Following a long offseason - okay, compared to the nightmare that was 2020, the past several months have been a breeze - the Seahawks will officially usher in the 2021 season by reporting to training camp on July 27.
Continuing our camp preview series, here's a close look at the state of the running back position, including the depth chart, a key question that must be answered, and a bold prediction for the upcoming season.
2020 In Review
With the Seahawks fully embracing the "Let Russ Cook" movement in the first two months of the season, the team didn't rely on running the football as they had done for the past decade under coach Pete Carroll. Due to a decreased workload, Carson rushed for only 681 yards, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2017. In addition, Carson and fellow veteran Carlos Hyde battled injury issues throughout the season and the duo missed a combined 10 regular season games, while Penny missed 13 games recovering from his ACL tear. Helping pick up the slack, fourth-round pick DeeJay Dallas rushed for 108 yards and scored three touchdowns while starting a pair of games, while Alex Collins returned to action after sitting out the 2019 season to chip in 77 rushing yards and a pair of scores in three games.
With limited draft capital and salary cap space, the Seahawks didn't add any running backs until signing rookie Josh Johnson as a priority undrafted free agent in May, though the team was linked to veteran Gio Bernard before he signed with the Buccaneers. The team instead chose to retain their own players by re-signing Carson and Collins, who will compete for a roster spot against Dallas, Homer, and Johnson.
Starter: Chris Carson
Hampered again by injuries, Carson logged 137 less carries than he did in 2019, but in many ways, his fourth season in Seattle still proved to be a success. The bruising runner averaged a career-best 4.8 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns on the ground while also scoring a career-high four touchdowns as a receiver out of the backfield. Playing in coordinator Shane Waldron's offense with a new contract in tow, he may have even more opportunities to contribute in the passing game while returning to his bell cow role as a runner.
Reserves: Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, Alex Collins, Josh Johnson
Missing nearly the entire season as he rehabilitated his surgically-repaired knee, Penny rushed for less than 40 yards in three games in 2020 and enters the final year of his rookie contract with much left to prove. Before tearing his ACL, the ex-San Diego State star looked to be on the verge of breaking out, but nearly two years later, he will be playing for his NFL future in 2021 and the explosive ball carrier will have to show he can finally stay healthy as a complement to Carson.
Like Carson, Homer was dogged by injuries in his sophomore season, dressing for only nine games before eventually landing on injured reserve. His absence opened the door for Dallas to play significant snaps in the middle of the season, including starting a pair of games, before an ankle injury of his own ended his season. Both former Miami Hurricanes will be back in action in their third and second seasons respectively.
After dwelling most of last season on the practice squad, Collins earned a new one-year contract based on his stellar play in three games a year ago. The former Ravens starter could be an unexpected contender to push Penny for the No. 2 role, while the hard-nosed Johnson has enough talent to give Dallas and Homer a run for their money battling for a final roster spot.
Who will emerge as Seattle's primary third down running back?
Many expected Carson would depart in free agency, but a diminished salary cap league-wide hurt his market substantially and he wound up re-signing with the Seahawks on a two-year deal. If healthy, Penny should be the heavy favorite to return to the change-of-pace role, giving the team a dynamic one-two punch with contrasting skill sets.
But behind those two, a wide open competition for the third down gig should play out in August. In regard to pass protection, Homer holds the edge, as that may be the best aspect of his game. Being a former receiver, Dallas has the advantage in the passing game and can motion all over the formation, creating great flexibility for the play caller. Collins has shown notable improvements in both areas, while Johnson flashed pass catching ability in OTAs despite not being used much as a receiver in college at Louisiana Monroe. All four players, plus Penny, could have a shot at winning the job with a strong camp and preseason. On the flip side, whichever player struggles the most in this capacity may be on the outside looking in come roster cutdown day.
Carson and Penny will rush for 1,750 yards and score a combined 14 offensive touchdowns.
Aside from a trio of games late last season, it's been quite some time since Carson and Penny were both healthy at the same time. Even in December, Penny wasn't quite himself as he tried to get back into a rhythm coming off a long recovery process. The Seahawks should be cautiously optimistic that both players can return to the top of their game, providing far greater offensive balance than they had for most of the 2020 season. Carson will once again serve as Seattle's battering ram who plows through defenders between the tackles and powers forward for extra yardage, while Penny's extra gear makes him a legit home run threat any time he touches the football and he should thrive in Waldron's scheme with a greater emphasis on wide zone concepts. Both players should also be expected to be featured more extensively in the passing game than prior seasons and as long as they can stay on the field, they should be able to rack up big yardage totals and find the end zone frequently.