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Marshawn Lynch gives Seahawks special legs to lean on

Posted Apr 29, 2014

In a prefer-the-pass league, many NFL teams are opting for a running-back-by-committee approach. The Seahawks are one of the exceptions because they have a productive and durable bell-cow back in Marshawn Lynch.


COUNTDOWN TO THE NFL DRAFT

What: 79th annual NFL Draft

When: May 8-10

Rounds: First round, Thursday, May 8, starting at 5 p.m.; second and third rounds, Friday, May 9, starting at 4 p.m.; final four rounds, Saturday, May 10, starting at 9 a.m.

Seahawks picks (6): No. 32 overall in the first round; No. 64 overall in the second round; no third-round pick, traded to Vikings last year in the deal to acquire wide receiver Percy Harvin; No. 132 overall in the fourth round; No. 146 overall in the fifth round, from the Raiders in last year's trade of quarterback Matt Flynn; No. 172 in the fifth round; No. 208 overall in the sixth round; no pick in the seventh round, traded the 247th selection overall to the Raiders for quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Seahawks.com draft series: Today, the running backs

Note: The opinions and analysis in this article and accompanying chart are those of the author and others credited, and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of the Seahawks' coaching staff and personnel department.

They have become underused, undervalued and under-the-radar players on the NFL landscape.

They are the running backs, and they once provided the powerful legs and shifty hips that propelled offenses all around the league. But the recent penchant for passing has rendered the runners afterthoughts when it comes to the first round of the NFL Draft.

"I think it's a trend at every level that they're using multiple backs so there is not always that one bell cow," Steve Keim, general manager of the Arizona Cardinals, said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "And then you look at the trends of the draft, obviously the left tackles, the quarterbacks, the corners, those types of players are always going to supersede running backs when you see that you can find fourth-, fifth-, sixth-round backs who are extremely productive.

BEST OF THE BUNCH
Rank Player, School Ht. Wt. Projected
1/44 Carlos Hyde, Ohio State 6-0 230 2nd round
2/50 Bishop Sankey, Washington 5-10 209 2nd round
3/54 Tre Mason, Auburn 5-9 207 2nd round
4/68 Jeremy Hill, LSU 6-1 233 2nd or 3rd round
5/87 Andrew Williams, Boston College 5-11 230 3rd round
6/88 Terrance West, Towson 5-9 2225 3rd round

NOTE: Rankings (position/overall) and projections by Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com

The word: Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network and NFL.com, says "there are a lot of different flavors" in this year's running back class. And that makes it a pick-your-flavor process. And that's why Mayock ranks Sankey as the top back, while Rang has the productive Husky at No. 2 – and Hyde, Rang's top-rated back, is No. 2 on Mayock's list. "This running back group, A, is talented; B, is deep; and C, you kind of have to filter through it to see who you like because there are a lot of different flavors out there depending on what kind of offense you run," Mayock said.

What about? Sankey. The former UW back did not participate in drills when the Seahawks hosted 19 local draft-eligible players last week. Sankey looked smaller and younger out of uniform. But he did put up big numbers for the Huskies: 1,439 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 and 1,870 yards and 20 TDs on 327 carries last season. Sankey also caught 61 passes the past two seasons. And then there are the numbers from his workouts: 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a 35½-inch vertical leap and 10-6 broad jump and 26 reps with 225 pounds in the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine; and a time of 11.11 in the 60-yard long shuttle at his Pro Day workout, which was .25 seconds faster than any back at the Combine and the sixth-fastest time overall.

Don't forget about: Mason. Once No. 1 on Rang's list of running back prospects, he's now No. 3. Once No. 7 on Mayock's list of prospects, he's now No. 4. Down and up, up and down he goes, and where he'll be drafted does anyone really know? Yes, he lacks ideal size. But also yes, he was SEC Player of the Year and has the skill set to fit into multiple schemes at the next level. As Mayock said, it's all about picking your flavor. And Mason's flavor is far from vanilla as his father, Vincent "DJ Maeso" Mason, is a member of the Gammy Award-winning hip hop group De La Soul.

