INDIANAPOLIS - Thanks to the rise of analytics in football, the running back position has been devalued over the past decade. The backfiring of recent lucrative extensions handed to star ball carriers has brought legitimacy to the argument.
None of the top four highest-paid running backs in the NFL logged a single carry in the playoffs in January, and while Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 1,357 yards, none of the other three backs making more than $10 million per year hit the century mark. David Johnson was benched by the Cardinals, Todd Gurley received a diminished workload due to knee issues, and LeVeon Bell made a minimal impact for the Jets.
This isn't to say running backs aren't important - the NFL's leading rusher, Derrick Henry, lead the Titans on an improbable run to the AFC Championship Game - but evidence continues to mount that paying a back top dollar on a second contract isn't typically a prudent move for an NFL franchise. Fewer teams are investing high draft picks at the position as well.
With that in mind, running back may be a greater priority for the Seahawks than most realize. In fact, nobody should be shocked about the possibility they could use an early pick to address the position, and there's some irony to that development.
Just two years ago, general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll used a first-round pick on Rashaad Penny with expectations he could eventually be the team's feature back. Choosing him with the No. 27 overall selection, the pick drew criticism from plenty of draft pundits and fans alike.
Struggling much of his career thus far, Penny hasn't even rushed for 800 combined yards during his first two seasons. After being one of the healthiest backs in college football at San Diego State, he's battled multiple injuries in Seattle. Most recently, he tore his ACL in December and may be a PUP list candidate in July.
Along with Penny, starter Chris Carson also suffered a season-ending injury, a cracked hip, and hasn't resumed working out yet. He's expected to be ready for training camp, but the Seahawks will have to figure out how they want to proceed with him entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Recent extensions for Gurley, Johnson, and even the productive Elliott serve as cautionary warnings the Seahawks shouldn't take lightly. Carson has dealt with durability issues throughout his football career, and though he's surpassed the 1,100 yard mark each of the past two seasons, signing him to an extension would be risky.
Carson's uncertain future, plus Penny's health coupled with middling production, suggests Seattle would be wise to invest a draft choice in a back at some point. Now, the million dollar question is - with so many other positions of need - how early will the team be looking for backfield reinforcements?
By conventional wisdom, considering Carson and Penny are both expected to return to full health and Travis Homer will be coming back after a promising end to his rookie season, it would seem the Seahawks best option would be to wait until day three for an insurance back.
Speaking with Carroll off podium, the 68-year old coach seems to be of that mindset, believing adding depth is the most important thing for Seattle at this time.
"We have to make sure that we have enough depth. Chris should be absolutely fine. We won’t overdue it with him, he’s had two great back-to-back seasons. We’re going to take care of him throughout all the way to game time when it comes up, so that means we’ve got some spots available for guys to compete for, so we’ll see how that goes.”
But as the Penny pick attests, Carroll and Schneider don't always operate conventionally. Looking forward beyond the upcoming season always factors into Seattle's draft weekend choices, and if they fall in love with a back, it's not out of the question they could draft one in the first three rounds.
While it can be chalked up to simply doing due diligence, Seattle has already conducted formal meetings with Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin, AJ Dillon of Boston College and Zack Moss of Utah at the combine. All three of those players have a great chance to be selected in the first 96 picks. At minimum, they're exploring their possibilities with now and the future under consideration.
Taylor, who rushed for over 6,000 yards for the Badgers, seems most unlikely to land in Seattle, as his sub-4.40 40-yard dash on Friday could cement his status as a first-round pick. However, he expressed interest in playing with another former Badger in Russell Wilson and at 228 pounds, he's right in the team's wheelhouse from a size and athleticism standpoint.
As for Dillon, the Seahawks typically don't go for 247-pound backs, but he checks off every other box as a powerful, between-the-tackles runner with outstanding speed and explosiveness for his size. By running his 40-yard dash at 4.53 seconds, he made himself some money in Indianapolis and may find his way into the second or third round.
A physical runner with a wide gait and the ability to make defenders miss in space, Moss has conjured up comparisons to Marshawn Lynch, which will obviously peak Seattle's interest. He didn't run quite as well at the combine as expected, but his game film speaks for itself and he's likely a day two pick as well.
Schneider made it clear multiple times on Tuesday that fixing the Seahawks' pass rush remains critical. The team also has several offensive linemen hitting free agency and this year's draft class features talent, deep groups of tackles and centers. Whether through the draft or free agency, those two concerns need to be addressed first and foremost above everything else.
But much to the chagrin of the anti-running back crowd, Schneider and Carroll won't hesitate to take a talented back with one of their first four picks in April and nobody should be surprised when/if it happens.