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What could Rashaad Penny do as a rookie starting running back?

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t need to be cute about it: if there’s any indication of how committed the Seattle Seahawks are to resurrecting the run game, it’s that they banked their first round draft pick on a running back. During Pete Carroll’s end of the season press conference, he made it clear what the team’s intentions were going forward:

“Running the football, playing good defense and doing the kicking game thing. That’s the formula that is proven historically the best in this game.”

It’s a lot for Rashaad Penny to live up to in his rookie season — “save the Seahawks on the ground” — but Seattle would be happy with half of his production from San Diego State: he finished his senior year with 289 attempts for 2,248 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Consider that the Aztecs have had just three All-Americans in school history, between Kyle Turley, Marshall Faulk, and Penny. And while sometimes the same success doesn’t always translate to the NFL, Penny did have the benefit of San Diego’s pro-style run game under his belt.

In 2015, offensive coordinator Jeff Horton called it an ‘In-N-Out Offense’ when he took over at that position, which simplified a too-big playbook that he had amassed over 40 years of coaching and emphasized the run game more than he ever had before:

“I don’t know how many running plays Coach Toledo had,” [head coach Rocky] Long said. “I would say about eight. Then he had 40 or 50 trick plays, and then he had 150 pass plays that adjusted to coverages and stuff.

“I don’t think we’re going to get rid of running plays. We’re probably (at) a small group of running plays already. I would guess we’re getting rid of some passing plays so that we can execute the ones we have better than we did last year.”

That helped push running back Donnel Pumphrey from being a great player in school history to a great player in NCAA history: the all-time leader in career rushing yards. (Without including bowl games.) But Penny always seemed a little more special than Pumphrey and the player who came two backs before Pumphrey, Ronnie Hillman.

When he was third on the depth chart, he averaged more YPC (6.0) than Pumphrey or backup Chase Price. When he was second, he averaged 7.5 YPC, 1.4 more than Pumphrey.

When he started, he topped the 2,133 yards that Pumphrey had put up the year before. It was hard for people to believe, but Long insisted Penny would not be a downgrade from Pumphrey and that he’d taken his time to study and commit to being a team player:

“He was like a sponge with DJ,” Penny said. “He likes everything he did. He’s like a mini-m. He watched everything he did. Watching him talk to the guys after plays, and while watching film, I just see him much more outspoken with the whole team.”

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“I’m a team guy. Whatever the head coach decides, that’s what I’m on,” Penny said. “If he decides that I am returning kicks, I’ll return kicks. I love it, that’s probably the biggest thing to me and the thing I’m used to doing, so it’s easier for me. But now, I am getting used to this running back role and running the ball behind the offensive line and getting better.”

It’s yet to be seen whether Penny can prove to be a worthy few-years-later successor to Marshawn Lynch for the Seahawks, but luckily he just needs to not be the second coming of Eddie Lacy. Or Christine Michael. And it’ll be nice of his ankles hold up better than Thomas Rawls and Chris Carson’s ankles did. That he’ll protect the football better than Alex Collins. And spend more time in pads than on the training tables like C.J. Prosise.

But numbers aside, there are still plenty of other factors that should ensure Penny’s success in Seattle next season.

Brian Schottenheimer is the new offensive coordinator


ESPN recently covered four major aspects to know about Schottenheimer’s style of play:

1. His background is in the “Air Coryell” offense, named for Don Coryell, the innovative coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1978 to 1986. Hallmarks of the system are a healthy dose of vertical routes in the passing game and a power running game. That would be a departure from what Seattle used under Bevell and offensive line coach Tom Cable. Bevell’s background is in the West Coast offense, and Cable, who coordinated Seattle’s running game, ran a zone-blocking scheme.

What’s important to take away here the focus on the power running game. Schottenheimer worked under Rex Ryan for five seasons during the height of the New York Jets’ defensive-driven playoff years, and the team finished first in rushing yards in 2009. He helped push Thomas Jones into being the player he was meant to be as the seventh overall pick in 2000, when he rushed for 2,714 yards and 27 touchdowns from 2008-09. He often utilized his backup back, but typically would still push focus to the number one guy.

And there’s zero question that if you spend a first round pick on a running back in 2018, he’s going to be “the number one guy.”

Also, note that while some thought the Seahawks “reached” for Penny in the first round, SDSU’s Long had a strong indication before the draft that Penny was going earlier than expected based on the calls from NFL teams that they were receiving.

Penny’s competition

Penny is walking into an ideal situation as far as competition goes. Both Prosise and Carson showed some promise in their respective rookie seasons and that Pete will allow them to “always compete” for the top spot, but they don’t have the advantages of draft status and a clean bill of health that Penny has. Injury got to them both early in the season and perhaps Prosise moreso than Carson is going to be looking to have a bounce-back year.

Prosise played sparingly before being placed on IR with a left ankle injury in 2017 but averaged 8.08 yards per touch in 2016. Carson, on the other hand, was able to do much more in 2017 with his limited time, but it was short-lived when he suffered a severe ankle injury in Week 4 against the Colts.

I’m not sure that I see Mike Davis and J.D. McKissic having the same advantages to get significant playing time if all health is equal.

