RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks' breakout candidate for 2022 isn't a player, so much as an entire position group. The team is expecting big things from its tight ends -- a unit headlined by newcomer Noah Fant and Will Dissly -- and one of the reasons might surprise you.
While it's a virtual certainty that there will be a sizable drop-off from Russell Wilson to whichever quarterback ends up replacing him, the widely held belief inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center is that tight ends will benefit from the switch, as counterintuitive as it may sound.
Specifically, the expectation is that Drew Lock and/or Geno Smith will be more inclined to dump the ball off and throw it to the short-middle portion of the field, which is tight end territory. Thus, Fant, Dissly & Co. will be more involved in the Seahawks' offense than their tight ends have been for much of the past decade.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 25% of Wilson's career pass attempts have been thrown zero to 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and between the field numbers. That's the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL among 55 passers with at least 1,000 attempts since 2012.
It hasn't stopped Wilson from becoming one of the game's elite quarterbacks, but favoring deep shots to the perimeter over shorter throws helps explain why his tight ends were rarely a prominent feature of the Seahawks' offense.
Over Wilson's 10-year run in Seattle, they ranked 14th in percentage of pass attempts thrown to tight ends, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only times they finished inside the top 10 were 2015 and 2017, Jimmy Graham's first and final seasons in Seattle. In the three seasons before Graham arrived, they were 19th to 21st. In the four seasons since he left, they've been 14th to 24th.
With Fant coming over from the Denver Broncos in the Wilson trade, and Dissly re-signing after testing free agency, the Seahawks might have their best group of tight ends since those Graham days.
In three seasons since the Broncos drafted him 20th overall -- Seattle was preparing to take him with the next pick -- Fant ranks eighth among NFL tight ends in catches (170), eighth in yards (1,905) and tied for 21st in touchdowns (10).
"Goals for Year 4 is to take that leap, right?" Fant said in April. "I'm kind of stuck at that high-600 [yards] ceiling, and I've got to break through that. I think I have every opportunity to do that in Seattle, and I'm excited to get to work to do that."
Dissly's receiving production has been modest by comparison -- fewer than 25 catches and 300 yards in all four seasons -- but he's flashed occasional brilliance in the passing game and has been every bit the blocking force the Seahawks hoped he'd be when they drafted him to be a key piece of their run-heavy offense. He's missed only two games (one was because he landed on the COVID-19 list) over the past two seasons after his first two were cut short by serious injuries.
The Seahawks are hoping 6-foot-7 Colby Parkinson can catch on after an injury-shortened rookie season in 2020 and nondescript '21. Tyler Mabry and undrafted rookie Cade Brewer are competing for the fourth spot, should Seattle keep that many.
"It's a good group," Carroll said at the end of last month's minicamp. " ... Will is an all-around guy. We can count on him to do everything. Noah probably had one of, maybe the most spectacular camps of anybody. I just thought he made plays throughout the whole time: down the field, short-area stuff, understanding the scheme, all of it. He just adapted so beautifully. I didn't know him other than through the draft process, but he handled himself just impeccably.
"Maybe the guy that's most exciting is Colby. Colby Parkinson really became a go-to guy, and he's got that tremendous frame and catching range and he runs really well. ... We've got a lot of flexibility with these guys, and they're going to be a big part of what we're doing."
If that wasn't the plan, the Seahawks wouldn't have made significant financial commitments in re-signing Dissly to a much larger deal than anyone expected, then picking up the fifth-year option on Fant's rookie contract, making him the first 2019 draft pick to have his fifth-year option picked up.
Interestingly, Fant's old team helped Dissly get paid. The Broncos wanted him to help replace Fant, arm Wilson with a familiar target and get one of the NFL's better in-line tight ends. When Denver made its push for Dissly, the Seahawks upped their offer to three years and $24 million.
A month later, before Fant had stepped foot onto their practice field, the Seahawks picked up his $6.85 million option for 2023. It was the first fifth-year option they've exercised, having declined to do so with their five eligible first-round picks since the options were instituted in 2011.
"Obviously, that was a huge testament," Fant said. "It kind of showed their faith in me."
Fant described offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's Seahawks offense as "very favorable" for tight ends, noting how the passing game utilizes them down the field. They'll have a lesser quarterback than Wilson throwing them the ball, but with it could come more opportunities.
"I think what's cool for Noah in this offense is, I think you're going to get to see a little bit more of just his feel for football in general," said Lock, Fant's teammate in Denver, last month. "His savviness, his whereabouts of bodies around him, how he feels defenses ... I think we could have maybe pressed the field with him a little bit more in Denver, but he's going to have the opportunity to do that here, and I know he's pumped about it."