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Rashaad Penny and the healthy scratch

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Rashaad Penny was not on the inactives list for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, but he might as well have been. The Seahawks’ running back, rookie, first round pick played zero snaps on offense and one meaningless snap on special teams for kick return coverage. The good news is that Seattle didn’t really need Penny.

Wait, that’s bad news.

I’ve been criticizing the use of first round picks on running backs for years, but even I managed to come up with a defense for the Seahawks using one on Penny in 2018: he was only a late first rounder — not nearly as costly or detrimental as passing up a quarterback, pass rusher, offensive linemen, cornerback, or the like at the top of the draft — and I assumed that Pete Carroll saw Penny as an elite back that Seattle would have for five seasons. But for that kind of move to make sense, I really think you need to get five years out of him.

Five games into his career, it’s clear that Carroll sees 2018 as essentially a “redshirt season” for Penny, which seems a waste when the Seahawks could have had a player who would be contributing right now. Seattle needs help at this moment and they don’t have a first round rookie giving meaningful snaps because once again the team has basically forgone the opportunity to have a first round rookie.

I still don’t mind the Seahawks trading down from 18 to 27 in the draft, it gave them a promising young pass rusher in Rasheem Green. (Ignore that Green was inactive this week. Please, I beg of you. It was at least for health reasons.) Though many will argue that safety Derwin James was only one pick away, that’s even more cost given up to acquire a prospect and we don’t know what teams in the top 17 were selling and what they wanted. I also don’t know what other prospect at pick 27 that Seattle had interest in, nor can I speculate how they’d be doing in the Seahawks scheme vs the one that they’re currently in.

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard went 36th overall and won NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month in September, but would he have had the same impact if asked to start in place of K.J. Wright? And should Seattle draft a linebacker that high when they already have Bobby Wagner and Wright? The answer might be “Yes,” but it doesn’t really matter because the answer should be: at least he’d be playing.

One of the other issues with Penny not playing isn’t that he’s not good enough (he might be good enough), it’s that Chris Carson is too good. And he’s always been this good. He won the starting running back job last season and looked really exciting in the four games he was able to play in. Yeah, they wanted to hedge their bets since Carson was recovering from a broken ankle, but they could easily have hedged them on day three. Phillip Lindsey went undrafted and is having one of the best seasons of any running back. Isaiah Crowell was a low-tier free agent and is averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

But then maybe the idea wasn’t to hedge Carson, maybe it was too split with Carson. That was what I figured. Penny could kill all those birds by his lonely stone self, and the Carson-Penny duo would take the NFL storm just like Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in 2017 or Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in 2016 ... it’s really that simple.

Except apparently it is not. Penny is not the Kamara of this offense. He’s not even the Mike Gillislee or Ito Smith. Mike Davis has instead emerged as the clear number two and while the Seahawks do seem to have one of the best running back duos in the NFL this season, it’s again proven that all they needed to get there was a seventh round pick and a former fourth rounder that they picked up off waivers for nothing. Even if Penny’s future emerges as bright — and I think that it still could because there are a ton of reasons to believe that Penny is talented enough to be a number one back — the fact that the Seahawks are still bypassing a year of his rookie contract is disappointing.

Mostly because he is only a running back and that position tends to be the one where players deteriorate the fastest, meaning that these four years plus a fifth-year option are where you should be extrapolating all of the value. Once a running back gets to a second contract, in the rare cases where they actually do, the net value goes away. A pass rusher like Green, or a tackle like Germain Ifedi who seems to be putting it together in year three, you can wait on because they’ll still have value on their second contracts and they could have a major impact on your success.

That’s not been the case with running backs in the modern era, so to use a first rounder on a back, and then not even use him, tips your hand that you’re just not doing a great job of fulfilling the promises you made to yourself in April.

I’m sure Penny will continue to be active (whereas C.J. Prosise, a third rounder in 2016, probably won’t be), but at what point will he play? As long as Carroll keep showing that they did a good job with Carson and Davis, he’ll also be revealing the severity of the draft mistake they might have made with Penny.