Analysis: Plenty of Options Remain If Seahawks Desire Third Down Running Back

Following the Seahawks' reported interest in new Buccaneers running back Giovani Bernard, Ty Dane Gonzalez analyzes Seattle's group of running backs and which free agents could help fill a third down role with the team.
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With eyes set on emphasizing the run game more in 2021, the Seahawks have put in quite a bit of work to keep their running back corps fairly intact. Once expected to go running back by committee this fall, they were surprisingly able to keep their lead back, Chris Carson, in the Pacific Northwest, and also retained Alex Collins following his impressive - yet small - sample size in 2020.

Those two reunite with a young - yet experienced - three-man group of Rashaad Penny, Travis Homer, and DeeJay Dallas, giving them a total of five backs with legitimate game action under their belts. All have their flaws and concerns, specifically Penny in the last year of his rookie contract—his first full season since tearing his ACL. But the Seahawks, overall, are in a much better spot at the position than many could have predicted prior to free agency.

Still, there is one common flaw the four backs behind Carson share: none of them are perfect fits for a third down role. While each has their own unique traits from a change-of-pace standpoint, none have jumped out in front of the pack as Seattle's de facto third down back. 

Homer's the best pass blocker of the four, but he's offered little in the run and pass game. Collins had some production as a pass catcher in his time with the Ravens, but he's historically struggled in pass protection. Penny is more comfortable on early downs when the quarterback is under center and should be a nice fit for a Rams-esque wide zone scheme under new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, but he's not going to be the Seahawks' answer on third down. Dallas is their most balanced in-house option, but he didn't provide much upside as a pure runner in his rookie season. 

Carson is the best fit for the job, but one of the purposes of a third down back is to give your lead ball carrier - if you have one - a breather, which is critical for someone with the injury history of the Oklahoma State product. Although the Seahawks should be able to put forth one of the better running games in the NFL this season, it's become clear they're still looking to upgrade the unit with a true third down option given their recent interest in an ideal fit for the mold. 

Per ESPN's Jenna Laine, the Seahawks were one of three teams in pursuit of Giovani Bernard, who was recently released by the Bengals upon his request. However, Seattle was left empty-handed after the nine-year veteran opted to sign with the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. 

With Bernard now off the board, a new question presents itself: does Seattle turn elsewhere or is this where its search comes to an end? It's possible Bernard was an exception to its situation rather than an indication of an overall interest, but he perfectly fit such a specific need—one that is hard to ignore given the incomplete third down profiles of each of the Seahawks' four backup ball carriers. 

Bernard would have been a nice get for them. He's the model third down back, racking up 2,867 yards on 342 receptions in his career, all while being able to run the ball effectively on limited carries and register as one of the game's best pass protectors out of the running back position. 

Of the backs left on the free agent market, none carry a skillset as balanced as Bernard's. Some offer higher upside in the pass or run game, but that doesn't appear to be what the Seahawks were necessarily looking for here. That said; if they're purely looking for an upgrade over the likes of Dallas, Homer, and Collins to fill this third down role, there are quite a few options to mull over. 

Le'Veon Bell

Le'Veon Bell is the most recognizable name available and will surely be a popular option amongst Seahawks fans. While his career has flown relatively under the radar following his well-documented exit from Pittsburgh, he still put up decent numbers in an unideal situation with the Jets and as a rotational back for the Chiefs over the last two seasons. Bell had just 82 carries in 2020 but made the most of his limited opportunities, logging 328 yards for an average of 4.0 per attempt. He's been a willing and capable blocker for most of his career and can still be effective as a receiver as well, making him the closest thing to Bernard the Seahawks can find at this stage.

Jerick McKinnon

After missing two full seasons with knee issues derived from a torn ACL, Jerick McKinnon finally made his debut for the 49ers in 2020. With all the injuries to San Francisco's backfield throughout the season, McKinnon got a chance to shine and appeared every bit the player he was for the Vikings. Playing in all 16 games, he posted 319 yards rushing and 253 receiving on 33 catches for a total of six touchdowns. While he graded out poorly as a pass blocker by Pro Football Focus's metrics last season (34.8), he did fare a lot better in his days with Minnesota and could be at least average there now that he's fully back in the swing of things. 

Duke Johnson

Forcing his way out of Cleveland, Duke Johnson didn't see the increase in opportunities he was hoping to find elsewhere once he landed with the Texans. However, it wasn't by any fault of his own—at least not in 2019, when he averaged 6.5 yards per touch for a grand total of 820 yards from scrimmage. The next season didn't yield similar successes, but that was, understandably, the case for many Houston players in 2020. Johnson's an underrated, well-balanced back with a ton of third down upside and would be a nice fit in Seattle.

Other free agent options: DeAndre Washington, T.J. Yeldon, Wayne Gallman, Corey Clement

Potential draft targets: Khalil Herbert, Kylin Hill, Demetric Felton, Larry Rountree III, Elijah Mitchell