Jermaine Kearse is by nature understated and calm. It’s part of the reason he’s becoming a standout in the clutch for these Seahawks.
But the native of Lakewood and former star at Lakes High School burst out laughing at his locker inside Seahawks headquarters recently when someone mentioned how chafed All-Pro teammate Richard Sherman remains that he, Sherman, wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 2011.
“He burns that he was drafted in the fifth round?” Kearse responded, incredulously.
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Kearse wasn’t drafted — at all. He left the University of Washington as the Huskies’ No. 2 receiver of all time. Yet all 32 NFL teams found 253 other players more worthy of selection in the 2012 draft.
Many of those 253 draftees are long gone from the league. The undrafted Kearse is a starter for his hometown team. He owns a Super Bowl ring. He has touchdown catches in each of the Seahawks’ last three playoff games: the 2014 NFC title game win over San Francisco, last February’s Super Bowl victory over Denver and last weekend’s divisional-round win over Carolina.
His star quarterback says he “loves him to death.”
And he’s been so good he’s even drawing comparisons to … Willie Mays?
Kearse’s one-armed catch over his shoulder of Russell Wilson’s perfectly placed pass last Saturday night against the Panthers set a Seahawks postseason record for longest pass completion, 63 yards. His score put Seattle up 14-7. The Seahawks never surrendered that lead and advanced to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against Green Bay at CenturyLink Field.
“He looked like Willie Mays,” Wilson said this week of Kearse and his over-the-shoulder grab past bewildered Carolina cornerback Bene Benwikere.
It was the best bargain touchdown in NFL playoff history, recently or maybe ever: Wilson, $662,000 base salary this season, to Kearse, who is being paid $570,000 in the final season of a contract he wasn’t supposed to have.
A dozen teams, including Seattle, had punters — punters! — making more this season than the combined earnings of that Seattle playoff touchdown duo.
Kearse is among the lowest-paid starting wide receivers in the league — Cleveland lists Taylor Gabriel as a starter, and he made just $420,000 this season. Such is the result of not being drafted.
Which to him seems almost a lifetime ago.
“Honestly, I’m over it now,” he says. “I got my foot in the door. I made it. Whether I was undrafted or drafted, I feel like I could have been doing the same thing I am now.”
Did he ever resent Wilson, linebackers Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin and other current teammates the Seahawks did draft in 2012?
“Nah, I’m not that type of person,” Kearse says. “We call that ‘a hater.’
“I’m no hater. Nah.”
In fact, the Seahawks’ top two receivers were undrafted. Doug Baldwin took that route out of Stanford the year before Kearse did out of UW. Baldwin had 66 catches this season, plus a new $13 million contract through 2016.
How much do the Seahawks value Baldwin and Kearse? They traded away Percy Harvin and his $11 million-per-year salary and chose to throw to Baldwin and Kearse instead.
They are the jokesters between plays inside the Seattle huddle. Just before the first snap Oct. 26 at Carolina, for instance, Baldwin asked Wilson, “Are you going to let your hair grow out like you did last season?”
“I think it would be either me or Doug that do most of the talking in between plays,” Kearse said. “You never know what’s coming of our mouths. Sometimes it’s related to the game, sometimes it’s not. Most of the time I would say it’s not.”
Wilson has a deep trust with Kearse, in particular.
When Wilson is running around behind the line at his improvisational best, when the play has already broken down and defenders are swarming Seattle’s quarterback like they often have the last two seasons, Wilson looks for No. 15. And Kearse knows just where to run so Wilson will find him with a dart.
It’s a continuation of the belief in one another Kearse and Wilson began building in the first rookie minicamp they attended as Seahawks in the spring of 2012. At the time Wilson was a third-round pick trying to win third string behind veteran quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson. Kearse was basically nonexistent, just trying to make the roster as a scrappy practice-squad contributor.
Morning into evening, on practice days and off days, spring into summer, Kearse caught passes from Wilson, who had just arrived after leading Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl and didn’t know many people around Seattle at the time.
“The trust and bond that Jermaine and I have developed has been huge,” Wilson said Friday. “You think about all the footballs we threw together in the offseason, during rookie minicamp. All the ups and downs that you have as a rookie and second year and third year and all the clutch plays that he’s made for us in this organization.
“I love him to death.
“He does a phenomenal job for us, the rest of the guys, too,”
Panned initially, the 2012 rookie class turned out more than OK for Seattle.
Wilson. Kearse. Wagner. Irvin. J.R. Sweezy. Jeremy Lane. Robert Turbin. Cooper Helfet.
All key contributors, and Wagner’s now an All-Pro.
“I think about my rookie class, the 2012 class, everybody doubted us. Everybody said that we weren’t going to be any good,” Wilson said. “And we kind of took that as a challenge.
“We had a meeting my rookie year. I remember talking to the guys and saying let’s be a difference maker. … We took it as a challenge to live up to it.”
How many more opportunities will Kearse have for Seattle beyond this season? The way he’s played, he’s earned many more. More dollars and chances, that is.
Kearse’s contract ends after these playoffs, but because he has fewer than four years in the league he would become a restricted free agent if the Seahawks don’t re-sign him right away. The team will have until March 10 to make him a qualifying offer that would entitle Seattle to the right of first refusal should Kearse sign a free-agent offer sheet with another team. If the Seahawks make a qualifying offer, they would be able to sign Kearse to a new deal or let him leave, with the potential for draft-pick compensation in return.
Not that Kearse — or the Seahawks — see a new team in his future anytime soon.
For Kearse, this is home. Literally.
“It’s cool because you grow with the guys you came in with, and lot of us are still here,” he said. “We have that relationship and that chemistry.
“When Russell and I are working out there it’s funny, because I was right there with him doing the same thing during rookie minicamp. You build on those type of relationships.”
And come playoff time, you rely on them.