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Why Zach Charbonnet will wind up starting for Seahawks in 2023

Haven’t had a hot take post in a while, so here’s one for fans to enjoy ahead of the long weekend.

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USC Trojans defeated the UCLA Bruins 48-45 during a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bowl. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

It is now official that the Seattle Seahawks will start training camp for both rookies and veterans the last full week of July, and that means something resembling actual football practice and real news is just weeks away. On the flip side, however, that still means that there are more than three weeks of summer doldrums in the void of the summer NFL news cycle remaining that need to be filled. So, here to fill at least a portion of that void is a post that will likely catch many by surprise, while angering others, and is a prediction was made several weeks back in the wake of the 2023 NFL Draft. Specifically, that second round pick Zach Charbonnet will supplant Ken Walker as the starting running back for the Hawks for the 2023 season.

There will certainly be those in the comments who are quick to point out that running back is the most injured position, and that regardless of who gets the start Week 1, they should be expected to miss roughly a quarter of the season due to injury. However, this prediction is made regardless of injuries and the expectation of any missed time, and rather is based on the simple fact that this is not the first time the Seahawks have paired together a backfield duo with traits and skillsets of Charbonnet and Walker.

Boiling everything down to as simple as possible, Charbonnet lacks the breakaway speed of Walker, but his film demonstrates that he runs within structure and hits the hole regardless of how much or how little space there may be at the designed point of attack. This is in contrast to Walker, whose tape from both college and his rookie season is littered with him using his blinding 4.38 speed to bounce plays to the outside and break a big run. His burning speed sets up the ability for explosive runs, such as when he introduced himself to the defense of the New Orleans Saints in Week 5.

And then when he put the final nail in the coffin against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 7.

Yet, in spite of both of those big, explosive runs of 75 and 69 yards, Walker finished the season averaging just 4.6 yards per carry, which barely topped the 4.4 yards per carry average of the league in general and was below the 4.8 yards per carry of the entire Seahawks team. A big reason for this was that Walker had one of the lowest success rates of any running back in the NFL, combined with an ugly stuff rate. The reason those metrics were so ugly comes back directly to the type of boom or bust running style Walker utilizes wherein he often attempts to bounce plays outside unnecessarily.

In contrast, in watching film of Charbonnet it’s far less rare that he looks to bounce plays, and far more often is willing to patiently read his blocks and hit the hole as prescribed by the reads on the play.

It’s not a recipe for the explosive plays Walker brings to the table, but it is a methodical approach that is likely to bring about more successful plays, helping to keep the offense closer to on schedule. It is, in a nutshell, effectively what Chris Carson did very effectively while laying claim to the starting running back role for the majority of the time that both he and Rashaad Penny were on the roster together.

Carson was the plodding workhorse who battered defenses with consistent gains, while Penny brought a boom-bust style of carrying the ball that was not dissimilar from that of Walker. Given that the Seahawks have had a very similar mix in the backfield in the past, it should come as no surprise if the Hawks once again opt to give the starting nod to the bigger battering ram, while making use of Walker’s blazing speed situationally.

Specifically, taking a step back to look at Walker’s two longest runs of the 2022 season, it may not be a coincidence that both of them took place during the fourth quarter.

Without wasting any time, the relevance of both runs taking place in the fourth quarter is that Erin Psajdl, a data scientist who currently works for the Kansas City Chiefs after a stint with the Houston Texans and an internship with the NFL, demonstrated through tracking data that player speed decreases materially over the course of an NFL game.

What does that mean for the Seahawks? Simply put, it means that the best way for the offense to attack opponents is to use a more consistent running back who may not generate explosive plays quite as often earlier in the game, and then when players are worn down and measurably slower later on to attack using insane speed.

This is, of course, in now way an attempt to say that Walker won’t see the field at all earlier in the game. In fact, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Seahawks use Charbonnet and Walker in a rotation similar to how Carson and Penny were utilized when both were healthy and available. (Author’s note: Readers may feel free to insert their own, “that was basically never” joke here.)

So, while fans and fantasy analysts argue over how Seattle will split carries in their backfield this season, just remember that the Seahawks have been in this situation before. And if history is to be a guide, history says to go with the consistent over the explosive.