RENTON — A year ago, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson told anyone who would listen about a receiver who had impressed him over the offseason.
Not many people outside of Seattle knew about Jermaine Kearse before last season. But Wilson had seen enough of the undrafted free agent in offseason workouts in Hermosa Beach, Calif., to predict that Kearse would be a breakout player in 2013.
And sure enough Kearse not only made the roster last season, he became a reliable target and big-play threat. He had some of the more memorable catches of a Super Bowl-winning season, including a Week 1 game-winner, the go-ahead score in the NFC Championship game and a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl that saw him pinball off four Denver defenders.
This season, Wilson believes he might have identified the next receiver ready to go from practice squad to playmaker.
“I’ve been telling some people that Phillip Bates was going to be that guy this year,” Wilson said. “He’s just a guy that’s worked so hard. You’ve got to remember Phillip Bates played quarterback for a long time in college so he’s kind of new to the wide receiver position. He’s got great speed, great hands. He’s got paws. I mean I’ve got huge hands, he’s got really big hands as well and he just catches the ball extremely well. He works extremely hard. He loves the game. He’s one of the first guys (here), last guys to leave. He’s dedicated to his craft and he’s learned a lot.”
Bates, as Wilson notes, was a quarterback at Ohio University until a shoulder injury in his junior season. He played both receiver and quarterback as a senior, and not surprisingly didn’t have a lot of options coming out of college as an athletic but raw receiver. But now that Bates has spent time honing his craft on Seattle’s practice squad, he is turning heads in camp and thinks he’s ready to not just earn a spot on Seattle’s roster, but make a difference on the field.
“The sky’s the limit,” Bates said. “I’m still learning every day. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve got to do to keep getting better. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know what I’m saying? These guys have billions of catches on me, so I just have to keep getting better.”
Yet as good as Bates has been so far — head coach Pete Carroll raved about Bates after the first week of camp, saying, “He has really been productive, he’s been active, he’s made a bunch of big plays” — he still has a lot of work to do to secure a roster spot. Even with Sidney Rice’s retirement and Golden Tate leaving in free agency, the Seahawks still have a lot of depth at receiver, especially after drafting Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood earlier this year. Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Kearse and Richardson are all but locks to be on the roster, which means only one or two spots is open. Norwood seemingly would be the next in line if healthy, but he is recovering from foot surgery and may not be healthy to start the season. Beyond that, it’s seemingly a tossup between Bates, Bryan Walters and Ricardo Lockette for the final spot or two.
“Ricardo gives us a real flashy guy competing, Phil Bates has done a very good job, and he did a really good job on special teams as well Bryan Walters is doing well,” Carroll said. “It’s a really good competitive group.”
While players know their best path to making the team is to not dwell on their chances or think about the numbers crunch that comes with establishing a 53-man roster, that’s not always easy to avoid.
“It’s tough,” said Walters, who went from Seattle’s practice squad to the 53-man roster late in the year. “It’ll creep into your head, but you do your best to throw that out and just play every day. You take one rep at a time and don’t worry about things. You have a short memory if something doesn’t go your way. You control what you can control, and you don’t control the numbers game. So whatever you do, as long as you’re giving your best and leaving it all on the field, sometimes it doesn’t work out, sometimes it does. You never know.”
What players like Walters and Bates appreciate is the fact that they will get a real shot to show what they can do in camp and preseason games. Carroll’s “always compete” mantra extends even to the undrafted players, which helps explain how a Super Bowl-winning team employed three undrafted receivers in Baldwin, Lockette and Walters.
“This team is going to give everyone a chance,” Walters said. “If you take advantage of your opportunities, you have a chance to shine here. That’s the competitive nature they bring in here. Everyone’s here to compete, and all spots are always open. That’s different than some of the other places I’ve been where sometimes the young guys coming in don’t have any chance at all, they’re just there to be a camp body. It’s different here and everyone’s motivated and trying hard because they know they have that chance.”
Bates believes, like his quarterback, that he can be that receiver to step into the spotlight in 2014 just like Kearse did a year ago. Then again, so too do Walters and Lockette.
“It’s a very competitive group,” Carroll said. “There are guys that are battling all the way through the ranks.”