Slot Machine John Ursua Primed for Breakout Season with Seahawks

Corbin Smith

Entering the seventh round without any draft choices remaining, Seahawks general manager John Schneider looked ready to put a bow on a 10-player 2019 draft class and shift focus squarely on signing undrafted free agents.

But as he did this April trading back into the final round to pick LSU receiver Stephen Sullivan, Schneider sent a future sixth-round pick to the Jaguars to land one more selection. With another pick in tow, he selected Hawaii standout John Ursua, one of the nation's most productive receivers in 2018.

As Ursua noted following the draft, several other teams had inquired about signing him as a free agent. Schneider didn't want to risk losing him, so he was willing to give up future draft capital to ensure Seattle landed the coveted slot specialist.

Like most seventh-round picks, Ursua had a difficult time finding the field as a rookie. Dressing for just three regular season games, he played a grand total of 11 offensive snaps, with the majority of those coming when the Seahawks were in victory formation running out the clock.

But in the unofficial NFC West title game against the 49ers in Week 17, Ursua picked the perfect time to make his first NFL catch. With the Seahawks trailing by five and under two minutes left to play, he reeled in an 11-yard grab just short of the goal line on fourth down, putting his team in a position to win the game.

Unfortunately, Seattle came up just short when tight end Jacob Hollister was tackled inches from breaking the goal line on fourth down, allowing San Francisco to capture the division title.

Still, coming through in such a crucial moment for the Seahawks - and even being afforded the opportunity to do so - should bode well for Ursua, who caught the attention of coach Pete Carroll.

“He’s such a natural athlete. He’s got magnificent body control and quickness. He’s got excellent quickness, the kind you get in and out of your breaks and change direction stuff that the best guys have. He’s got a terrific catching range,” Carroll told reporters in January. “He scored more touchdowns than anybody in college football his last year. You can see why. As soon as it all clicks and he’s in, he’s going to be a factor.”

Only two years ago, Ursua put up monster numbers for the Warriors, catching 89 passes for 1,343 yards and leading the country with 16 receiving touchdowns. While not possessing elite straight line track speed, his quickness combined with savvy route running skills make him difficult to defend from the slot, where he ran more than 90 percent of his routes from during that sensational season.

Making the jump from Mountain West competition to the NFL wasn't easy, however. Though he played well enough in the preseason to earn a roster spot, Ursua struggled grasping Seattle's playbook and adjusting to the speed at the next level, which led to him being a healthy scratch for most of his rookie season.

But as the calendar flipped to December, Carroll began to see a different player on the practice field and again expressed excitement over his potential while speaking with reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

"He was the other end of the spectrum when we’re talking about young receivers," Carroll remarked. "Johnny had a long way to go and had a lot to learn, and it took him longer to assimilate. But he’s getting there now and he finished out the season with us being active and all that, so there’s a lot of exciting parts to put together here.”

Heading towards training camp, Ursua will have plenty of competition for snaps, including veterans Phillip Dorsett and David Moore as well as rookies Freddie Swain and Stephen Sullivan. But his craftiness and reliability from the slot could give him a key advantage, especially if he can find a way to contribute on special teams in some capacity.

While Tyler Lockett remains Seattle's best weapon out of the slot, the emergence of a natural slot such as Ursua would allow offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer more flexibility to move his star receiver around the formation, making life tougher for opposing defenses.

Despite not having any on-field work this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ursua has had another offseason to continue mastering Seattle's playbook. Benefiting from the team's virtual meetings over the past few months as much as any player on the roster, he should be well positioned to hit the ground running and battle for extensive playing time once the Seahawks return to the field.