SEATTLE — Three running backs were drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. Over the weekend one of those players won offensive rookie of the year (Saquon Barkley) and another started and scored the only touchdown in the Super Bowl (Sony Michel).
The third, Rashaad Penny of the Seattle Seahawks, had a quiet weekend and a mostly-quiet season.
If you’re looking for a snapshot of Penny’s rookie season with the Seahawks, the last game would do.
In the third quarter of their wild-card loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Penny took a handoff, made a subtle cut in the backfield to get outside and then turned on the jets as he split a pair of defenders on his way to a 28-yard run.
His other three carries gained a net of one yard and he played only five of Seattle’s 55 offensive snaps, the fewest of the four tailbacks who suited up for the Seahawks.
It was that kind of year for Penny, an occasional flash but a lot more inaction. And while his final regular-season numbers weren’t all that bad on their own — 419 yards, two touchdowns and a 4.9 yards-per-carry average that was best among their running backs — Penny’s debut wasn’t what anyone had in mind when Seahawks chose him 27th overall.
To be sure, no one who was paying close attention thought it was a foregone conclusion that Penny would claim the starting job right away. It seemed even less likely when Chris Carson separated himself from the rest of the backfield over the offseason, showing that he was all the way back from the leg injury that cut short his promising rookie season. And it was out of the question entirely by the time Penny missed the final three weeks of training camp with a broken finger that, in coach Pete Carroll’s words, left him “rusty” early in the season.
The bigger disappointment was Penny couldn’t overtake Mike Davis as the clear-cut No. 2. As a result, he averaged about 13 offensive snaps in his 14 games. He played fewer than 10 snaps three times and didn’t play at all in two of them, not counting the two he missed in December with a knee injury.
Comments from Pete Carroll around midseason suggested Penny wasn’t applying himself the way he needed to. That was the impression Carroll left when he said Seattle’s coaches had been pushing Penny and “challenging him to get right.” Carroll seemed more pleased with how Penny, who turned 23 on Sunday, handled the adjustment to the NFL as the season went on.
“He did really well,” Carroll said at his final news conference of the season. “He’s been growing throughout the process. It was a jump for him, like it is for the guys. It’s a jump to be in the limelight, particularly when you’re a No. 1 pick and everyone puts the pressure and expectations on you. There’s a lot going on. You’ve just got to go through it. He’s a young kid.
“[Rookie defensive end] Rasheem Green is 21. I don’t know how old Rashaad is right now, but he’s a young kid too. There’s just so much ahead of these guys. Every day was a learning experience for him and to see what it’s like. They’re not playing behind old guys that have been here for six or eight years or 10 years that can tell them the ropes and all that. They’re learning with new guys. Chris just had his first full season playing. These guys are all learning together and they’re growing well together.”
An underwhelming rookie season is nowhere near enough evidence to write off a high draft pick. The Seahawks have some recent examples, all from the second round. Golden Tate (2010) was benched for what would have been his NFL debut then caught 21 passes that year. Justin Britt (2014) bounced around the offensive line his first two seasons, essentially failing his way from right tackle to left guard to his permanent home at center.
Of course, Christine Michael (2013) never panned out and the jury is still out on Ethan Pocic (2017), two more second-rounders.
It’s too early to tell with Penny, but his potential was never more evident than when he rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries when Carson was sidelined against the Rams in November. There were other flashes, like his 30-yard run the next week against Green Bay when he cut back all the way across the field and covered 82.3 yards of actual distance, according to Next Gen Stats.
Penny, listed at 220 pounds, told The Seattle Times in December he started to eat better as the season went on. He lost weight and regained the burst that he had in training camp. His progression wasn’t lost on offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
“Huge strides,” Schottenheimer said of Penny on Dec. 20. “Learning the playbook, No. 1, was a challenge for him coming and learning all of the different things that we do. They were very, not simple, but they were very two-back oriented at San Diego State so that was a big thing. We’ve always known he’s talented. I think people think it’s just going to turn on automatically for him. It doesn’t, especially when you’re playing multiple guys. Just the look in his eye now, the confidence even when he’s rehabbing and in meetings when I’m sitting there and I’m talking to him or I’m asking him a question. There’s a quiet confidence where maybe in early August or even early October, I’d ask him a question and he’d have to think about it or he’d look at me and now he just spits the answer out. It just comes with the maturation process of a rookie.”
It isn’t hard to imagine Penny factoring more into the offense next season. Davis, who made about $1.5 million in 2018, is one of the team’s 14 unrestricted free agents and figures to find a better opportunity elsewhere than what the Seahawks will be willing to give him. They’ll want to find out what they have in Penny, for one thing, and they won’t need a veteran tailback as insurance as much as they did this past offseason when they weren’t quite sure how Carson would come back from his injury.
Carroll may have had that eventuality in the back of his mind when he looked ahead to a “one-two punch” at running back next season — i.e. Carson and Penny — before amending his comment.
It’s entirely fair to think the Seahawks erred in drafting Penny as highly as they did as opposed to addressing a position of greater need such as defensive end, though the reasoning was understandable at the time. And you can question the wisdom in drafting any running back that high given how the middle and later rounds have yielded plenty of productive ones, including Carson, a seventh-rounder.
Either way, Penny is still an intriguing prospect, one the Seahawks figure to ask more of in Year 2 than they did during his mostly quiet rookie season.
“Just be with us again,” Carroll said when asked what Penny needs to do be more of a factor in 2019, “go through the whole offseason, hope for good health and just compete. He’s going to be really good. He showed it again the other night [against Dallas]. He’s going to be a really good player for us. It gives us a tremendous one-two punch — one-two-three punch. We’ve got combinations to throw at you with our guys. The competition, we’ll play that out.”