Both from a short and long-term perspective, the Seahawks find themselves mired in difficult circumstances at the running back position with seven games remaining in the 2021 regular season.
Long-time starter Chris Carson, who has been the engine that fuels Seattle's running game for the past four seasons, landed on injured reserve in October and will undergo season-ending neck surgery. While coach Pete Carroll sounded optimistic about his chances of making a full recovery and playing again, the nature of his injury puts his future beyond this season into question.
Meanwhile, former first-round pick Rashaad Penny, who has been as durable as a stained glass window in four years with the team, also looks poised to return to injured reserve for a second time. Having already been activated once after missing five games with a calf injury earlier in the year, if that happens, he likely has played his last game with the organization after four highly disappointing seasons.
But while the door will slam shut on Penny after countless chances to prove himself and may be closing on Carson after his latest injury, another door of opportunity now stands wide open for other backs on the roster. Among those ready to reap the benefits, undrafted rookie Josh Johnson may finally get his first crack at emerging as a potential backfield option for the team in 2022 and beyond.
Formerly starring at Louisiana Monroe, Johnson broke out as a junior for the Warhawks, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. The punishing 5-foot-9, 209-pound back earned First-Team All-Sun Belt honors and finished 13th in the nation in rushing yards, surfacing as one of the top runners in the entire country.
However, after opting against declaring for the NFL draft and returning to school for his senior season, Johnson wasn't able to replicate his production in 2020. Battling injuries as well as contracting the COVID-19 virus before the start of the season, he played in only eight games, rushing for 321 yards and only 3.6 yards per carry.
While he held out hope he would be selected despite a disappointing final collegiate season, Johnson told his agent that if he didn't hear his name called on draft weekend, he had one team in mind as a priority undrafted free agent.
"I told my agent like four months ago, I said 'man, I want to be a Seahawk,'" Johnson reflected back in May. "No matter how I work out, I want to be a Seahawk."
As fate would have it, Johnson's wish was quickly answered. Intrigued by his power and skill set, Seattle wasted little time signing the back after the seventh round concluded and within days, he was hitching a plane ride to the Pacific Northwest for his first NFL minicamp.
Once training camp opened in late July, Johnson was left fending for scraps with Carson, Penny, veteran Alex Collins, and second-year back DeeJay Dallas in front of him on the depth chart. Opportunities to impress on the practice field were few and far between, but when he had a chance to play in the preseason, he performed well despite having suspect blocking from third and fourth-string offensive linemen in front of him.
Statistically, Johnson averaged just 3.2 yards per carry while receiving the rock 23 times in a trio of exhibition contests. But that metric alone doesn't tell the entire story. Per Pro Football Focus, a whopping 68 of his 74 rushing yards came after contact, as he consistently got hit in the backfield and managed to turn negative plays into short gains with little to work with in front of him.
With the caveat being that preseason games pale in comparison to the regular season, that ability to turn nothing into something on the ground would be welcomed by the Seahawks, who have missed Carson's physicality between the tackles. Per PFF, Collins ranks 42nd in yards after contact per carry out of 59 qualified backs with at least 43 carries this year. Penny averaged a poor 1.76 yards after contact per carry, which easily would have been dead-last in the NFL.
As coach Pete Carroll referenced on Friday, despite rarely being used as a receiver out of the backfield in college with 183 receiving yards in 26 games, Johnson also showcased reliable hands throughout camp and the preseason. He caught all four targets thrown to him in exhibition play, amassing 24 yards on those pass-catching opportunities while performing well in pass protection, displaying the tools to possibly be used in third down situations.
"He’s been a real attack kind of guy," Carroll said. "He hits the line of scrimmage really hard. If you remember from preseason, the few chances he got, he catches the ball really well, one of the best catchers that we have. He’s a physical kid, low to the ground a little bit, a little lower makeup than some of the guys, but he has a really physical style to him that we like.”
Although Johnson wasn't able to crack Seattle's deep running back rotation out of camp and was subsequently released during final cuts, he performed well enough to warrant his return as a member of the practice squad for further development. Since then, he's been biding his time, working diligently on his craft on the practice field waiting for his chance to make his NFL debut.
Now, with Collins and Dallas as the lone healthy backs on the roster, assuming he receives an elevation from the practice squad, Johnson will finally get that opportunity. It remains to be seen how much he will play on offense - he certainly will see action on special teams - but regardless of how many snaps he receives, at a position lacking certainty beyond this season, the next several weeks will provide him with an extended audition for a roster spot in 2022.