It’s no secret that Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll professes an unyielding commitment to running early and running often, eschewing a primarily aerial-focused offense even with a potential Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm. Now, with either Mile High import Drew Lock or former backup Geno Smith the top signal-caller in Seattle, Carroll’s focus on the ground game has gained increased significance.
It’s likely that Seattle will run the ball higher than their near-league average rate of 43.3% clip in 2021 and the clearest signal of this intention was the selection of running back Kenneth Walker III at 41st overall in the second round. With many expecting the team to pounce on a slipping Malik Willis or perhaps address their secondary at that point, the team instead selected arguably the best running back in the class and a dynamic player who finished 6th in 2021 Heisman Trophy voting.
This allocation of resources speaks volumes to the level of talent the organization feels Walker has, as well as their confidence in the rest of the backfield. The Seahawks declined to re-sign Alex Collins, re-signed Rashaad Penny to a one-year, $5.75 million contract, and still have Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas under contract. Chris Carson also remains under contract, but Carroll has been noncommittal on his playing future after a neck injury derailed his 2021 season after just four games.
|2021 Seahawks Rushing Stats|
Bringing back Penny should go a long way towards securing production in the backfield, provided he can stay healthy — a significant issue for him thus far in his career, as he’s missed 28 games in his four-year career. From Weeks 13-18, he led the league in rushing yards, was second in rushing touchdowns, and led all players with over ten carries in that span in yards per attempt, checking in at a robust 6.9 Y/A. His advanced statistics also paint a picture of an efficient and explosive runner that took advantage of his blocking: in that same time period, Penny led the league in rushing yards before contact, rushing yards after contact, runs of 10+ yards, and was second in missed tackles. With Penny leading the charge, the Seahawks ran mostly outside zone (30%) and inside zone (29%) as the offensive line blocked well and he took advantage of holes.
In Walker, Seattle gets an extremely productive and durable back who projects to receive significant work early in the season and potentially take over the backfield as the year moves along. Walker had just one minor injury his senior year and ran faster than Penny at the combine (4.38s vs. 4.46s) – Penny has also had six lower body injuries forcing him to miss at least a game, including a torn ACL in 2019.
Walker’s ability to make cuts and accelerate once he’s into the second level should fit well in newly promoted offensive line coach Andy Dickerson’s-zone blocking scheme. As the debate rages on about whether or not an early second round pick was the best resource with which to acquire a running back, there’s little doubt Walker will find success in Seattle’s system.
The rest of Seattle’s backfield has their roles but is wholly uninspiring. Dallas did draw two starts last season and managed 4.2 yards per carry while Travis Homer had a memorable 73-yard touchdown on a fake punt. Both backs serve primarily as pass-catchers, with Homer receiving increased third-down work thanks to his proficiency in pass protection. The two combined for 37 receptions, a figure that would have ranked 30th among all running backs if their production was combined. Penny had just six receptions the whole season despite drawing six starts and playing in ten games.
The lack of a reliable pass-catcher in the backfield remains one of Seattle’s biggest offensive weaknesses, especially when factoring in the moribund level of quarterback play they can reasonably expect. In the five games Lock started in 2021, over 27% of pass attempts were directed toward running backs, meaning that Seattle’s backfield will likely have a significant opportunity to make an impact through the air. This is an area where Walker may be able to help – despite only having 13 receptions last year, he “does display solid ability to create in open space,” according to The 33rd Team’s pre-draft scouting report. If Walker can approach the receiving production that Michael Carter had in 2021 (36 catches for 325 yards) it would be significant for whoever ends up as Seattle’s quarterback.