Seahawks camp report: Percy Harvin’s injury could be Golden Tate’s opportunity

RENTON, Wash. -- When the Seattle Seahawks traded their 2013 first-round pick and two other picks to the Minnesota Vikings for the services of receiver Percy Harvin, and then signed Harvin to a six-year, $67 million contract with $25 million guaranteed in March, it was thought that the Florida alum would add a matchup nightmare from multiple positions that few defenses could deal with. Given Seattle's stocked status in the running game, at the quarterback position, and in their receiver corps, the move didn't make sense unless you understood that Harvin can line up all over the formation, presenting pass coverages with options that would always be wrong. Harvin was playing at an MVP level early in the 2012 season for the Vikings, but he suffered a ligament tear in his ankle, and missed the second half of Minnesota's campaign. Harvin has played all 16 games in a regular season just once since the Vikings selected him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, and that issue may have come home to roost for Harvin's new team.

On the first day of training camp, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had to explain that Harvin may have a labrum tear in his hip, and the team is still determining whether Harvin would require surgery. Carroll said that Harvin suffered the injury recently, which would jibe with his performances during the Seahawks' OTAs, when Harvin looked faster than anyone else on the field. On Thursday, Harvin was once again on the field, but not the way the coaches would like to see him -- he was limited to talking with teammates instead of impressing them with his agility and ability.

In Harvin's place, the guy who managed to do that was third-year receiver Golden Tate, who's in his contract year with Seattle, and would seem to benefit greatly from any Harvin absence. Carroll and general manager John Schneider took Tate out of Notre Dame in the second round of the 2010 draft, they saw him as a bit of a Harvin clone -- a guy who could attack a defense in multiple ways. Carroll had loved Harvin's athletic potential since he tried to recruit him to USC, and Tate was potentially the answer to Carroll's "Well, Percy Harvin's already in the NFL" problem. Tate struggled through his first two seasons, but the light came on in 2012. He proved to be a very valuable receiver outside, but a pure dynamo in the slot. So much so that when I asked Carroll on Thursday about Tate's true value to the team (Harvin's injury or not), the coach didn't hesitate to talk Tate up.

"He's a tremendous football player. It did take him a while to catch on to the expectations of what's going on around here, but it wasn't ever because he wasn't talented or a good athlete. A year ago, he started fitting in when we made a decision to make him make the plays, give him the ball, and make him be a factor. It really made him a difference. Now, we have no hesitation about featuring him and doing all kinds of things with him. He's a very, very good player, and it's all ahead of him. He's just now getting started in that sense."

So, the obvious follow-up question was, if the need arises, is Tate ready to take Harvin's place as that multi-position weapon?

"He's played inside and outside -- he can do all that stuff," Carroll said. "There are no restrictions on what Golden can do -- we can get him downfield, he's tough on catches up the middle, he makes plays in traffic, and he's a terrific guy with the ball in his hands. We'll do everything with him."

Carroll wasn't the only one who thought so on Thursday, especially when Tate caught a long pass from quarterback Russell Wilson in drills. The 5-foot-11 Tate got over 6-foot-4 starting cornerback Brandon Browner, and brought the ball down with impressively strong hands. Tate made many splash plays in games and practices last year, and Wilson certainly seemed happy that Tate was able to pick up right where he left off.

"Golden is spectacular," Wilson said. "Obviously, he's a really important player. He catches the ball extremely well -- he has those cat-like reflexes -- and that's how he moves and makes people miss. He's got the strongest hands -- just how he goes up and gets the football, as you saw today on that back-shoulder throw I made to him against BB {Brandon Browner]. That was just two really good players going after it, and he made a great catch. You can tell that he's excited about the opportunity, and he deserves to be. He's really worked at it, and we worked all summer just to make sure that we're clocking right, understanding and seeing the same things. It's going to be a great thing for him."

So, expectations are high for Tate, especially since he comes into this season ready to earn a base salary of $630,000, and hoping for the kind of season that will propel him into the realm of the Giants' Victor Cruz, another speed-slot guy who just signed a six-year, $45.879 million deal to stay in New York. If Tate shows what he did last year and is able to expand on his 45-catch, 688-yard, 7-TD season, it could very well happen. It's a little-known fact that in 2012, Tate matched up with some of the best receivers in the game when it came to deep efficiency. Part of that, he told me on Thursday, has to do with the ways in which defenses must adapt to Seattle's running game, and it's just one reason he'd love to stay in Seattle after this season.

"It's huge for us," Tate said of that balance. "We're known as a run-first team, but we do have playmakers who can go get the ball deep. That's one thing that separates me from a lot of guys -- I can go get a deep ball better than most, I feel. It fits well in this offense, because you run and draw teams to sleep. Right when they think they have it, and they bring the safety down -- boom, we're running past you. I'm really excited about this year."

Obviously, Carroll would love to have Harvin and Tate at the ready all season, but Tate is totally confident that if he has to step up into whatever role the coaches have projected for Harvin, he can finally meet the targets Carroll and Schneider set for him in that 2010 draft.

"I'm here to do whatever helps the team, and whatever the coaching staff needs me to do. Percy and I are similar in a lot of ways, but we're also different. I don't see this happening, but if they need me to get in the backfield, I can do that. The screens and reverses, I really enjoy doing those."

Mostly, Tate has learned what it will take to be a complete receiver.

"Last year, I learned that you can never stop playing when you're on this team," Tate told me. "You never know what's going to happen with Russell back there, and that's the great thing. He can get himself out of two defensive ends coming at him, so you've got to learn to play and finish. Another thing I learned was how important route-running is for me -- I know that I can catch most balls coming at me, but I want to be a more complete receiver, and I'm still working on that. The coaches know what to expect of me on and off the field, and I just want to keep getting better."

So far, so good, and in ways that could pay off for everyone involved.

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