Willson spent the 2018 season with the Detroit Lions after spending the first five years of his career with the Seattle Seahawks. During his time in Seattle he played in the zone blocking scheme which helped the Seahawks to two Super Bowl appearances, and while Willson never put up the receiving numbers his build and athleticism hinted at when he was drafted, over time he developed into a quality blocker.
In particular, on cut blocks. On cut blocks his length and athleticism allowed him to flourish, not just against front seven defenders, but against smaller, more agile defensive backs as well.
To illustrate this, there is perhaps no better example than a play from his final game with the Seahawks in 2017. With Seattle trailing the Arizona Cardinals 23-17 with just over eleven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Hawks took possession at their own 40 yard line following a 27 yard return by Tyler Lockett on an Andy Lee punt.
On first and ten Seattle lined up in shotgun with two receivers to the left, a third receiver to the right and Willson at tight end off the line of scrimmage on the right hand side of the offense. This is seen in the image below.
Willson then went in motion to the offensive left side, setting up opposite of where he had started.
The alignment of this formation is key because this set up the defense to look for a zone run to the offensive left side, a play which was a favorite of the Seahawks under Cable and then offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The reason this is key is because on such a play, Willson’s assignment after the ball is snapped is to come back across the formation and cut the backside defensive end in order to facilitate the creation of a cutback lane while removing the backside defensive end from the play. Here is a shot from the end zone angle of the all 22 showing the offensive line executing their blocks.
In that image it is clearly visible that the offensive line is leaving the left defensive end (number 96) unblocked, and, as noted, that defender will typically be removed from the play on a cut block executed by the tight end coming across from the play side. That is exactly what the offense is showing, but on this play the Seahawks changed things up.
Specifically, rather than coming across and delivering a cut block on the defensive end, Willson runs right past him and becomes a lead blocker for quarterback Russell Wilson on a designed quarterback keeper to the right. The start of the run is shown in the following image, as Willson has blown right past Kareem Martin (96) and is now out in front of Russell.
Moving back to the all 22 angle, Willson is the Seahawk on the near side of the field at the Seattle 44 honing in on cornerback Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals defender seen at midfield sprinting towards the sideline in order try and force the play back inside.
In the next image Peterson is seen to have given a couple yards of ground as Willson begins to square up for his cut block. Now, what may be most impressive about this block is the defender on which it is being executed since Peterson is not just any cornerback. Peterson is an eight time Pro Bowl, three time All Pro cornerback who is solid in run support. That said, this battle goes to Willson.
The next picture shows Willson exploding into his block as Peterson has begun to realize what is coming and starts his own attempts to avoid the block.
There would be no avoiding this block, however, as Willson delivered it with accuracy and force to Peterson’s inside thigh, and the result is that Willson becomes the biggest obstacle to Russell’s continuing forward as Peterson goes flying.
In order to get a more clear picture of the block, here’s what it looked like in HD from the broadcast footage. In this still Willson’s shoulder placement right into Peterson’s hip while continuing to drive into the cut block is readily evident. Meanwhile, it’s also apparent that Peterson has come to the realization of what is about to hit him, and he appears to be attempting to fight off the block with both a stiff arm and a jump out of the way.
However, as is seen, Peterson’s evasive efforts failed and he is sent flying out of the play.
I suppose one can give Peterson credit for staying as square as possible to Wilson and continuing to attempt to force the play back inside, however, this is not a position from which many defenders will regularly make a play on a ballcarrier.
It is, however, a position in which Willson consistently leaves defenders.
This is not to say that Willson is a perfect blocker. Even though he stands 6’5” tall, he tips the scale at only a shade past 250. That often puts him at a disadvantage when he is asked to stay in and pass protect, as he sometimes has trouble maintaining blocks against bigger front seven defenders.
That said, his athleticism combined with his willingness to engage defenders gives him positional flexibility beyond simply a role as a traditional tight end. During his time in Seattle he was occasionally used as an H-back or fullback, and against the San Francisco 49ers during Week 3 of 2016 he played fullback for the Seahawks since the team did not have one on the roster.
How exactly Willson will be deployed in Oakland, if he even makes the roster, obviously won’t be known for several months, however, it will not be a surprise if he makes the roster as a utility knife tight end that can block, stretch the seam, slide over to fullback as necessary and also contribute on special teams.