With Seahawks training camp kicking off next week, Seahawks.com is taking a look at 10 of the most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2022 season. Today, we take a look at running back, and in particular what the rotation might look like given the uncertainty about Chris Carson's health. Check back Tuesday when we look at how the changes in the defensive scheme might improve the pass rush.
When the Seahawks re-signed running back Rashaad Penny in March, Pete Carroll called the move "one of the highlights of the offseason," pointing to how important the running game is to everything the Seahawks do.
"The running game is always such a big deal," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in March. "It's so crucial to our success as it complements the rest of our style of play. It helps us with the throwing game too to continue to be an explosive passing team. The running game is always at the center of that. To get Rashaad coming back to us, coming off the great finish he had last year, is really a great statement for us going forward. To me it's really one of the highlights of this offseason."
A little over a month later, the Seahawks used one of their two second-round picks on Kenneth Walker III, a player who won the Walter Camp and Doak Walker Awards as college football's top back. Suddenly the Seahawks seemed loaded in the backfield to the point that the biggest question facing them seemed to be that of how they would divvy up the carries between so many talented backs.
Yet for all there is to like about the talent the Seahawks have at running back—including the depth with players like DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer—the uncertainty about the health of Chris Carson is one big question mark heading into camp.
Carson, who when healthy has been Seattle's starting running back since his rookie season, suffered a neck injury last year that led to surgery, and as of June's minicamp, he had yet to be cleared to return. Given the nature of the injury and the physical nature of the position, there are concerns not just about Carson's availability for camp, but for his career. Carroll said in June the two discussed those topics and said Carson is concerned "because he wants to play, and he loves the game. Carroll added "we're trying to fight that off," when it comes to the possibility that the injury could be career-ending.
If Carson is back, that obviously will provide a big boost to the offense and give Seattle the one-two punch of Carson and Penny that Carroll has long hoped to have on the field, but has rarely been able to deploy due to injuries to both players. In that scenario, it might be hard to get a lot of touches to those two and Walker on a game-to-game basis, but it's also worth remembering that running back depth is almost always tested over the course of a 17-game season, so having multiple starting-caliber options is crucial for a team that wants to lean heavily on its running game.
And if the neck injury delays Carson's return or prevents it from happening at all, then the re-signing of Penny and the selection of Walker will both end up being essential moves for Seattle's offense.
The Penny signing in particular is a move Carroll is excited about because of what Penny showed late last season. Injuries kept the former first-round pick from unleashing his full potential for much of his career, but when he got the chance to take over the starting role late last year, Penny showed he was capable of being one of the NFL's top running backs, rushing for a league-best 671 yards over the final five games of the season. During that stretch, Penny had eight runs of 25 or more yards, matching All-Pro Jonathan Taylor for the most such runs for the entire season, a total Taylor reached in 332 carries compared to 119 for Penny. Penny also averaged an NFL-leading 6.3 yards per carry last season, and his career average is now 5.6 yards per carry.
"I'm really excited about Rashaad coming back," Carroll said in March. "The way he played at the end of the football season last year just jumped off the film. I don't know how we were able to get him back—maybe because of his history—but he was one of the best players in league last year finishing up that football season. The explosiveness that he generated, and the toughness and the consistency that just was so dead obvious at the end of the year, it just made it like a huge element for us to get that. We had to get him back on our club. So that was one of the negotiations that I was most concerned about and tuned into, because I did not want to lose this opportunity that he had finally really kind of put it all together in a way that was so obvious. He was one of the best guys in the league. The guy we had drafted, that's what we had looked for."
The Seahawks hope to be answering the question of how to get enough touches for Penny, Carson, Walker and the rest of their backs in 2022, but if Carson isn't able to play or his return is delayed, they should still have plenty of talent available out of the backfield.