The Seahawks made Rashaad Penny the third tailback taken in the first round in franchise history. They're counting on one factor for the pick to pay off.
When the Seahawks drafted Rashaad Penny, they not only found a player they hope will revive their running game but they also became participants in what was one of the hotter debates of the 2018 NFL Draft — is a running back really worth taking in the first round?
That question from a national level revolved most specifically around Saquon Barkley, who ended up going second overall to the New York Giants, and whose career will now be judged on several different fronts — both for how it works out for the Giants as well as how it either reinforces or alters the perception of the value of tailbacks.
Seattle’s pick of Penny at No. 27 didn’t represent quite the same kind of investment, obviously.
Still, many draft analysts questioned the wisdom of taking Penny that early, not only because some wondered if he was the right tailback to take there but also if Seattle was getting proper value for what was the only pick it would make among the first 79 in the draft (let alone that few regarded tailback as the team’s biggest need).
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There has also become an increasing thought in recent years that teams hardly need dominating tailbacks to win — that it’s tailbacks who may benefit more from the success of the offense around them than they contribute to that success. The Eagles won the Super Bowl last season with LeGarrette Blount — who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent — as the team’s leading rusher with 766 yards, 22nd in the NFL.
An analysis published prior to the draft by FiveThirtyEight.com further concluded “when we broke down the numbers for running backs who were drafted between 2002 and 2017 and who actually played in the NFL, we did not find much difference in performance from round to round. No matter when backs were drafted, they posted pretty similar numbers in terms of yards per carry.’’
Which is where Seattle’s own tailback history is particularly interesting.
Penny became just the third tailback the Seahawks have taken in the first round, the others being Curt Warner in 1983 (third overall) and Shaun Alexander in 2000 (19th).
By any measure, each ranks as among the best picks in Seattle history — Alexander is the leading rusher in Seattle history and the only MVP in team history and Warner is the third-leading rusher in team history and the key to the “Ground Chuck’’ offense that led the Seahawks to their first great run of success in the ‘80s.
In fact, Seattle’s career-rushing list is littered with high picks — of the top nine rushers in Seahawks’ history all were taken within the top 89 picks (which includes Marshawn Lynch and Ricky Watters — Lynch a first-rounder by Buffalo and Watters a second-rounder of the 49ers).
NFL history is even more heavily-weighted toward the apparent value of first-round tailbacks — of the 10 leading rushers in league history, eight were drafted in the first round, the other two in the third.
The game, though, isn’t quite the same now as it was in the days of Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson, when a bell-cow tailback was viewed as a necessity — in 1976, NFL teams averaged 302 yards per game, according to ProFootballReference.com, with 150 coming on the ground, versus 2017 where those two numbers were 334 and 110.
But the Seahawks could also counter that they had their greatest success in the Carroll era when Lynch was at his most-dominating as evidence of the value of a running back.
What they will also counter is that the value they will get out of Penny – a 5-11, 220-pounder out of San Diego State — will be greater than just what shows up in the rushing column.
On the day he was drafted, the Seahawks touted the ability of Penny’s receiving and kickoff return ability.
Last weekend’s rookie mini-camp only reinforced to Carroll the idea that Penny — who caught 34 passes for 359 yards his last two seasons at SDSU while also rushing for 3,266 yards — will help in the passing game.
“He caught the ball beautifully, really,’’ Carroll said. “He can do whatever we need to do in the throwing game. Schotty (offensive coordinator 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. With a couple of exceptions, he did a really good job. So that’s a real good sign.’’
Carroll said Penny needs more work on his pass protection but is confident he can shore that up, too.
And to the team, if Penny can be the proverbial “three-down’’ running back, then his value may be far greater than even the stats he produces himself.
Under Carroll, Seattle has generally employed tailbacks who play primarily on early downs (Lynch being the foremost example of this) and then tailbacks whose role was generally to come in on third down and in two-minute situations (Robert Turbin in the Super Bowl years, the likes of C.J. Prosise and J.D. McKissic last year).
But not only can Seattle theoretically get more use out of Penny if he can fill both roles equally proficiently but also make the offense harder to defend by not putting any limits on what play can be called in any given situation.
“He will give us the ability to play him on all downs and that versatility is really big,’’ Carroll said.
Just how big it proves to be will also help define how the pick of Penny is ultimately remembered.