By Danny O’Neil
RENTON – It’s only appropriate to start with tight end Sean McGrath’s hands.
One year after doing everything he could just to hold down a job in Seattle, he not only has a chance to grab a new role in the Seahawks’ offense, but the second-year player out of a Division II school will attempt to do it bare handed.
“I don’t like the feel of gloves,” McGrath said. “You can’t feel the ball.”
Instead, he tapes his hands, placing a band between each knuckle on his fingers. It fits the throwback approach of the guy who just one year ago was an undrafted rookie from a school in Arkadelphia, Ark. who didn’t last the first week of the regular season on Seattle’s practice squad.
Now, the bald man with the bare hands has a heck of an opportunity at his fingertips as Seattle searches for depth at tight end.
Sometimes opportunity knocks, but in this case it fell into McGrath’s lap in a most unexpected, most unfortunate way. Anthony McCoy suffered a torn Achilles tendon last month, ending his fourth NFL season before it ever began and creating a vacancy at the backup tight end position.
While most people have pointed to rookie Luke Willson – Seattle’s fifth-round pick from Rice – as a likely candidate to serve as the No. 2 tight end given that he’s the fastest tight end on the team, McGrath has a throwback game that could throw him into consideration, too.
“I like to play smash mouth,” McGrath said.
He certainly took the hard-knock route to get this far, coming out of high school in the Chicago area and heading to Eastern Illinois, where he became a starter as a sophomore in 2008 only to be dismissed after that season for violating team rules.
“I had a little bit too much fun up there,” McGrath said. “Young and stupid.”
He transferred to Henderson State, a Division II school that was located in a dry county in Arkansas. He sat out the 2009 season then caught 55 passes as a junior in the school’s spread offense. He suffered a foot injury his senior season, cutting his productivity. By the time the draft rolled around, he wasn’t unknown to NFL teams, but he was marginal enough to have his long-snapping skills included in a scouting report.
McGrath made Seattle’s practice squad coming out of training camp only to be released two days later and re-signed in October. He was promoted to the active roster for the final two games of the regular season.
Now McGrath will be fighting for playing time at a position where the pecking order is still being worked out.
Zach Miller is Seattle’s undisputed starter, a veteran entering his third year with the team. He was largely relegated to being a blocker his first season with the team, but became an increasingly proficient receiving threat as last season progressed to the point he caught eight passes for 142 yards in Seattle’s playoff loss at Atlanta.
After that, the depth chart is wide open, though, which makes the backup tight end spot one of the few roles on this team that is actually up for grabs.
Willson’s speed makes him an automatic consideration.
“You see how we’re using him a little bit out here, down the field and getting a chance to run deeper routes and things like that,” Miller said of the rookie. “He has that speed that he can separate from guys pretty easily. He’s going to be a weapon for us on offense.”
But McGrath’s strength might turn out to be just as important as that speed.
“He does a lot of things real well,” Miller said of McGrath. “He’s a little better in the run game right now, and he has really good hands. He’s coming along – definitely – from being a rookie and into his second year here, and got a little action. He has a little bit of experience with that and how our game works.”
That’s the result of the hands-on experience McGrath got last year as a rookie. In his second season, he’ll try to grab onto an even larger role, and he’ll attempt to do it bare-handed, of course. He’ll have a better feel for things that way.