, there would be a bit of a drop off as far as blocking subtleties, but McCoy has shown enough(blocking and pass catching) to warrant some faith in his ability. I really see Miller being renegotiated after they allow him to test the market a bit. Unless he has some weird Steve Hutch moment where he really wants to go to a certain region in the country…or is given a crazy contract. i think Miller stays. If he goes, i’m not too concerned, i like McCoy, and i would like to see us draft Sims out of M. State. Not sure if there is real future for E. Moore here, i like the idea of putting L. Tuneia in a joker TE position and seeing how that works. He’s nearly the same size as Moore, maybe a little quicker, and has great hands. In fact I would like to see L. Tuneia in that position now.

  7. kevin mullen says:

    Not a need, but more of a concern. I believe there’s a handful of TE from USC that are on NFL rosters, Fred Davis being the most notable (Jordan Cameron too I guess), but none are really standout elite-type of tight ends that’ll burn you game by game. All of them are really good backups, but no real star power.

    Not sure if it’s a testament of Pete, on his lack of development of TE’s from USC, but it’d be a shame if we did draft a guy like Ertz and he ends up blocking the entire time…

  8. Christon says:

    Great read as usual Rob.

    I think the biggest question is whether the Seahawks spend a high pick on a TE’s blocking/reliably hands over a WR who is a speedy depth threat and has break tackle ability. I would argue that they need to draft a legit depth threat that would keep the safety over the top and out of the box rather than a TE would need to block the safety in the box. Don’t get me wrong, a good TE is important but I think this team needs to add a speed element on the offensive side of the ball so that defenses couldn’t (or wouldn’t dare) use an eight or nine man front against us.

    I think McCoy could be our TE of the future still. It takes time for newly drafted pass catchers to become a factor – usually the third year is when they “pop”.

    I would be interested to hear what you think the Seahawks need more Rob, another solid TE (assuming we don’t retain Miller), or a deep threat WR?

  9. kenny says:

    i see Ertz as future miller. the only difference is ertz looks like he has worse hands. he is clearly a huge focus in stanford’s offense but he drops way to many easy catches. i wouldnt take him anywhere before the fourth round from what i have seen of him. his blocking is above average which is a plus but i just can’t see him as a high pick like so many want him to be. I also know that his production will most likely raise if he had a somewhat decent qb but at this moment the eye test tells me 4th round or less. he will be drafted higher but i wouldnt take him on a personal level. then again i see robert woods as a late first round as best and as worst a late third, who should be taken mid to late second so what do i know?

  10. pqlqi says:

    Rob,
    I think your analysis ignores the most important part of the Miller salary cap situation. If we cut him, he will count 7 million against the cap in 2012 (guaranteed salary plus remaining signing bonus advancing to 2012). So our choice is to cut him and lose 7 million in cap space, or keep him and lose 11 million in cap space. The opportunity cost of keeping miller in 2013 is 4 million of cap space we could spend elsewhere. If you consider the 7 million sunk cost, then his remaining contract is 4,7,5 million cap hits over the following three years, which is a fair price for the best blocking TE in the league who rates at least an average receiving TE.

    In addition, you ignore the potential he has when the OL actually gets it together with health and continuity – at that point, his blocking will be equivalent to a 6th OL in the run game and Lynch and Turbin will gain even larger chunks of yards. Teams will have to load up against the run even heavier, and then Miller will be able to take full advantage of a run specialist LB trying to cover him.

    There is pretty much no way the FO cuts Miller after this season. It would be far better for the salary cap situation to cut him after the 2012 season, when he has no guaranteed money left, and the opportunity cost of keeping him approaches 6 million of cap space.

    I don’t think it obviates the FO desire to get another weapon at TE or WR, but it’s certainly not in the character of this FO to panic. They know that Miller has not been putting up numbers because the coaches have asked him to play a different role. As for the need to spend a first round pick on an offensive playmaker, I think everyone is jumping the gun – what we have seen between the first 4 games and the last 4 games is that as the offense gains more continutity at all position groups, more plays are made, more drives are sustained, and more TDs are scored. Tate is coming around as a very real threat. Rice is showing more and more evidence that he is an elite WR. Baldwin will be even more productive when (healthy) he and Russell get on the same page and the defenses have to key in on Rice and Tate. Certainly we will bring in a WR and/or TE in the draft (plus 5 or 6 UDFAs), but it’s not looking like it’s going to be a 1st round need – instead it looks like we’ll see a first round BPA or a trade down into the early 2nd to get another 2 draft picks.

