In his first preseason with the Seahawks in 2016, Alex Collins solidified his spot on the roster with a strong showing in the final preseason game.
Five years later, even if Collins may feel like he’s a different person and player than he was then, he may have done so again.
Collins was the offensive star of the night for the Seahawks in Saturday’s 27-0 win over the Chargers, scoring a touchdown on a nifty 5-yard run through traffic and rushing 10 times for 37 yards while also catching seven passes — on seven targets — for another 52 more.
And he did all of that on just 24 snaps, splitting time with the only other two running backs who were available — Rashaad Penny (21 snaps) and rookie undrafted free agent Josh Johnson (23).
Collins, who signed a one-year deal in February, finished the preseason with 58 yards on 19 carries. That may not seem like much. But what impressed more is the way Collins did it. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins averaged 2.74 yards after contact per attempt, which last year would have ranked him in the top 10 in the NFL.
He also had 10 receptions on 11 targets for 73 yards, showing a greater versatility to his game than earlier in his career.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll noted the pass-catching improvement allows Collins to be a bigger part of the offense.
“It’s hugely important to be available,’’ Carroll said. “The more things you can do, the better it is for us when we put a guy in the game. If a guy can only block, or he can only run, or he can only catch, then you get taken advantage of.’’
Penny had a sluggish end to his preseason with 24 yards on seven carries to finish the preseason with 32 yards on 12 carries.
He also had two catches for 11 yards on four targets in the preseason.
All of which left the question after Saturday’s game of not only whether Collins has surpassed Penny on the team’s depth chart, but whether the Seahawks might also consider not keeping Penny, or look to trade him, before they have to set their 53-man roster by Tuesday’s 1 p.m. deadline.
It might seem hard to fathom the Seahawks would just give up on their 2018 first-round pick. But they have never shied from making tough decisions. Releasing Penny would save $1.3 million against the cap, though there is a $2.05 million dead cap number for him for this year, one reason it’s seemed unlikely he wouldn’t make the team.
Intriguingly, after the game Carroll volunteered praise for Collins and Johnson, and also noted that he is excited about the return of Travis Homer, who did not play Saturday but was able to practice again last week after dealing with a calf injury.
Then there’s DeeJay Dallas — whose special-teams ability alone makes it seem a given he’s on the roster.
So is there still room for Penny?
Carroll was asked if Nick Bellore’s status as both a fullback and linebacker would allow the Seahawks to keep five running backs. They have usually kept four and a fullback.
“I don’t know if specifically that’s what’s going to happen,’’ Carroll said. “I don’t know that.’’
What’s clear is that Collins seems a keeper.
He was a fifth-round pick of the Seahawks in 2016 out of Arkansas. But he had to fight off a strong camp from free agent Troymaine Pope to make it on the 53-man roster as a rookie, needing a big last game in Oakland against the Raiders to earn a spot.
But he played sparingly as a rookie, and had two fumbles in 42 touches to revive concerns about his ball-handling ability. The Seahawks waived him the following year — when Carson exploded onto the scene as a seventh-round pick — and Collins signed with Baltimore’s practice squad instead of staying in Seattle, saying he wanted a fresh start.
That worked out as he rushed for 973 yards that season and 411 the following year before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
He didn’t play in 2019 after being waived by the Ravens in the wake of a car accident in which he pleaded guilty to possession of more than 10 grams of marijuana and possession of a handgun in a vehicle, receiving a three-game NFL suspension.
But with the legal issues cleared and back to health, he revived his career last year with the Seahawks, who signed him at midseason in the wake of injuries to other running backs (notably Homer), rushing for 77 yards on 18 carries in three games, compelling the team to offer him another contract last spring.
Collins, who turned 27 last week, said the travails of the past few years have made him more appreciative of his opportunities now.
“Just mentally as I’ve had a lot of experience from my rookie year until now,’’ he said. “Being around a lot of vets, learning a lot of routines, and getting a hang of the speed of the game has helped. I’ve been trying to teach the younger guys that you have to execute, know where you’re supposed to be and make the most out of every opportunity.”
Carroll also noted that Collins has lost weight and is nimbler. Collins said he’s dropped about 10 pounds from his rookie year.
“He has looked different,’’ Carroll said. “His body sculpture is different. The way he’s conditioned and shaped himself is much different than he was. He was trying to be big; he thought he needed to be big to be in the league. At least that’s what it looked like. He’s turned it around.”
While turning into a player who appears likely to stick around a while.