When the Seahawks drafted Golden Tate two years ago I have to say that I was pretty pleased about it. The selection of Tate was coming off a first round where both Russell Okung and Earl Thomas fell to the Seahawks and I don’t think I was alone in my jubilation regarding the 2010 draft. Draft pundits had pegged Tate as a late first round-early second round value and it seemed the Seahawks had come away with a steal. We are now entering the third year of Golden Tate’s tenure with the Seahawks and I’m not sure we know exactly what kind of player we are dealing with. Tate sits on the bubble of the roster with a legitimate chance to not make the 2012 Seahawks. Even if Tate does make the team he will need to carve out a role for himself in short order if he hopes to stick around in the long term. A look at the skills Tate possesses, his production over the last two years and his opportunity for playing time for this year’s Seahawks team gives us a sense of whether Golden Tate will break through or fade into obscurity at this crossroads in his career.
The first and perhaps most important question is what Golden Tate’s skill set is. Coming into the draft Golden Tate was often described as a wide receiver in a runningback’s body. Tate is shorter and stouter than your average wideout and yet he has both excellent speed (4.42 at the Combine) and elusiveness. At Notre Dame, Tate showed that he was dangerous and difficult to tackle in the open field and made a multitude of explosive plays. Tate seems to possess the skills of a “touchdown maker” as prized by Pete Carroll. Not only was he considered to be a receiving threat but also a threat returning punts. Tate returned 16 punts for 202 yards in his rookie year for a more than respectable average of 12.6 yards per return. Last year he ceded the role to Leon Washington and was unable to showcase his abilities in that area. He has not suffered any major injuries and is only 24 years old so there is no reason to believe he doesn’t possess the same athleticism and physical abilities he did coming out of the draft. Tate was often compared to Steve Smith coming out of college which gives a sense of what he brings to the table athletically. Tate has a high ceiling due to top level athleticism and rare ability with the ball in his hands. The weakness in his game that draft experts pointed to, and still applies today, is his route-running. Tate’s route running was considered very raw and it could be argued that it has not taken great strides since he joined the Seahawks. Much like many other young receivers Tate also struggles against the jam. The total package is a confusing set of tools. Tate is dynamic with the ball in his hands but he lacks the route-running acumen to get open consistently even though he doesn’t lack for speed. Tate is talented and explosive but also limited. His skills have been described as unique but until the Seahawks find a way to harness them Tate would be better off with a more conventional set of abilities. There are reasons to be excited about what Tate brings to the table but also an equal number of reasons to be concerned.
Where Golden Tate looks utterly unimpressive is in the realm of quantifiable production. In his rookie year Tate caught 21 passes for 227 yards. Last year Tate improved on those numbers by catching 35 passes for 382 yards. It would be easy to be deceived by these numbers into believing that Tate was taking strides towards becoming a more productive receiver when this is not actually the case. The only difference between the stat lines is related to the amount of games Tate played. Tate played 11 games in his rookie year as opposed to 16 last year and when we examine his production on a per game basis it is virtually the same. Tate averaged 1.9 receptions per game in 2010 as opposed to 2.2 last year, a difference of 0.3. In terms of yardage Tate averaged 20.6 in 2010 and 23.9 last year. Even on a per reception level Tate averaged 10.8 in his rookie year and 10.9 last year. In a sense Tate has been very consistent, just consistently unproductive. I found these statistics to be somewhat surprising as I had thought that Tate had improved slightly last year. Instead the numbers paint the picture of a receiver whose career is in a holding pattern. Glimpses of hope can be found the fact the Tate led Seattle wide receivers by catching 62% of balls thrown his way. However, Tate was often catching shorter, higher percentage passes and the catch rate statistic is far from a perfect one. It is fair to say that whichever way you slice it Golden Tate’s production has been disappointing.
Perhaps the most important factor determining whether Tate will finally break through this season is the opportunity he is presented with. The Seahawks wide receiver situation is fluid to say the least so on the surface it appears as if Tate could really step up and be a factor in the passing game. However, whether he will have a chance to do so likely depends on which wide receiver position the Seahawks want to play him at. The Flanker position is held down by the immensely talented but rather fragile Sidney Rice, Split End is wide open at the moment in the wake of the Mike Williams departure, with Kris Durham and Ricardo Lockette headlining a myriad of contenders, and the Slot is occupied by the already immortal Doug Baldwin. Tate has played all these positions in his time with the Seahawks but his abilities seem to lend themselves best to the Slot. If the Seahawks see Tate as a slot receiver then he is trapped behind Baldwin with no chance to shine. If the brass determines that Tate should be playing on the outside he is looking at two spots: one that is completely wide open and one that is inhabited by someone with durability issues. The Seahawks’ wide receiver situation is a double edged sword for Tate; he either has an enormous opportunity or virtually no opportunity whatsoever.
It is often said that receiver is a position that takes a while to learn how to play at the NFL level. Fantasy Football aficionados are probably familiar with the “third year receiver” phenomenon, the logic being that this is the time in many receiver’s careers when they really break out. No matter how much credence you put in that theory the fact is that this is Golden Tate’s third NFL season and it is time for him to produce. It no longer matters that he was a second round pick or a star at Notre Dame. All that matters for Golden Tate is what he can produce today because his high draft pick rope has come to an end and if he is not one of the five or six best receivers in camp he will not make the team. Tate still has the talent to be a useful weapon in the NFL, even if perhaps he will have to be deployed creatively to succeed, but he also has the potential to fall of the face of the Earth. There is a massive gap between the best case and worst case scenarios for Golden Tate in 2012, making this truly his make or break year.