RENTON — John Schneider and Pete Carroll have never appeared to care about thinking outside the box when it comes to the NFL draft.
But of all the picks who have raised eyebrows since the two took over the Seahawks in 2010, the decision to select running back Rashaad Penny with the 27h overall pick in 2018 might have raised the most eyebrows.
Analysts questioned if it made sense to spend a first-round pick on a running back — a position teams increasingly have found success with later round selections or free agents. And if that could be argued, if Penny was the right guy on which to spend that much capital.
The one thing no one questioned was Penny’s durability.
Penny played in all 54 games at San Diego State, leading the nation in rushing as a senior with 2,248 yards.
“Speed, durability, humble,’’ Carroll said on the night Penny was drafted to answer what attracted the Seahawks to him, adding that his durability was “an important element in his background and makeup.”
That was especially important to the Seahawks following a 2017 season when injuries at running back helped derail the season. Aside from Russell Wilson, their leading rusher was Mike Davis with 240 yards.
The Seahawks so loved Penny, who was the second running back taken following Saquon Barkley at No. 2 by the Giants, that Schneider insisted “we would have taken him at 18 (a pick Seattle originally had before trading down).’’
Said Carroll: “I don’t know if there was anyone better besides Saquon Barkley.’’
After three seasons, those who questioned the pick have yet to have their doubts refuted. And it’s largely for the one thing about Penny that seemed a sure thing — his durability.
The player who was never hurt in college has been held to just 27 of a possible 48 regular-season games in three NFL seasons with a list of ailments that began when he suffered a hand injury in training camp as a rookie.
More seriously, Penny suffered an ACL injury late in the 2019 season that held him to 10 games that year and lingered all 2020, limiting him to just the final three games. An unrelated knee injury held him out of the playoff loss to the Rams.
It sounded even more ominous when Penny sat out the on-field portion of the offseason program this spring after it was revealed he had undergone another “cleanup’’ surgery on his knee.
But Thursday, in the Seahawks’ second practice of training camp, there Penny was, early in the workout blasting through a hole, breaking into the open and appearing to blow away any concerns about his knee.
And after practice, there Penny was talking to reporters and insisting “I feel 100 (percent) … I feel very explosive. Honestly, I feel like I’m back in high school again, like I feel way faster.’’
This, of course, is the time for optimism in NFL camps.
Carroll said he thinks there’s reason to believe there’s substance behind the optimism. Penny, who usually has played in the mid-230s, stayed in Seattle all summer working out with Seahawks trainers alongside teammate Travis Homer and said he now weighs 223 pounds.
“He looks great,’’ Carroll said. “He worked out here all throughout the offseason and it really paid off. Best he’s looked since we’ve seen him.’’
If Penny can indeed stay healthy through camp, he presents the Seahawks with the appetizing prospect of teaming with Chris Carson to give them the kind of combo they have sought consistently in recent years but has never seen work out as envisioned.
“I’m trying to create a one-two punch with Chris,’’ Penny said.
And if he has to be the “two’’ in that scenario, Penny insists that’s fine.
When Penny was drafted in 2018, Carson was coming off a rookie season in which he’d shown a lot of promise but had suffered a season-ending ankle injury after just four games.
Carson has mostly stayed healthy and become the team’s unquestioned leader in the backfield, signing a new two-year deal in the offseason.
Penny’s future is unclear. The Seahawks could have picked up an option on Penny’s contract for the 2022 season paying him $4.523 million. They declined, and Penny can be a free agent after this season.
Penny said his contractual future isn’t a concern, stating, “I’ve never focused on any of that.’’
What he wants to do is show that he can be durable, which he then thinks will lead to being productive.
“My biggest thing this offseason is consistency and availability,’’ said Penny, who insisted the knee is fine and that he could have taken part in spring workouts but the team decided to play it safe.
The injuries have sometimes overshadowed his production when he has played.
Penny has 823 yards on 161 NFL carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. No Seahawks running back with as many carries has a better average.
Penny has 17 receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown, giving him an ability the Seahawks could try to exploit more in the scheme of new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.
Penny said the offense is basically the same as the one at San Diego State and that “I think it fits me very well.’’
Penny, who is still just 25, said the ACL recovery led to a lot of reflecting about football and an appreciation for it that led him to take learning the playbook and his conditioning even more seriously.
At one point, he thanked the Seahawks for continuing to show faith in him. Faith, he said, that there is still time to reward, even if the first three years of his NFL career have gone far from planned.
“I thank everybody who has been a part of this journey,’’ he said. “It’s far from over.’’