Analysis: Who Wins Seahawks Third Down Running Back Role?

Back on a two-year deal, Chris Carson will return as Seattle's bell cow back. But behind him and Rashaad Penny, an intense battle awaits between a trio of players to earn the ever-so-important third down back role. Who holds the advantage heading into camp?
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Before the new NFL league year officially opened in March, the Seahawks looked poised to undergo substantial changes at the running back position. Both of the team's top two backs from 2020 - Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde - were slated to become unrestricted free agents. Facing a tight salary cap with numerous needs to fill across the roster, many expected both players to depart for other teams once free agency opened.

But while Hyde did indeed leave to sign with the Jaguars, Carson's market never formalized as the two-time 1,000-yard rusher and his representatives hoped. With the salary cap plunging to $182.5 million per team, no position group was more negatively impacted than running back and the former Oklahoma State star didn't receive the offers anticipated.

As a result, the Seahawks unexpectedly remained in the mix to retain and without a better opportunity arising, Carson signed a two-year deal worth up to $14.625 million to stay in the Pacific Northwest. After signing the dotted line, the 26-year old runner will return to his spot atop at the depth chart as the team's "bell cow" back and should be in line for a large workload once again.

In today's NFL, however, teams need more than one quality running back and specialization and versatility at the position have become key in modern offenses. Most notably, every team needs to have at least one quality third down back who excels in pass protection while also offering reliable hands and route running skills as a receiving option.

Luckily for Seattle, with camp set to open at the VMAC next week, the team has several capable backs vying for third down responsibilities, including recent draft choices Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas and veteran Alex Collins. Which player holds the edge with camp on the horizon? Let's take a deep dive into the competition.

The Case For Travis Homer

Entering his third season with the Seahawks, Homer has lived up to his reputation coming out of Miami as a superb pass protector, which gives him a substantial edge in this positional battle. He's a master at identifying the blitz and executing his assignments, whether he moves up to take a linebacker shooting the A-gap or taking on a massive unblocked defensive end flying off the edge. Dating back to his rookie year, he has made a few plays out of the backfield as a receiver as well, catching 20 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown.

But aside from remaining stellar in pass pro, Homer struggled mightily last year in limited playing time and at under 205 pounds, he's a bit small for running between the tackles and hasn't shown much as a ball carrier. On 24 carries in 2020, he rushed for only 88 yards and a paltry 3.5 yards per tote. In his defense, he wasn't helped much last year due to the predictability of Seattle handing it off to him when he checked into games. Defenses seemed to always know what was coming and ganged up on him on designed outside runs and sweeps. After missing the final seven games with a knee injury and dealing with other ailments earlier in the year, durability remains a question mark and he will need a strong preseason as a runner and pass catcher to re-secure this job.

The Case For DeeJay Dallas

Built with a short, thick 5-foot-10, 217-pound frame, Dallas has a different skill set than you'd expect. He has soft, reliable hands and is a skilled route runner due to his prior background playing receiver at Miami and as the team did with him frequently last year, he can be motioned from the backfield out to the slot or outside in a pinch. Russell Wilson targeted him often during training camp and once he had his opportunity to start a pair of games in place of an injured Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde, he was a focal point in the passing game, catching 17 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown on just 146 total offensive snaps. Surprisingly, Dallas has some wiggle in open field to make defenders miss and like Homer, he's a sound special teams player as well and recorded a pair of tackles as a rookie.

Despite his versatility, however, Dallas underwhelmed as a runner in his limited action, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry and failing to exhibit the burst necessary to consistently break big runs. He also struggled much more than expected in pass protection, which had been a strength for him at the college level. He botched a couple of assignments in an overtime loss at Arizona in Week 7 and unfortunately, an ankle injury ended his season prematurely and he didn't get many chances in the second half to redeem himself. He will need to show tangible improvements in that aspect of his game to earn the third down role.

The Case For Alex Collins

When Collins first broke into the league as a fifth-round pick for the Seahawks in 2016, he wasn't known for his receiving or pass blocking skills. A traditional workhorse back at Arkansas, he became only the third back in SEC history to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first three years on campus. But during that span, he was rarely involved in the passing game, catching only 27 passes for 167 yards in 38 games. But late in his rookie season with Seattle, Collins did see a handful of snaps playing a defacto third down role and ended up catching 11 passes on only 141 offensive snaps, proving he could be involved in the passing game. The following year with the Ravens, while also nearly hitting 1,000 yards rushing, he caught 23 passes for 187 yards.

After being out of the league entirely in 2019, based on how he looked in limited snaps a year ago and during OTA/minicamp sessions, Collins has worked tirelessly to improve his craft in all facets and he's motivated to carve out a bigger role in 2021. He ran angry when given the opportunity last fall, scoring a pair of touchdowns and averaging 4.3 yards per carry in three games. His vision, physicality, and quickness make him an ideal insurance option behind Carson and Rashaad Penny. The big question will be whether or not he can display enough improvements in pass protection to truly push Homer or Dallas for third down duties.

Final Verdict

While Carson and Penny - if healthy - will see the majority of snaps out of the backfield for the Seahawks in 2021, the importance of the third down back cannot be understated, particularly with a new coordinator in Shane Waldron who likely will utilize backs more in the passing game. For that reason, while Homer is the most proficient pass protecting back on the depth chart, Dallas' past experience as a receiver and ability to run between the tackles give him the inside track to earn this job. It's not out of the realm of possibility Homer and Dallas share the third down role in a similar fashion to last season either, depending how both perform in training camp. But the presence of Collins, who offers superior talents as a runner and impressed the coaching staff making his comeback, may force the team to have to pick between the two former Miami teammates for a single roster spot. This race could ultimately boil down to special teams contributions and go down to the final preseason game.