Seahawks situation: The last thing anyone expected the Seahawks to do last year was select a running back with their top pick. But when they got to the 62nd pick overall in the second round (they traded their first-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings as part of the deal to acquire Percy Harvin), the Seahawks' selection was Texas A&M running back Christine Michael. Now, the Seahawks have Marshawn Lynch, who has averaged 1,350 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in three full seasons since being acquired in a 2010 trade with the Buffalo Bills; Robert Turbin, a fourth-round draft choice in 2012; and Michael. Then there's Derrick Coleman, a former running back who was moved to fullback last season; and Spencer Ware, a sixth-round draft choice last year who played fullback and running back before being placed on injured reserve midway through rookie season.

"History tells you that you can find those guys in later rounds."

There are, of course, the exceptions to the running-by-committee approach. Like the Seahawks.

"You have to use the running-back-by-committee if you don't have a special guy, and we have a special guy," said Sherman Smith, the Seahawks' original running back from 1976-82 who now is in his fifth season of coaching the position on Pete Carroll's staff – and 20th in the NFL after stints with the Tennessee Titans (1995-07) and Washington Redskins (2008-09).

That special guy would be Marshawn Lynch, who has averaged 300 carries in his three full seasons with the Seahawks since being acquired in a 2010 trade with the Buffalo Bills and is the only back with 300-plus carries in each of the past two seasons. Lynch has used all those touches to average 1,350 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns.

"We could be running-back-by-committee," Smith said. "But who does it hurt? It hurts us because we're watering down Marshawn's reps so we can get other backs in there."

And the Seahawks have used the NFL Draft in recent seasons to stockpile legs at the position. In 2012, they selected Robert Turbin in the fourth round to give them another physical back to take over on those rare occasions when Lynch needs a rest, or even rarer occasions when he can't play. Last year, the Seahawks used their top pick – No. 62 overall in the second round – to select Christine Michael. Each is learning what it's like to play with a back of Lynch's talents, as Turbin has a combined 157 carries in his first two seasons and Michael got 18 carries in the four games he played in as a rookie.

"To me, there's a drop off," Smith said. "You take Marshawn out of the game, there's a drop off to the next guy. So why would we do that?"

That rhetorical question isn't meant as a dig at Turbin and Michael. On the contrary, it's shoveling praise on Lynch, who Smith labels "a special athlete."

There are other special backs in the league – the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson; Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy; and Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. But they've also missed time with injuries while Lynch has been filling the bell-cow role with the Seahawks. Charles played in only two games in 2011, while Peterson missed four games in 2011 and McCoy four games in 2012.

Who's the next special back to enter the league? The pundits are saying it won't be this year, when the NFL Draft will take place May 8-10. In fact, there might not be a running back selected in the first round – as was the case last year. In the previous four drafts, only two backs went in the Top 10 – Trent Richardson at No. 3 in 2012 to the Cleveland Browns, who traded him to the Indianapolis Colts last year; and C.J. Spiller at No. 9 in 2010 to the Bills, a move that led to Lynch being traded to the Seahawks.

Since the 2008 draft that saw five backs go in the first round, only seven others have been first-round picks – Doug Martin (at 31 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and David Wilson (at 32 to the New York Giants) in 2012; Mark Ingram (at 28 to the New Orleans Saints) in 2011; Ryan Matthews (at 12 to the San Diego Chargers) and Jahvid Best (at 30 to the Detroit Lions) in 2010; and Knowshon Moreno (at 12 to the Denver Broncos), Donald Brown (at 27 to the Colts) and Chris Wells (at 31 to the Cardinals) in 2009.

But the search continues, as does the trend of going for backs in the later round – backs like Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick by the Redskins in 2012; and DeMarco Murray, a third-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. Each finished among the Top 10 in rushing last season.

"But when one comes along like Adrian Peterson and they're special," Keim said, "you take one and don't look back."

Until then, more teams will look to travel the running-back-by-committee path.

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