RENTON, WA - The Seahawks have an unfortunate history with the top of their recent draft classes. Each of their first selections in the last four drafts have either headed into training camp with an injury or suffered one prior to the start of the regular season. That doesn't even include 2021 second round selection D'Wayne Eskridge—the Seahawks' No. 1 pick in April—who landed on the physically unable to perform list with a big toe injury yesterday.
Of that group of now five, running back Rashaad Penny stands out quite a bit. The 2018 first-rounder—whose selection was met with a great deal of skepticism—had to undergo hand surgery during the preseason of his rookie year, derailing the start of his NFL career and putting him at a disadvantage in a competition for snaps with Chris Carson.
Upon his return, he only carried the ball 85 times, but for a solid 419 yards—or 4.9 yards per carry—and two touchdowns. The next season, he found his niche in a rotational role with the eventual 1,200-yard rusher Carson, averaging 5.7 yards per carry before tearing his ACL in a Sunday night matchup against the Rams in Los Angeles.
Given that the injury occurred in December of 2019, the San Diego State product's rehab lasted deep into the 2020 campaign. Finally, after 377 days off the field, Penny made his return versus the Washington Football Team in Week 15. However, with Carson and veteran Carlos Hyde ahead of him, the Seahawks eased him back into the swing of things and only gave him 11 carries over the final three games of the year for a grand total of 34 yards.
"I felt great," Penny explained, reflecting back on 2020. "I mean, you know, it was just one of those things where it was tough to play because we had two good running backs: Carlos and Chris. So it's hard to get in the rhythm and get back into where I was before when the reps and the opportunities wasn't there. But then again, I just play the role of being supportive and being available. That's one of the biggest things I've definitely worked on this offseason."
Now in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract after the Seahawks declined to pick up his fifth-year option in May, Penny is hoping to get his career back on track. And with Hyde departing for Jacksonville in free agency, he's set to directly back up Carson once again.
This past spring, Penny missed OTAs after undergoing a minor procedure on his rehabbed knee. However, he says he could have participated at the time and feels great about where his body is going into training camp.
"It was nothing bigger than what it was my first time," Penny said of the procedure. "I mean, it was just something to clean out my knee. I mean, just so I can feel better coming into this year. I could have went in OTAs a little bit, but [the Seahawks] chose the smart side and just waited until I got into training camp. I feel 100 [percent]."
Penny says he currently weighs 223 pounds, the closest he's been to his weigh-in at the NFL combine in 2018 when he came in at 220.
"I mean, this is the lightest I've been," Penny stated. "I feel very explosive. I honestly feel like I'm back in high school again. Like, I feel way faster. ... I felt the lighter I am, the more explosive I could be."
Looking towards 2021, Penny is excited by what new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron brings to the table. In a scheme that Carson referred to as a "dream come true" for the Seahawks' running back room, Penny pulled back the curtain a little on what the team's run game will look like and what his role will consist of.
"I think it's everything I've done in college," Penny revealed. "I mean, it's the same exact playbook. It's nothing different than what I did. You know, I love perimeter game. They love to get me on the outside, so I mean that's what the majority of this playbook is. Then they'll open up the pass game, you know, with the talent receivers that we have and trying to create a one-two punch with Chris. ... I think it fits me very well."
When free agency began in March, it was thought to be highly unlikely that one-two punch could be formed with Carson hitting the market. That put Penny in line to possibly start for the Seahawks, but after Carson's market developed in an unexpected fashion, the team retained their No. 1 back on a two-year, $14.6 million deal.
"I mean, I was begging him to come back actually," Penny spoke of Carson. "I've said it before: a lot of people take it as I'm supposed to hate him. I mean, I love that dude, man. He took me in on my first day when I got here. And, you know, it's a big competition thing and that's how we see it. Like today, we finish runs and we always compete against each other. But at the end of the day, we sit and talk about in the locker room saying like, 'You got me here' or 'You got me there.'"
In preparation for a potentially career-defining season, Penny is looking to build upon the lessons he learned throughout his rehab and return last year.
"I mean, when you go through, like, a big injury—year-long injury—you start doing a lot of self-reflecting. So that's what kinda I did. I told myself I need to change my body type, I need to be more of a student of the game because I knew I wasn't going to be available as I thought I was. But, you know, I thought last year was a big learning curve for me. I mean, I got to learn more about the playbook, more about being a runner. I actually studied Carlos more than I've ever done. ... Of course, having Chris here definitely helped me out a lot."
Being able to take part in football activities over the course of the summer, Penny looks back on his offseason fondly. He feels confident in the stability of his knee, confident in his grasp of Waldron's system and confident in his ability to correct course.
Retooled and refined, Penny is determined to prove his detractors wrong in 2021.