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Why the Seahawks will decline the fifth year option on Rashaad Penny

Seattle Seahawks v Washington Football Team Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

With each passing day the NFL offseason gets one day shorter, meaning fans of the Seattle Seahawks are one day closer to getting to watch meaningful football again. That said, with the new league year set to start three weeks from Wednesday, fans will have free agency and then the draft to keep themselves occupied in the coming weeks and months before the arrival of the summer doldrums. The Seahawks have plenty of personnel decisions to make with regards to their own free agents and holes to fill on the roster, but they will also have to make decisions regarding whether to use the franchise tag as well as a decision on whether to exercise the fifth year option of 2018 first round pick Rashaad Penny.

Penny, of course, has been the subject of much debate and discussion amongst Seahawks fans, but the decision whether to exercise the option is likely to be rather simple. In spite of high hopes and a handful of explosive highlights, Penny has been injury prone and buried on the depth chart. A 2019 knee injury limited him to 34 yards on 11 carries in just three games, and while some fans remain hopeful for the future, Penny’s most productive season to date was his rookie campaign in 2018 when he was third on the depth chart behind both Chris Carson and Mike Davis.

Penny supporters may argue that it would be worthwhile for the Hawks to exercise the fifth year option just to give him the opportunity to fully recover from his knee injury and show what he can do on the field in 2021. However, that is a risk that the team likely cannot afford to take for financial reasons. Specifically, under the new collective bargaining agreement that took effect last spring, when a team exercises the fifth year option for teams selected in 2018 or later, the salary attached to the tender becomes fully guaranteed at the time of exercise.

This, of course, leads to the question of how much exactly the tender amount would be, and while it’s not known with certainty at this time, the likelihood is that it would probably fall in the $4.5M-$5M range. However, a fully guaranteed base salary for Penny of $4.5M-$5M would not be the only financial ramification for Seattle, as the new CBA also add in additional guarantees for players who have the option in their contract exercised. Specifically, from Article 7, Section 7(g)(v) (Author’s note: bolding added for emphasis):

For any Drafted Rookie selected in the first round of the 2018 or any subsequent Draft, the entire Paragraph 5 Salary for the Fifth-Year Option shall become guaranteed for skill, injury, and Salary Cap-related termination, effective upon the Club’s exercise of the Option. In the event that the entire Paragraph 5 Salary for the fourth year of the player’s Rookie Contract is not guaranteed for skill, injury, and Salary Cap-related termination, the non-guaranteed amount shall become guaranteed for skill, injury, and Salary-Cap related termination effective upon the Club’s exercise of the Option.

Breaking that down into simple terms, the non-bolded part states that the fifth year option for players drafted in 2018 and later is fully guaranteed at the time of exercise. In addition, the bolded portion states that any fourth year salary of the player for whom the option is exercised that is not fully guaranteed becomes fully guaranteed. This is important because in the case of Penny, only $580,000 of his $1,948,014 base salary in 2021 is fully guaranteed. That means exercising the option not only gives Penny a fully guaranteed 2022 base salary somewhere in the $4.5M-$5M range, it also adds $1,368,014 of guarantees to his 2021 salary.

Basically, exercising the option creates somewhere in the neighborhood of $6M in additional salary which would be fully guaranteed for a player who through the first three seasons of his career has put together the following stats:

  • 161 carries for 823 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns,
  • 17 receptions for 158 receiving yards and 1 touchdown,
  • on 369 snaps played.

It won’t be a surprise to see an argument made that Penny brings explosiveness to the table and that his ability to create big runs is an asset that makes the option worth exercising. However, to this point in his career that has not necessarily been the case. Specifically, here is how the distribution of Penny’s rushing attempts compares to the distribution of all rushing attempts across the NFL during his career.

Basically, Penny has been a league average running back through his career with there maybe an argument to be made that he generates a few more three yard carries by not having as many two and four yard rushes. As for his big play ability, to this point in his career, he has broken a rushing play for eleven or more yards on 11.80% of his carries, while league average over the past three seasons is 11.35%. If this is indeed the case and Penny creates an additional 0.45% of runs of 11 yards or greater than the average NFL back, translating that difference into actual on field production, he generates one more run of 11 or more yards once every 222 rushing attempts or so. That said, there is a very real possibility that the difference is nothing more than sampling randomness, as Penny has produced runs of 10 or more yards at effectively a league average rate, 13.04% versus 13.02%.

Boiling it all down to simple comparisons, to this point in his career, Penny has provided:

  • The rushing production of Christine Michael (823 yards versus 915 yards for CMike),
  • The receiving production of Ed Dickson (158 yards versuse 143 for Dickson
  • The durability of Paul Richardson (21 games missed versus 17 for Prich) and
  • The cap hit of Luke Joeckel ($7.34M so far versus $7.688M for Joeckel).

In short, there’s certainly hope that Penny can come back and be a dynamic playmaker on the field in 2021, but to this point the return the team has received on its investment of a first round pick has not been great. So, while there seems little reason to believe the Hawks won’t make significant moves at the running back position in the offseason those moves seem extremely unlikely to include the exercise of the fifth year option for Penny between now and the May 3 deadline.