By Gregg Bell The News Tribune
RENTON — Bryan Walters is a returner is more ways than one.
The Seattle Seahawks signed back Walters, the wide receiver/punt returner/kick returner, on Monday to their active roster. Just two days earlier they had released him among their final preseason cuts.
The Seattle-area native who was on the active roster for the Seahawks in February’s Super Bowl was back on the practice field at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton wearing his familiar No. 19. He was practicing with the rest of the Super Bowl champions for Thursday’s NFL opener against Green Bay at CenturyLink Field.
All risk-adverse Seahawks fans — at least those worried Seattle All-Pro safety Earl Thomas was a standing target for opponents on 40-yard sprints right at him — smiled over the move.
The team announced Walters’ return about 90 minutes after head coach Pete Carroll had been asked during his weekly press conference, “Is Earl Thomas returning punts?”
The Seahawks’ coach responded hesitantly with two words: “Yeah … yeah.”
It wasn’t exactly a convincing or unequivocal response because at the time the team was waiting on a procedural issue for the release of wide receiver Phil Bates before it could add Walters to the active roster. Carroll couldn’t officially say Walters was yet on the team. Thus, he wasn’t adamant at all about Thomas being the primary punt returner this week.
Walters, 6 feet and 190 pounds in his fifth season out of Cornell and Juanita High School in Kirkland, returned every punt and kickoff for the Seahawks last week in their exhibition finale at Oakland. And he was fearless to the point of being reckless returning punts in exhibition games last month. The Ivy League’s career leader in punt returns brought back four for 46 yards in three preseason games; he missed the third one against Chicago because of bruised ribs he got running headlong into Chargers the week before. Walters also returned nine kickoffs for 229 yards in the preseason, an average of 25.4 yards per return.
He said the fumble he had returning a kickoff in the first quarter last week at Oakland, when a Raider came at his right side with a downward swipe at the ball while he was getting hit by another from the left, was the second fumble of his life. The first came at Cornell when he was wearing long sleeves and ball slipped off one of those.
So Walters won’t be in long sleeves Thursday against Green Bay, or in any other game; he hasn’t worn them since. Last year, his third season with the Seahawks, he played in four games and started one at wide receiver.
Thomas has not returned a punt in a real NFL game in any of his four previous seasons; his last such work was seven punt returns in 2009, his final season at the University of Texas. He returned four punts this preseason for 68 yards, 59 of which came on one return in the second exhibition against San Diego.
The star safety said after that game he relishes having multiple opportunities to have the ball in his hands, that it reminds him of playing every down in high school back in Orange, Texas.
The problem here for the Seahawks, of course, is that Thomas is their indispensable anchor, ball-hawk and instinctive field general on the defense’s back line. That’s quite as asset to risk on punt returns.
Carroll has maintained throughout the summer that he wants his best athletes to have the most opportunities to have the ball in their hands, and that’s why Thomas was back there first through most of last month.
But why would Seattle add Walters to its active roster and waive Bates three days before the opener, only to have Walters stand on the sideline Thursday solely as the seventh wide receiver?
“We really trust in him and believe in him,” Carroll said last week of Walters. “He’s a
really good ballplayer.”
The result for now is what every coach loves: Uncertainty with his opponent over who will play what as the foe game plans. Yet at this point it would be a surprise if Thomas returns all of Green Bay’s punts — or even the first one — Thursday.
Keeping Bates on the active roster initially and then releasing him when all other teams have set their practice squads makes it more likely the Seahawks can get him through waivers and then add him to their practice squad in a couple days, if they so choose. Bates is a former quarterback at Ohio University who joined Seattle’s practice squad last November.
Monday’s move is a potential way for the Seahawks to have both Walters and Bates develop under their contractual control.
WR Percy Harvin practiced for the second consecutive day after missing three days with what Carroll said was a personal matter. Harvin played in just one regular-season game last season after a significant hip injury. “It feels tremendously good right now,” he said. “I’m blessed to be healthy.” … The Seahawks’ official practice report to the league Monday: Did not participate: TE Cooper Helfet (knee), RB Christine Michael (hamstring), C Lemuel Jeanpierre (neck), LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (hamstring), CB Tharold Simon (knee). Limited participation: CB Jeremy Lane (groin), LB Bruce Irvin (hip surgery), WR Kevin Norwood (listed as an ankle injury, coming off surgery last month for a bone spur in his foot). … Carroll said he was “hopeful” Lane, the fifth, “nickel” defensive back on long-yardage plays, will play against the Packers. If not, CB DeShawn Shead could see time. … The coach also used “hopeful” to describe the prospects of Irvin and Norwood playing. … Carroll said Michael, who missed the exhibition finale after tweaking his hamstring in practice, “is banged up. We’ll figure it out later in the week.” … Rookie DE Cassius Marsh practiced after hurting his hip flexor at Oakland. Carroll said he is in “good shape.” … The Seahawks’ practice squad is now at a full 10 after two more signings: DE Julius Warmsley and DB Josh Aubrey.