RENTON, WA - When it comes to evaluating NFL players, OTAs and minicamps simply don't stack up with training camp practices. Thanks to strict contact restrictions and limited field time, these glorified walkthroughs in helmets pale in comparison to anything players will see when the dog days of summer arrive in late July.
Still, offseason programs remain an important part of the roster building process. For fringe veterans and undrafted rookies who are far from guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster in September, these workouts provide a golden opportunity to leave a positive impression on the coaching staff before breaking off for a six-week hiatus.
This is especially true for the Seahawks, as coach Pete Carroll's "always compete" mantra plays out each and every time they take the field at the VMAC. While it'd be a major stretch to say a spot on the team can be won in June, players can certainly help their cause tearing it up in these practices.
This year, after surprisingly earning a roster spot a year ago, former Georgia State standout Penny Hart may fit the bill after turning in a sensational minicamp.
"He came out here this camp, these days we've had here, and probably had the best shot of making things happen," Carroll told reporters after Thursday's practice. "He had catches today, but he's had catches in other days too. He's just had a spectacular couple of weeks."
As a caveat, it's easy to downplay a receiver starring in offseason workouts. Defensive backs aren't allowed to make plays on the football and press coverage at the line of scrimmage is barred per league rules, making these workouts a field day for NFL-caliber wideouts. Everything has been heavily skewed in their favor to succeed.
But even keeping these advantages in mind, Hart more than earned Carroll's praise by reeling in several highlight-worthy grabs. Most notably, he easily made the best catch of the week during a 7-on-7 drill late in Thursday's session, blowing by a pair of defenders on a skinny post route and snagging a one-handed, over-the-shoulder touchdown from Russell Wilson. Later in the drill, he caught a second touchdown from Wilson on a shallow crosser in the red zone.
While many fans didn't expect to see Hart elevated to the active roster last season, that's exactly what transpired. As they've done several times in the past, the Seahawks did some last-minute roster maneuvering days after setting their initial 53-man roster, signing Hart to swap out for John Ursua, who was waived and re-signed to the practice squad.
Following a stellar finish to training camp last year in which Hart quickly developed a strong rapport with Wilson and seemed to make big plays each practice, Carroll felt the 24-year old receiver had earned his spot by being someone the Seahawks could rely on to do whatever the team needed him to. Even if he didn't stuff the stat sheet with limited chances on game day, he fulfilled that role, earning the trust of his coach and teammates.
"You can count on him in a lot of ways," Carroll said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Hart. "Running his routes right, knowing the offense, [playing] multiple positions, contributing on special teams, his toughness, the attitude that he is is obvious."
Though Hart only caught one pass for three yards and received a single carry for 19 yards while playing a grand total of 18 offensive snaps, he maintained his spot on Seattle's 53-man roster for most of the 2020 season and dressed for 13 regular season games. Even if his contributions on offense were minimal, he provided value on kick and punt coverage units, registering four tackles and nearly recovering a blocked punt in the end zone in Week 13 against the New York Giants.
Staying on the roster for another season isn't a given for Hart, who will face heightened competition in training camp. The general consensus has been that incoming second-round pick D'Wayne Eskridge and second-year receiver Freddie Swain would battle for the No. 3 and No. 4 receiver roles. Behind them, Seattle acquired a trio of intriguing undrafted free agent receivers in Cade Johnson, Tamorrion Terry, and Connor Wedington who could all push for playing time in August.
In addition, Hart isn't the only holdover from last year's squad who will be gunning for his spot. Ursua remains on the roster looking to finally break through entering his third season and both Cody Thompson and Aaron Fuller performed well in practice and mock scrimmages last year. All three players spent the 2020 season on the practice squad and should be much improved.
Considering all of those viable candidates, Hart will be vying for snaps against seven other receivers fighting for two or three roster spots at the most, depending if the Seahawks opt to keep five or six players at the position rolling into Week 1.
Nonetheless, Carroll holds Hart in high regard for his reliability, work ethic, and resiliency and his budding chemistry with Wilson cannot be overlooked. If he picks up where he left off and continues to make plays when the team reports for training camp, the ascending receiver should like his chances of not only making the team, but potentially playing a more significant role than he did a year ago.
At minimum, Hart has put the rest of the competition on notice. And if he keeps making catches like the one he did on Thursday, he may turn some unexpected heat on Eskridge and Swain come August.
"He's right in it," Carroll smiled. "Made the club last year, we really can count on him, he can do a lot of things. He was really battling and I was really fired up for him - we all were - he kind of lit it up out here."