Locks: Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise
Bubble level one: Christine Michael, Alex Collins
Bubble level two: Zac Brooks, Tre Madden, Brandon Cottom, Brandin Bryant
The situation at running back was a bit of a mess last year for the Seattle Seahawks, releasing Michael and Robert Turbin in favor of Fred Jackson and Rawls, then Marshawn Lynch getting injured and coming back, then Rawls getting injured, then bringing back Michael and signing Bryce Brown, until finally getting Lynch back for a forgettable playoff performance. And then there's the sad downfall of Derrick Coleman, who absolutely nobody even talks about anymore. Is the position any more clear as I write this?
Kind of and not really.
We know that Rawls is the presumptive starter if healthy because he led the NFL in yards per carry last season, but his status on returning from a broken ankle still seems quite murky. Assuming he won't start the season on PUP though, we can plug Rawls in as getting a roster spot, as well as Prosise because he was a third round pick and seems to have a unique set of skills that set him apart from the competition. That should lock up two spots with three or perhaps four more up for grabs, including fullback.
Michael comes in with the most experience of any running back on the team (yikes) but he's still a guy who in less then a few months was released by three teams last season. When tasked as the starter against the Browns and Cardinals last year, Michael played well and gained 186 yards with over five yards per carry. Against the Rams, he carried it six times for six yards. But I think the biggest thing going against Michael after three years is that he only seems to be able to contribute when he's the starter and he doesn't have any value when he's anywhere else on the depth chart. Pete Carroll doesn't like players who just take up one of the 53 available roster spots and then can't be active on gameday. Especially compared to the salary of a fifth round rookie.
Collins has been one of the nation's most productive running backs over the last three years, rushing for 3,703 yards and 36 touchdowns at Arkansas. He never rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards in a season or less than 5.4 yards per carry in any one season at the NCAA level. The last true freshman to open his career with three straight 100-yard games before Collins was Adrian Peterson. The only other Arkansas running back to start his career with three 1000-yard seasons is Darren McFadden. In McFadden's final season with the Razorbacks, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns, finishing second in Heisman voting in each of his last two years. Last year, Collins averaged 5.8 yards per carry, scored 20 touchdowns, and didn't get any Heisman votes.
(I think part of the reason that McFadden got more hype was that he'd occasionally throw a touchdown pass and because Wildcat was being popularized in the NFL at the time, everyone started to salivate at the idea of McFadden changing the NFL. (Which of course, he did, right?) But Arkansas went 8-5 in his final season, same as their record last year.)
For all of these reasons and a few more, I'd slot Collins ahead of Michael on my depth chart.
As far as fullback goes, I just have a good feeling about Bryant making the team. He's got unique physical attributes and the versatility of having played on the defensive side of the ball, same as the player he'd be replacing, Will Tukuafu. It sounds like Bryant has mostly been playing on defense, but that doesn't mean he's not going to contribute as a fullback should he make the roster, which would only increase his chances to still be with the team in September. There's also a chance that both Cottom and Bryant can make the team. In that scenario, Michael, Brooks, and Madden would be left on the outside.
There are concerns with Collins, of course, that's why he fell to the fifth round. Unlike most running backs that the Seahawks tend to like, Collins doesn't break very many tackles; he had just five of them over his last two seasons combined. (A typical Lynch season could consist of 35-50 broken tackles or more.) He doesn't do anything in the passing game, but Seattle probably won't try to disguise much on offense -- if Prosise is out there vs if Collins is out there, you know what's coming.
Carroll spoke highly of Madden recently, while also noting that Cottom is an "unusual" player who has also been playing tight end for them in practices. Of course, "unusual" is not a bad thing in Carroll's book. One of the most important terms that Carroll used when speaking about Madden though was "special teams," so if he's already standing out on that unit, he may have already put himself ahead of Brooks, who they drafted in the seventh round. Brooks and Madden are much harder to get a read on until training camp and preseason begin, but as opposed to wide receiver, there seems to be a lot more opportunity for someone to step up and be the "surprise" of final cuts at running back.
After all, Rawls and a veteran free agent pick up at the last minute over two well-established Seahawks was pretty surprising a year ago.
My early guess: Rawls, Prosise, Collins, Bryant, Madden, Cottom
They held onto two fullbacks last season, and Carroll likes that Cottom has some experience carrying the football in college (though not very often, he had under 100 carries at Purdue) as opposed to Bryant, who has extra value due to being versatile. Just like Cottom, who could line up as a tight end, when necessary. They split the fullback duties, while Collins and Madden are the main backups to Rawls, and Prosise fills his unique role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Michael is sent back out on the waiver wire while they try and stash Brooks on the practice squad.