    • Rob Staton says:

      I’m not ignoring anything pqlqi – I’ve written a piece arguing why the production at tight end isn’t a talent issue. As for cutting him, well according to sportrac (http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/seattle-seahawks/zach-miller/) his deal guaranteed $13m. By the end of the 2012 season he will have earned $10m with the Seahawks. So how much it’ll cost per year to cut him remains to be seen. This is a team that took a $7m hit on T.J. Houshmandzadeh and they’ll be ruthless when they see necessary. But it’s beyond the point – I highlighted the salary because it’s the one thing that counters my argument for Miller not being a problem. You seem to be concentrating on one small paragraph and not the rest of the piece. Whatever happens, I’m almost certain Miller won’t be earning $11m next year. I think it’s likely he’ll negotiate, spreading the cap hit and maybe increasing the guaranteed amounts due in 2013-14.

      • pqlqi says:

        Rotoworld and Sando both have him listed at 17 million guaranteed, 5 was signing bonus, 8 million first two years salary, and 4 million guaranteed in year 3. As the cap hit on signing bonus is prorated, 2 million has already applied to the cap in 2011 and 2012. If Miller is cut before the start of next season, then all the remaining signing bonus applies to the 2013 cap, so 3 million in bonus and 4 million guaranteed salary is the cap hit in 2013 if he is cut, a total of 7 million.

        I’d also differ with ruthless. Housh was cut because he sucked and was a locker room cancer. Listen to Moffitt this week on real rob report, he’s asked what different between college and the pros, and Moffitt said as a pro he realizes that his body is his business/corporation. Housh either never learned that or forgot it. This FO won’t do business with players who don’t try to live up to their end of the bargain. Miller is about as far a cry from Housh as you can come up with. Miller is the best TE on the team and the marginal cap cost of keeping Miller is 4 million in 2013 – we both agree very cheap for an elite player.

        Finally, I think it makes little sense for the Hawks to renegotiate – his contract was built for 2013 to be an expensive year (because it is the year the team had cap space) and for him to be cheap in the following years. Because signing bonuses are prorated, we can give ET and Okung good signing bonuses this offseason (when they are re-signed to extensions) and have their salary cap hits mostly deferred until 2014 and later when Miller’s contract drops in cap cost significantly.

        • Rob Staton says:

          Taking a $7m hit to pay a player to play elsewhere is ruthless. Not many teams take a hit like that. And nobody is comparing Housh to Miller as a player. It also makes absolute sense to renegotiate and I sense it was always their intention to do so. Miller will be by FAR the most expensive player on the roster in 2013. He’ll be taking up twice as much cap room as Russell Okung. That’s an insane amount for a largely blocking tight end. It’s a no brainer that they try to renegotiate and I suspect Miller will expect that. Also can’t believe we’re having this debate from an article that talked up Zach Miller.

  11. John_s says:

    Rob,

    What are your thoughts on Jordan Reed from Florida. Maybe a little undersized at 6’3 but very athletic and raw.

  12. Brandon says:

    Zach Miller is being paid for his run blocking. Marshawn Lynch frequently gets running room on the back of Zach’s blocking at both the first and second levels. This also helps disguise personnel packages, as Miller’s versatility makes it tougher to guess his role in a given play. I realize that the Gronk-style TE is far more exciting right now, but Pete’s programmed the team to revolve around the run, and thus far the results are difficult to argue with. Miller is earning his pay, just not with gratuitous receptions. It must also be considered that tight end usage is undoubtedly amongst the playbook concepts that Russell Wilson is having handed to him one at a time, and he may start getting more looks as Wilson develops.

    At the very least, all this calls into question whether Miller is a lock to be cut just because he isn’t getting targeted much.

    • Rob Staton says:

      At what point has anyone said Miller is a lock to be cut? Am I missing something here? The article pretty much said Miller was doing a great job… one paragraph on his huge salary…

  13. laubster says:

    Rob, have you taken a look at Joseph Fauria, the 6-7 TE at UCLA?