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Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks hoping for breakout years from WR Dee Eskridge and DE L.J. Collier

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Dee Eskridge runs a drill during NFL football practice Monday, May 23, 2022, in Renton, Wash.  (Associated Press)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

SEATTLE – As excited as the Seahawks are about the prospects of their nine-man rookie class to help get them back in the postseason in 2022, just as critical will be the contributions they get from some of their previous drafts.

Specifically, two of the team’s three most recent first picks before this year – receiver Dee Eskridge (2021) and defensive end L.J. Collier (2019) – are each not only players the team hopes break out and prove worthy of their draft billing but are also entering seasons that could well define the rest of their careers.

Eskridge played just 10 games last season after suffering a concussion in the first week, after also missing much of the offseason program and training camp with a toe injury.

While the spot as the third receiver after Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf is his for the taking, he faces increased competition after Seattle drafted two receivers in the seventh round – Bo Melton and Dareke Young – and this week signed eight-year veteran Marquise Goodwin, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound former college track standout whose skill set mirrors that of the 5-9, 190-pound Eskridge.

Collier, meanwhile, also played just 10 games last year after being declared inactive seven times and is entering the final year of his rookie contract after the team declined to pick up an option on his contract for the 2023 season.

The good news for each is that as OTAs (organized team activities) began this week, each was prominent on the field – Eskridge simply for being out there, following his injury-plagued rookie year, and Collier for being in what is a slightly different role that the team hopes maximizes his abilities.

With Metcalf still rehabbing a foot injury, Eskridge generally ran with the first-team offense Monday and was active throughout. At one point, he made a leaping, twisting catch down the sideline of the type the Seahawks surely planned on him pulling off often in games when they took him with the 56th overall pick a year ago out of Western Michigan.

To Eskridge, it was a sign of how different things are now than a year ago, when he mostly had to watch during OTAs.

“I would say I’m very far along compared to where I started last year,” said Eskridge after the workout. “More comfortable in the offense, more comfortable in the culture as a whole. So I feel good going into Year Two.”

Eskridge, who had 10 receptions for 64 yards and a TD as a rookie, noted a change in his offseason conditioning program, saying he tried to focus more on staying in shape and putting less “tax” on his body.

“I feel fast; I feel powerful, explosive and all those things,” he said.

The real proof will come in a few months, but with the Seahawks in a post-Russell Wilson offensive transition, Eskridge becoming the player the Seahawks thought he could be would obviously be a big help.

Collier, meanwhile, was working solely with the tackles during Monday’s OTA open to the media, despite his listing as an end. That’s somewhat of a semantical thing. With the Seahawks going to more of a 3-4, definitions are somewhat changed from past seasons, and Collier will play a mix of both spots.

As coach Pete Carroll said, Collier will play a “four-technique” role in the team’s base defense – meaning, lined up over the offensive tackle as an end in a three-man front, flanked by a linebacker outside – and “three-technique” in the nickel defense, meaning lined up over the guard in more of a traditional tackle role.

The hope is that he can provide the kind of inside pass rush in passing downs that Seattle has too often lacked in recent years., and provide the kind of impact the team thought he could when it made the somewhat surprising decision to take him 29th overall in 2019.

“There’s a lot of stuff that he can do in this scheme,” Carroll said. “I really want to see his pass rush come to life, particularly in the nickel group.”

And maybe that can help revive his career.

After a disappointing rookie season in 2019 in which he played just 152 snaps, Collier seemed to emerge in 2020, starting all 16 games and making three sacks with seven quarterback hits. He also drew a holding call in the end zone that resulted in a safety against Arizona in the fourth quarter in what was a turning point play of a November win over the Cardinals.

But Collier struggled to build on that success last season, declared inactive in seven of the first 10 games and stuck behind Robert Nkemdiche on the depth chart. The two essentially flipped roles late in the year, with Collier active for the last seven games while Nkemdiche was inactive most of the time, with Collier playing 15 or more snaps in each contest. But he had no sacks and just three QB hits.

Collier is being paid $1.9 million this year, and had a dead cap hit of $2.4 million with Seattle able to save only $986,323 if he is released. So while some might wonder if Collier will have to fight for a job in training camp, the best-case scenario for Seattle is that he proves worthy of sticking around.

“It’s just his growth, maturity, and all of that should help him take the next step to be a real viable part,” Carroll said Monday. “That’s what we are hoping for.”