RENTON — Given his injury history and importance to the Seahawks, any injury involving Rashaad Penny is sure to get attention.
But in describing why Penny didn’t take part in a walk-through Thursday in preparation for the preseason opener Saturday at Pittsburgh, coach Pete Carroll didn’t sound too concerned.
“He’s feeling a little bit of groin tightness, so we’re just taking care of him,” Carroll said of Penny, who took part in Saturday’s mock game and had practiced previously this week, including in a padded practice Tuesday.
Carroll didn’t directly answer a question whether that means Penny won’t play against the Steelers. But starting running backs often play little, if at all, in the preseason, so that Penny is dealing with at least something of an injury seems to mean he won’t play against the Steelers.
And that means rookie Ken Walker III will likely get the start to continue an inaugural NFL training camp where in the eyes of Carroll he has exceeded what were already pretty high expectations as the 41st overall pick and the second running back taken.
Carroll said that Walker’s pass blocking has been particularly good.
“You asked about surprises,” Carroll said to a question about Walker, referencing an earlier question about another player. “I’m surprised he’s so well-rounded. A runner, he’s blocking, again, I think I mentioned it the other day, but his pass-protection stuff, he just turned the page. I mean he was not very good in college as a pass protector, and we didn’t know. But (running back coach Chad’s (Morton) done a great job with him and (assistant running backs coach) Amanda (Ruller), they’ve worked really hard with him, so it’s important.
“But I think for this kid, everything is important. He wants to be great, and he’s not going to let any stone be unturned. So, I’m really excited to see how he goes. He’s going to get some good playing time in this game and get him comfortable with the speed of the game and all of that. I expect him to do well.”
Walker showing he can pass block also opens up more opportunities for him to play, enabling the Seahawks to comfortably leave him on the field in passing situations, and particularly on third downs or in the two-minute drill.
Asked what’s changed about Walker’s pass protection, Carroll smiled and said, “He can block guys.”
Then he elaborated, indicating that the biggest change is simply that the Seahawks made it an emphasis to him from the day he arrived.
“He just wasn’t ready for the times that he had (been asked to block before),” Carroll said. “He took it very seriously. Chad challenged him right from the beginning, way back to the day we took him, I’m sure he was already talking about it. He’s just not going to let a weakness be there if he can do something about it. Pass protection is something guys have to realize what it takes to do it. They totally have the ability. It’s not like a guy can’t pass protect. Everybody can, because it’s just about effort and technique and all of that. Some guys may fight it, but he didn’t fight it. He championed the cause.”
Walker has consistently worked with the No. 1 offense with Penny working with the starters. And the most likely scenario heading into the season is that Penny remains the starter and workhorse as long as he stays healthy, with Walker mixing in, and Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas playing mostly in the third-down, two-minute role.
But, the Seahawks could also let Walker play some in the third-down/two-minute role and also may simply more evenly split the snaps between Penny and Walker.
Most critically for the Seahawks is simply being able to have a stable of running backs to get them through a 17-game season, especially as they re-tool the offense around a new quarterback in either Geno Smith or Drew Lock.
Penny has played just 37 of a possible 65 regular-season games in his four-year career due to a variety of injuries, most notably a torn ACL late in the 2019 season. But he got healthy late last year and rushed for 671 yards in the final five weeks to end up leading the NFL with a yards-per-carry average of 6.3. Seattle then re-signed him to a one-year deal worth up to $5.6 million.
Seattle then drafted Walker to add to the position knowing that Chris Carson’s situation was uncertain — Carson was released in July due to a neck injury that for the moment has ended his NFL career.