Over the next couple of months leading up to training camp, we’ll pose and attempt to answer one major question for Seahawks roster favorites and contenders. Today, a former first-round pick who is facing an uphill climb in 2020.
The timing of Rashaad Penny’s season-ending injury in Week 14 could not have been worse, for a couple of reasons.
It came immediately following what was perhaps his best game as a pro, a 19-touch, 107-yard display against the Vikings that saw the sophomore find the endzone twice. While Penny had previously had more productive games, his performance against Minnesota was sparkling in its totality and consistency. It was the culmination of a stretch of games that saw the Seahawks unlock Penny, enabling him to do what he does best: get into space and create extra yardage against defenders.
Rashaad Penny's injury really came at the worst possible time, just as it felt like the Seahawks were starting to utilize him correctly.— Alistair Corp (@byAlistairCorp) May 5, 2020
8.2 YPC on outside runs, 7.0 YPC off tackle, and 11.4 YAC per reception in 2019. Just gotta get him into space and let him create: pic.twitter.com/0gTnAtIaxg
Worsening the sting of Penny’s injury was the long-lasting impact. It was quickly assumed he would be a doubt to start the 2020 regular season, once the severity of his injury was known. That was all but confirmed last month, with Seattle GM John Schneider implying Penny will start the season on the PUP list, wiping out the first six games of 2020.
A Week 8 return (first six games plus the bye week) would be the best-case scenario for Penny. Now, the Seahawks could do some less-than-kind maneuvering and hold Penny out another month after that, but for this exercise let’s operate under the assumption he is ready to return by or shortly after Week 8. Will he be able to factor in upon his return? There are a few things that suggest he won’t, and it could have a long-term impact.
The first factor working against Penny is roster construction. With the signing of Carlos Hyde, Seattle has clearly planned for a 2020 season without him. Chris Carson and Hyde will provide the team with a 1-2 punch on early downs, while both DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer can offer snaps on passing downs. Barring injuries, the team will be unlikely to need Penny upon his return.
Then, there’s precedent. Traditionally, the Seahawks have been cautious with players coming off the PUP mid-season. Last year’s PUP list players, Demarcus Christmas and Phil Haynes, combined to play zero snaps in the regular season. In 2017, DeShawn Shead made it off the PUP after 15 weeks to play two games and zero defensive snaps. In 2015, Jeremy Lane played six games and 250 snaps. Different situations, injuries and levels of importance to the team—but all were handled with care. It’s unlikely Penny is any different.
Then there’s the actual impact Penny’s injury and subsequent recovery will have on his game. By now, we can picture the good and great Penny carries: to the outside, blocking develops, he plants his foot in the ground and explodes upfield. Less than a year removed from a serious knee injury, will the same decisiveness be there in his cuts? Will the trust in his knee be there when he plants? More tangibly, how much will his explosiveness be affected by the injury in the short-term? Penny’s game, in large part, is predicated on explosiveness. To lose it, even in the short-term, would be a big blow to his ability to impact games.
Those major factors working against Penny in 2020 could have an even longer-lasting impact, too. Under the rules of the new CBA, fifth-year options are fully guaranteed the moment they are exercised, rather than guaranteed only for injury like under the previous CBA. For Seattle, that means they’re going to have to decide whether they want to guarantee Penny’s 2022 salary on a fifth-year option, likely in the range of $5-6 million*, after the 2020 season in May ‘21. That decision will likely have to come on the heels of two up-and-down seasons and a difficult-to-evaluate third season.
*Penny’s option would be the average of the third through 25th highest cap hits at running back for 2022. Based on 2020 cap hits, it would be $5.569 million. (Hat tip to Field Gulls’ own John P. Gilbert.)
With Penny facing such an uphill battle for the 2020 season, it seems safe to approach his third season with the expectation it will be more-or-less lost. If he can make it back and provide a handful of splash plays down the stretch, it will be a bonus to an offense that in the short-term appears to be planning for life without him. Unfortunately, the timing of Penny’s option means it could in turn force the Seahawks to plan for the long-term without him, too.