With a star-studded group of playmakers on offense that includes Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice, quiet and unassuming tight end Zach Miller might be the Seattle Seahawks’ key contributor on that side of the ball.
Since his arrival via free agency two years ago, the former Arizona State University player’s blocking ability has been a focal point in unleashing Lynch’s “Beast Mode” in the ground game.
And although his receiving numbers were a disappointment during his first year in Seattle, Miller developed a rapport with Wilson in the second half of 2012. And it was reflected in his statistics (34 catches for 385 yards and three TDs) during the final eight games of the season, including playoffs.
But the 27-year-old’s true value stems from the lack of experience behind him.
Backup tight end Anthony McCoy suffered a torn Achilles tendon during organized team activities in May that required surgery, ending his 2013 season. With six tight ends currently on the roster, Miller is the only one among them with a regular-season reception.
However, Seattle coach Pete Carroll said what the tight end group lacks in experience they will make up for in talent and effort.
“That position group is in good shape,” Carroll said in June during the team’s mandatory minicamp.
MILLER’S IMPROVED PRODUCTION
Miller signed a five-year, $34 million contract with the Seahawks in August 2011 with the thought that he would pair with John Carlson to give the Seahawks one of the best tight end duos in the league.
However, Carlson suffered a shoulder injury in training camp that required surgery and never played a regular-season game in 2011. The following year, Carlson signed with Minnesota in free agency.
Meanwhile, after averaging 59 catches a season in his first four years in Oakland, Miller finished the 2011 season with a career-low 25 catches for 233 yards.
Part of the reason for his numbers decline was that Seattle often used him as a blocker because its inexperienced and beat-up offensive line had troubled protecting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
Things changed for Miller last season, however. He played in 853 of Seattle’s 974 offensive plays (88 percent) and finished with 38 receptions for 396 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season, including seven receptions of 20 or more yards.
But Miller saved his best for the NFC Divisional playoff game at Atlanta, where he made eight catches for a career-high 142 receiving yards and a touchdown while playing with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
Although Miller has played in 31 of 32 possible games in two seasons with Seattle, injuries have been a concern – which makes finding a capable backup during training camp an important chore for Seattle.
Miller has been diagnosed with at least four concussions during his six-year NFL career. And he watched from the sideline during the team’s June minicamp to rest a nagging foot injury, which Carroll said was unrelated to the one he suffered in the January playoff game.
Miller has played through nagging injuries, never complained and has shown himself to be durable and productive.
PATIENT MCGRATH READY
McGrath, a second-year pro out of Henderson State, is the latest player to benefit from Carroll’s reliance on the roster depth he has built up over the past three years.
Initially on the practice squad to begin the 2012 season, McGrath was one of four undrafted rookie free agents to finish last season on Seattle’s active roster. And with McCoy out for the year, the 6-foot-5, 247-pounder will be asked to step into the role of the team’s second tight end.
“Being on the practice squad, you pay your dues,” McGrath said. “And the great thing about this organization is that free agency is such a big part of their core.
“Look at Doug Baldwin. It’s historically been a place for free agents to kind of shine. They go out and they give guys an opportunity that normally other teams would not do.”
While not as athletic and explosive as McCoy, McGrath, 25, is a polished route runner with reliable hands who can also contribute on special teams.
“Sean McGrath has made a really obvious elevation,” Carroll said. “He’s doing a fine job. … His offseason work has really shown up. He’s really stronger and quicker.”
IS WILLSON A PLAYMAKER?
The Seahawks took a chance on Luke Willson in this year’s draft, selecting the Rice product in the fifth round because of his elite athleticism.
At 6-5 and 252 pounds, Willson ran a 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds, did 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and posted a 38-inch vertical jump.
Now, Seattle needs those eye-popping numbers to translate into production on the field. Willson was one of the early success stories during the team’s offseason training workouts.
“Luke Willson has done a really good job,” Carroll said. “We’re really excited about Luke’s addition. We don’t see anything that Luke can’t do. We haven’t seen him in pads yet to really understand the dynamics of his blocking, but we know he’s willing, he’s got a tough attitude, and he looked great on film in college.”
Willson struggled with a lower-back injury and a high ankle sprain in 2012, finishing with nine receptions his final season at Rice. However, the 23-year-old will get an opportunity to be an impact player for the Seahawks in his rookie season.
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437 firstname.lastname@example.org