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Senior Bowl preview: Running backs to watch for the Seahawks

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - San Diego State v Army Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks’ transition away from a Marshawn Lynch-led backfield has not been smooth. In the two seasons since Lynch moved on, the Seahawks have finished with two of their three worst rushing totals under Pete Carroll. But despite their inept running game in 2017, Seattle isn’t starting from scratch at the position. They have interesting pieces in place - Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic, Chris Carson and C.J. Prosise - but need to add someone else to the mix to really solidify the group heading into 2018. A re-commitment to the running game was outlined in Carroll’s end of season press conference, and was reaffirmed by the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer. Luckily for running back needy teams, this year’s Senior Bowl has several interesting prospects, four of which fit the team’s measurements for the position (heights and weights from

Rashaad Penny (RB, San Diego State University)

Height: 5096

Weight: 220 pounds

The most entertaining (non-Saquon Barkley division) running back in the entire draft class, Rashaad Penny would be a terrific fit with the Seahawks. He was prolific for the Aztecs, rushing for 2248 yards this past season and averaging nearly nine yards per touch in his two seasons as a full-time player. Athletically he fits the Seattle’s profile, and should post impressive numbers at the Combine. A fluid player, Penny has a great ability to open his hips and change directions without slowing down, a trait that’s special among some of the NFL’s best playmakers. His change of direction is a plus in the open field, and his stop/start ability makes him difficult to wrap up around the line of scrimmage.

Penny is everything you want from a traditional, early down back. He’s physically imposing, with a wide base and a big upper body. His build allows him to consistently break arm tackles in the hole and around the line of scrimmage, and he will churn his legs upon contact. But as much as you want to come away from watching him thinking he’s a powerful runner, he’s equally as explosive. Penny will leave defenders grasping at air with his burst through the hole, and doesn’t lose a step when putting a move on a defender. His wide base, and the way he almost hops through gaps at the line of scrimmage, reminds me of Jay Ajayi and Marshawn Lynch; two powerful, explosive running backs who have more than functional speed.

Everything about Penny’s game should assure any GM or scout that his level of competition doesn’t need to be factored into the equation. He has great vision - his decisive running style makes him a good fit in a zone blocking scheme - and is the total package both athletically and as a running back. In two games against Power-5 teams in 2017, Penny rushed for 391 yards and two touchdowns (adding two more touchdowns through the air and on a kick return). This year’s running back class has great depth, yet there’s a chance just Saquon Barkley gets selected on the first day. If a slew of talented running backs come off the board on day two, expect Penny to be one of the first.

Kalen Ballage (RB, Arizona State)

Height: 6015

Weight: 230

The first thing that catches attention with Kalen Ballage is his height. He’s listed as 6-3 by the Sun Devils, but plays quite a bit lower than that. The 6-3 Latavius Murray was one of the league’s worst goal line running backs for several seasons in Oakland mainly because of his upright running style, giving defenders a huge target to get a piece of in goal line and short situations. Ballage doesn’t have that issue, and from a size perspective, he’s a good fit for what the Seahawks look for.

Athletically, Ballage is surprisingly nimble with good burst on inside runs. He can make defenders miss in-tight and does a good job of changing direction. His 6-3 frame lends itself well to long strides, and if he’s allowed to hit his stride around the line of scrimmage he can reach the secondary in just a few steps. He also gives his quarterback an option out of the backfield with a receiver-like catch radius. In short yardage and inside runs, Ballage is a good ‘back to have — if he’s used correctly, there is absolutely a role for him to play in the NFL. But a role player is as high of a ceiling as I can see for him; he’s just too limited.

Physically, Ballage drives forward upon contact, but doesn’t hunt it in the open field — a problem when a defensive back shooting low is enough to get him to the ground. Additionally, he’s a plodding runner on outside carries. Too often he’d be attempting to turn the corner, but would take so long a defensive back disengages and makes the tackle, or a linebacker arrives. He’s an uninterested blocker, lazily attempting to cut oncoming defenders and missing. While Ballage only lost three fumbles in his college career, he fumbled the football eight times and ball security has to be a concern. In four games viewed, he didn’t carry the football in his left hand or switch it over when running to the left a single time. Carrying the football in the wrong hand, or not having both hands on the ball while going to ground, can lead to turnovers, something Seattle is familiar with from Christine Michael’s time with the team.

Darrel Williams (RB, LSU)

Height: 5116

Weight: 229

Backing up first Leonard Fournette and then Derrius Guice at LSU, Darrel Williams has had few opportunities to prove himself as a true starting tailback. But that can be a positive for college running backs; the less wear and tear the better. Williams carried the ball over 100 times for the first and only time (145) in his college career this past season and did well, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He has good size for the position and proved to be a reliable runner whenever he got the ball in a talented LSU backfield.

Physically, Williams plays to his size, finishing runs violently and moving forward. He has an impressively strong upper body and it looks like defenders are slapping at his shoulders when attempting to tackle high, helplessly bouncing off him. He isn’t hugely explosive by any means, but he’s got enough burst to accelerate away while stepping out of tackles, and has functional speed to the outside. Unlike Ballage, he’s difficult to tackle in one-on-ones, capable of bowling over defenders or changing direction and delivering a stiff arm.

Ultimately, Williams’ NFL career will likely resemble his time at LSU. A steady running back that provides depth in a backfield with an established starter, he could give any team 5-7 productive carries every week. With his size and a good showing at the Combine, that could potentially end up being with the Seahawks.

Jaylen Samuels (RB/TE/WR, N.C. State)


Weight: 228

The Jaylen Samuels position conundrum is an interesting one. According to the Senior Bowl website he’ll be attending as a RB. At North Carolina State, Samuels played predominantly as a TE or H-Back, but he had great success as a running back too. Here are his four year numbers:

As a receiver: 201 catches/1851 yards/19 touchdowns/9.2 yards per catch.

As a running back: 182 carries/1107 yards/28 touchdowns/6.1 yards per carry.

Samuels may not be an every down, traditional type of running back at the next level, but he sure as hell could be a modern matchup nightmare. As a receiver out of the backfield, he separates from linebackers with ease and turns up field with such fluidity they’re never given a chance to get back into the play. Lined up as an h-back, tight end or receiver, he’s tough on contested catches and adjusts to the football like a wide receiver. N.C. State did a tremendous job getting him the ball on tunnel screens, hitches and passes underneath. Getting him into space allows him to be the playmaker he’s capable of being.

As a runner, Samuels has the size to hold up running inside, and the explosiveness to run to the outside and turn the corner. His NFL future will likely be decided by the team he ends up with. He could be turned into a full-time running back by a team like Seattle. He could end up as a player without a defined role in an offense run by an unimaginative playcaller who can’t unlock his potential. Or, he could end up with the New England Patriots and stack 2000 yards from scrimmage level seasons. Wherever he ends up, Samuels is exactly the type of player that teams should be targeting in the positionless NFL.