The Seahawks didn't select Thomas Rawls in the 2015 draft, but as the seventh and final round came to a close, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll let the rest of Seattle's front office know that the Central Michigan running back needed to end up in Seattle.
"This was one of my guys. I was really fired up about him, because I liked the style that he brought," Carroll said. "So I was really pulling for that one to come through. The guys who were on the phone all the way up until we got them, there was a little pressure on that one. I really was pulling for him all the way throughout… We were thinking about drafting him. We were looking forward to getting him."
Rawls did end up signing with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent, and it was a decision that so far has paid off for both sides. The Seahawks had kept the same three running backs on the roster for each of the past two seasons, but Rawls came to camp determined to prove he belonged on the team, and he indeed won a job on the 53-man roster.
For Rawls, there was mutual interest for a couple of reasons, including the fact that Seattle hadn't drafted a running back, and also because of the Seahawks' history of giving undrafted rookies a real shot to earn jobs.
"A lot of teams were calling, but Seattle didn't draft a running back," Rawls said. "… I heard about (Seattle's history with undrafted rookies), and that was one of the reasons why I came here. I know how Coach Carroll feels about guys like that."
Even after making the team, Rawls didn't figure to have a huge role right off the bat with Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson ahead of him on the depth chart, and he only had two carries through Seattle's first two games, but things changed for Rawls last week. With Marshawn Lynch unable to get loosened up by the start of the game because of a calf injury, Rawls made his first NFL start. And when Lynch later had to leave the game with a hamstring injury, Rawls took over the lead role, and finished with 16 carries for 104 yards, making him the very unlikely answer to the trivia question: who was the first player to eclipse 100 rushing yards in a game for the 2015 Seahawks? The big performance validated what Carroll and others had seen when they evaluated Rawls' college tape.
"I don't know that we knew it all, but we had a good feeling about him," Carroll said. "He's a great worker, and he was effective in preseason. I didn't get the feeling in preseason that we got (Sunday). This was the guy we were hoping to see from what we had seen in evaluating him and all that. The style of running was really evident (Sunday), which we're really excited about."
While Rawls announced himself to fans and the rest of the NFL last week, his teammates knew he was capable of big things given the right opportunity.
"That kid has been busting his tail since the beginning of camp, even in OTAs, so I'm not surprised, and extremely happy for his success because he earned it," said Doug Baldwin, another undrafted player who went on to thrive as a rookie. "... About the third week in OTAs, he knew the playbook, and he was asking all the right questions. You always want a rookie to ask questions, but it's a different level when they ask the right questions, so that's what stood out to me."
What Carroll and the Seahawks really like about Rawls is one of the things that has made Lynch such a good fit in Seattle—his physical style. That's not to say Rawls is the same player as Lynch, but he does have a knack for seeking out contact, which can help set the tone for Seattle's offense.
"He's very aggressive—he was looking for hits downfield," Carroll said. "He's not looking to make a guy miss him as much as he is to run right at you. Through the line of scrimmage he's got a nice wiggle and all of that, but he's got an attitude that he wants to let you know he's coming. That's what I got excited about—he made a lot of yards in college, of course—but it was more the way he did it."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Rawls has a little bit of Lynch's aggression in his game; like so many young running backs, Rawls looked up to Lynch playing the position in high school and college. Rawls credits Lynch, as well as Jackson, as helping him get ready for what ended up being a breakout performance last week. From Lynch, Rawls has learned about footwork and understanding where the holes will be in Seattle's zone-blocking scheme, and from Jackson he has learned about pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield.
"Being around these guys made it a lot easier for me," he said. "I'm behind two veteran running backs, two guys I have looked up to for a long time, and they've got my best interest at heart and they've got my back, and I'll keep looking up to those guys and take advantage of every opportunity."
What Rawls' next opportunity looks like now depends on Lynch's health. Carroll said Wednesday that they won't know Lynch's status for Monday's game until late in the week or perhaps even game day, but regardless Lynch's availability, Rawls said he'll be ready for whatever is next.
"I'm always focused on preparing and trying to be as perfect as I can for my team," he said. "That's my job."