It will be interesting to see how this competition plays out in camp over the summer, but I could definitely see both Penny and Carson as the one and two backs for this run game like LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene once were for the Jets with Schottenheimer. Considering that Penny averaged the highest rate of broken tackles in NCAA last year with 86, and Carson has an average of 2.6 yards after contact, the two could be a nightmare duo for the opposing defense.

I’d not be surprised to see the RB1 go to Penny, RB2 to Carson, and RB3/WRSometimes to Prosise.


Is there a learning curve?

With Carson showing up big in his four games last season, it’s a reminder that if there is a learning curve for Penny, it could be a small one. Rookie running backs are almost expected to make an immediate positive impact, especially with the show that players like Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, and Dalvin Cook put on last season.

Hunt and Fournette would go on to finish their rookie campaigns ranking fourth and 11th in DYAR for 2017. And in just four games last season Cook would impress with 354 yards on 74 attempts. Even D’Onta Foreman of the Houston Texans put up similar numbers to Cook: 327 yards on 78 carries.

Joe Mixon struggled for much of his rookie season, but then had 80/342/4.28 over his final six games of the year. Samaje Perine struggled in Washington, but still had two 100-yard games. Jamaal Williams had a few productive games with the Green Bay Packers. Christian McCaffrey had a seven-game stretch when he rushed 62/304/4.9. Aaron Jones had two games over 120 yards for the Packers.

How many of those guys had a definite higher draft grade than Penny? Fournette and McCaffrey. How many went to teams that were rebuilding and redesigning their offense around a running back and an improved running game? How many rushed for over 2,200 yards in their final seasons of college ball? How many had a quarterback who was always going to be a bigger threat than the running back? Fournette can’t say that. Cook can’t say that from the games he played in with the Minnesota Vikings. Mixon can’t say that.

The bar will be high for Penny to match Hunt or Kamara but again, his goal right now is just to win the starting job outright and to outplay a few of the least-productive running backs of 2017. The historical evidence shows that even as a rookie, that’s no impossible task.

What can we expect?

Pete Carroll has already made it clear that he envisions Penny to be a three-down back.

“He caught the ball beautifully,” Carroll said. “He can do whatever we need to do in the throwing game. Schotty (Brian Schottenheimer) did a nice job of mixing some stuff in so we could see him doing different route concepts, so we had a real good variety of things that we looked at in and out of the backfield.”

Which means he should have plenty of chances to prove himself, even if the team still doesn’t want to push him to playing on all three downs as a rookie. When you’ve got Carson, Prosise, McKissic, that probably won’t even be necessary barring further injuries. He does have a learning curve on pass protection that could give Carson and Prosise the advantages on third down this season, but Carroll sees him getting there eventually:

“He won’t have any problems with it at all,” Carroll said. “He’s got a great body for doing it. He’s a tough kid. So it’s just a matter of getting in the reps. Understand how physical they can be. The different types of styles of rushes they get. It really comes along rather quickly.”

That’s okay in terms of projecting Penny’s rookie numbers, as a lot happens on first and second down when it comes to rushing:

  • Hunt had 845 yards, 5.2 YPC, and five touchdowns on first down plays in 2017. His rate of targets in the passing game went way up on second downs though.
  • Fournette had 623 yards and 4.0 YPC on first downs, brought his average way down on second down (3.3) YPC, then excelled in limited third down carries with 8.8 YPC in those 14 situations.

If the focus for Penny is first and second down, he shouldn’t have an issue getting his yards on the ground there. As it stands some sites like Fantasy Pros have him projected to rush for 770 yards on 187 attempts. I think the math and the evidence above could push him into something much greater than that though, because you just don’t draft a running back in the first round in 2018 without the intention of utilizing him as much as you can during the years on his rookie contract.

Going back to Schottenheimer’s 2013 season with the Rams, St. Louis had adequate QB play (Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens), Jake Long at left tackle, and rookie Zac Stacy carried it 250 times for 973 yards and seven touchdowns. The Seahawks have more than adequate QB play, Duane Brown at left tackle, and notable upgrades at blocking tight end with Ed Dickson and Will Dissly. There’s plenty of room for Penny to get 200-250 carries, which would make him the first Seattle back to top 200 attempts since Lynch’s 280 in 2014. Remember: 200 carries in a season is still only 12.5 per game. This is not an improbably high bar.

If Penny gets 225 carries and can average 4.0 yards per carry (the same number that Le’Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy had last season, more than Fournette and McCaffrey had), that’s a 900-yard campaign. The receiving part of the equation is a little harder to project, but 100-200 yards is an easily-attainable floor, and that could push Penny to 1,000-1,100 total yards as a rookie. Touchdowns is far too volatile to project with any confidence — Seattle had four total and three belonged to Wilson — but 8-12 is likely the high end based on what we saw from regular starting running backs in 2017, and 5-7 is in the fair-to-expect range, as long as he wins the job, which he still has four months to do.

As we inch closer to training camp and pre-season games we’ll be able to draw a clearer picture of all this, but so far, it looks like all the pieces for Penny to succeed are in place, including all the pieces from Seattle in 2017 that are now out of place.