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JOHN CARLSON'S CAREER BASKETBALL statistics at Notre Dame are not going to grab the attention of any NBA scouts—three games, two points, one rebound—but the fact that he played the sport at all should make NFL defensive coordinators nervous. Like Chargers tight end (and former Kent State basketball player) Antonio Gates and Falcons tight end (and former Cal basketball player) Tony Gonzalez, Carlson showed in his rookie season with the Seahawks that he is another power forward turned tight end who knows how to get position, shield defenders with his body and come down with a jump ball. "There is definitely carryover," he says. "It's like going up for a rebound."
Seattle stumbled to 4-12 last season, but one upside was the emergence of Carlson, a 6' 5", 251-pound tight end with hands like baseball mitts who became a primary target when veteran receivers Deion Branch, Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson were injured. Carlson, who was drafted in the second round in 2008, caught 55 passes for 627 Yards and five touchdowns, breaking the Seahawks' record for receiving yards by a tight end and becoming the first at his position to lead the team in receiving.
It helped that Carlson was playing for coach Mike Holmgren, who not only runs a pass-first offense but also has long emphasized the tight end, dating back to his days with Brent Jones in San Francisco (1987-91). This season Jim Mora replaces Holmgren in Seattle, and his offensive coordinator is Greg Knapp, who plans to implement a more balanced attack. Also, the team signed receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a magician on short routes. But for anyone fearing that Carlson's production will dip, Mora and Knapp were together in Atlanta from 2004 through '06, when tight end Alge Crumpler had his most productive seasons and was a perennial Pro Bowl selection.
"John is going to have as many opportunities in this passing game as he had last year," says Seahawks tight ends coach Mike DeBord. "That won't change at all."
Despite his impressive numbers, Carlson is not to be confused with a tight end-wide receiver hybrid, that new breed gaining popularity in the NFL. Tight ends are generally sleeker than they used to be, lining up on the outside like oversized receivers. But Carlson is as much a blocker as he is a pass catcher, noted more for his strength and balance than his speed. He is less likely to outrun a safety than to muscle him aside, making himself an ideal option for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the red zone.
"To me, being a tight end means being well-rounded," Carlson says. "You need to block in the run game, pass-protect and go downfield and make plays. That's what I strive to do. But it's a work in progress."
The fact that Carlson, 25, is entering only his second season, with room to improve, is a large part of his appeal. Assuming that Seahawks receivers can stay healthy, he may see fewer passes thrown in his direction. But with the trust he earned as a rookie, he will be impossible to ignore.