Marshawn Lynch’s replacements: A look at Seattle’s current RB situation
RENTON, Wash. — There’s a scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane and his scouts are discussing how to replace the offensive output of Jason Giambi, who had left the low-market A’s for the standard big-money contract from the Yankees. When one of his scouts spouts off on the level of production Giambi had that the team had to now replace, Beane (played by Brad Pitt) shut him down.
“We can’t do it,” Pitt-as-Beane said. “What we might be able to do is recreate him in the aggregate.”
Beane then went through the motions to replace an irreplaceable player. In Oakland, the team used new-level sabermetrics and good old-fashioned luck. In Seattle, where the Seahawks are deep into a quest to replace Marshawn Lynch, the team appears to be going down a more traditional path: volume, volume, volume.
To supplant the retired back who gained 6,347 regular-season and 937 postseason rushing yards and became the beating heart of the franchise during his time in Seattle, the team is bringing in a whole bunch of new blood—some backs who bear a resemblance to Lynch’s bruising style, and others who could take this offense in new directions.
The established back is Thomas Rawls, the undrafted phenomenon who came out of nowhere (well, Central Michigan) last season and led the league with 5.6 yards per carry after Lynch went down with injuries. Rawls successfully mimicked Lynch’s style and add a few wrinkles of his own, gaining 830 yards and scoring four touchdowns on just 147 carries and seven starts. However, he suffered a broken ankle against the Ravens in mid-December, and the hope is that he’ll be ready for the regular season. Former second-round pick Christine Michael then found himself as the main man through Seattle’s playoff push, and he’s more of an outside slasher—without a power back, Seattle’s offense was dependent more than ever on Russell Wilson’s auspices. Fortunately, Wilson was on a ridiculous streak at the time, but the franchise knew the importance of stocking the roster with new talent at the running back position.
This they did in the draft, and the spectrum of skill is pretty interesting.
The do-it-all guy: C.J. Prosise
Of all the backs the Seahawks drafted in 2016, none seemed to bring as much interest from coaches for his versatility than Prosise, the former receiver and safety who moved to running back full-time in ’15 and rushed for 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 157 carries. He added 26 catches for 308 yards and a touchdown, breaking a total of 43 tackles along the way. At 6' 0" and 220 pounds, he’s the biggest back of the three draft picks and the biggest on the roster now, but he’s more than just a power guy.
“He can run the routes; he can do everything that a wide receiver does,” Pete Carroll said soon after the Notre Dame alum was selected with the No. 90 pick. “They moved him to running back and I think surprised everybody. ... He’s a break-away, big-speed, big-time running back, as well as a catcher. We’ve had our eye on him throughout, we hoped we could get him because we have a very special role that we want to put him in. We’ll just let him go from there.”
Prosise projects best as the team’s third-down back, replacing Fred Jackson, though there’s still some work to be done. The little things that make running backs great are things he’s still learning -- how to speed through the hole with perfect timing and balance aggression and patience. At times, he’s too hesitant at the line and will get swallowed up, but he can also use his impressive athleticism and route understanding to establish his place in an offense that will have to become more diverse to maintain success without Lynch’s presence. The Fighting Irish lined Prosise up everywhere from the backfield to slot to wideout, and he was productive in all aspects.
The throwback: Alex Collins
Collins doesn’t have Prosise’s versatility, but he doesn’t need it for this team, because he’s already turning heads with a violent, aggressive running style that does, at times, bring Lynch to mind. With Prosise dealing with minor injuries through OTAs, Collins has taken most of the second-team reps, and though there’s no tackling, this is a player who has no doubts about his ability to speed through the line and into the open field.
He didn’t have any doubts at Arkansas, either. A five-star recruit out of high school, he became the third player in SEC history after Herschel Walker and Darren McFadden to gain more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons, and the first true freshman since Adrian Peterson to start his collegiate career with three straight 100-yard games. Still, he wasn’t a starter until 2015, when he proved the validity of the promotion with 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns on 271 carries. There are drawbacks to his persistent running style—he fumbled 16 times at Arkansas—but he’s bringing the same hard edge to Seattle that was evident on his college tape.
Another plus, given Seattle’s desperate need for consistent blocking, is the fact that Collins was the only player in the 2016 draft class to have more blocking snaps than routes run, according to Pro Football Focus. He did allow 10 total pressures, but no back had more than his 150 blocking opportunities. The current Seahawks organization have landed on a lot of third-day stars, and Collins looks like he could be another.
“Collins is just a physical runner who’s run the ball a lot,” said Russell Wilson recently. “He played at Arkansas, ran the ball, physical, has been in that type of offense running the ball downhill. He’s never really caught the ball before, in terms of college and all that, but he’s got great hands.”
Seattle’s already prepping Collins for a more versatile role with route concepts, and he’s responded positively on the practice field. When the preseason rolls around, this kid is one to watch, and don’t be surprised if he scales the depth chart rather quickly when given the opportunity in real time.
The unknown: Zac Brooks
Brooks, who was Seattle’s final pick in the 2016 draft, ran for just 607 yards on 116 carries in his collegiate career, missing the entire 2014 season with a broken foot. When he returned, he had been usurped by Wayne Gallman, and quarterback Deshaun Watson took a lot of the rest of the rushing reps with his dynamic style. Still, when you watch his snaps in the Tigers’ BCS Championship loss to Alabama in January, it’s easy to see a quick, slashing running style that fits well in a power zone blocking system like the Seahawks use.
“I’m a very versatile back,” said Brooks said after he was drafted. “I have great hands coming out of the backfield. I’m a downhill runner when I do get the ball. I think north/south is the best way. I’m a first down type of back, I go for the first down, I go for the touchdown. I feel like I’m able to go out and play slot receiver if I’m needed to, because I have a wide receiver background coming out of high school.”
Like Prosise, Brooks lined up all around the field, and he proved that there’s potential there. With this packed group, it’s going to be tough to stand out, but he’ll certainly get his opportunities. As Seattle GM John Schneider said about Brooks, “When you’re a runner, and you know you might not get that opportunity to carry it again, you’re going to let it rip, and he did that.”
So, the Seahawks’ running back situation has turned into a complete toss-up overnight. Adding to the drama is the fact that once again, offensive line coach Tom Cable is playing mix-and-match with a front five in which not one player will start at the position he started last season. Part of Cable’s job is also to align the new backs with a scheme that everyone seems to be learning at the same time.
“There’s a system in place here, and a way it’s got to be read,” Cable says. “You coach ’em all, and that’s what we do. I wish C.J. was out here, but Alex is showing us some really good stuff every day. But they all look like they can give something to this football team, and I think we’ll be really deep there. It’s pretty exciting.”
Exciting? Maybe. New? To be sure. A bargain-basement line worked with Lynch and Rawls (and Wilson) running the ball, but will that carry over with the new kids? A great deal of the NFC’s power balance could rely on the answer.