It’s not often that a team with seven starters due to be unrestricted free agents are still viewed as a Super Bowl favorite heading into next season, but that’s exactly the situation the ‘Hawks find themselves in. One of those free agents is local Seattle product and former Washington Husky, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.
Kearse signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2012 and since then has been a steady force in the Seattle starting lineup, including being responsible for one of the most memorable catches in Seahawks history with his overtime touchdown against Green Bay in the 2015 NFC Championship game.
The Seahawks have maintained that Kearse will be a priority target this offseason, however Kearse has mentioned that unlike teammate Bruce Irvin’s publicly-stated desire to give the ‘Hawks a discount to remain with the club, he is more than willing to test the market. One thing for certain is that the front office won’t overspend on any player, even a hometown hero like Kearse, especially in a draft that seems particularly ripe with talent at wide receiver.
Wide receiver looks to be an area that the ‘Hawks will more than likely address come draft day, even if they do end up re-signing Kearse. Though “Angry” Doug Baldwin remains a steady force and Tyler Lockett put up an incredibly impressive rookie campaign, the fragility of Paul Richardson and scary injury to Ricardo Lockette make the wide receiving corps of Seattle due for some reinforcements.
One player in particular that offers a bevy of impressive skills both athletically and from a numbers standpoint is Oklahoma wideout Sterling Shepard. Shepard, who impressed many at the Senior Bowl, also boosted his stock with an outstanding performance at the Combine, as this chart from the great Mock Draftable shows:
Though the 5’10” Shepard isn’t the most physically-imposing receiver in this class, he’s certainly one of the more explosive, as evidenced by his vertical and broad jump numbers. Shepard has even been compared by some to Tyler Lockett because of his quickness and value coming out of the slot. For example, check out his route out of the slot against Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander in Oklahoma’s CFP semifinal matchup:
Like Baldwin and Lockett, Shepard also has a knack for knowing just where the sideline is and how to make catches against bigger corners, as evidenced by this catch earlier in the same game against Clemson:
When Pete Carroll first arrived on scene in Seattle and brought in former USC Trojan Mike Williams, many assumed that the Williams “big receiver” mold was something coveted in the Seattle offense. The club also signed 6’3″ Sidney Rice in 2011 but as time wears on, it appears that when it comes to grading out wide receivers, the Seahawks value the ability to create separation and get open regardless of size above all. This is not to say that they won’t go after a redzone-type target at some point this offseason, be it in the draft or free agency, as there are plenty of intriguing names out there that I will likely cover at some point such as Tulsa’s Keyarris Garrett. The progress of Jimmy Graham’s rehab will surely play a big role in this because, as he showed in the weeks leading up to his injury, Graham has the ability to function in the Seattle offense as a big-bodied red zone receiver and regularly eat up double-teams that allow other receivers more space.
It’s not just the eye test and impressive Combine results that back up the sentiment that Shepard was one of the best receivers in college football last season. When delving even further into the numbers, like those from Matthew Harmon at Backyard Banter, Shepard proved to be one of the most consistent wideouts from a variety of catch conversion metrics:
As Harmon points out in his post, Shepard is able to consistently beat all kinds of coverage despite the “just a slot receiver” label that many have placed on him, much like they did with Tyler Lockett last season. When a player can fit into a variety of offensive packages because of a skill set as unique as Shepard’s, it makes it much easier to follow the mantra of maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses.
Shepard was consistent throughout the 2015 season, posting career highs in every statistical category. He put up seven games with 7+ receptions, an impressive feat considering he played in an offense with a sometimes-erratic quarterback and the two-headed rushing prowess of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
Overall, the rare ability of Sterling Shepard to not only get open, but also to be able to convert against a variety of different coverage looks gives him a skill set that would fit very nicely into the current Seahawks system. He spent a full season in 2015 with Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, well-known for his scrambling and improvisation abilities outside the pocket, and he could end up starting his pro career in a similar situation as a part of the Seattle offense with Russell Wilson.