When the Seahawks drafted San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny in the first round of the 2018 draft, many experts and fans balked at the choice. However, it wasn't because Penny was an underperforming college product, as he filled the stat sheet for the Aztecs like one can do on 'easy' mode on a now out-of-date version of the NCAA Football video game.
He finished fifth in Heisman voting for the 2017 college season after racking up almost 2,400 yards from scrimmage and an eye-popping 25 touchdowns. Between rushing, receiving and returning kicks, Penny amassed 6,584 yards and 47 touchdowns over his four years for SDSU. For Aztecs fans, he called to memory another former SDSU great, Pro Football Hall of Famer, Marshall Faulk.
Unfortunately, Penny has not come close to duplicating that success in the NFL for the Seahawks. Some of the disappointment is outside of his control, as he has suffered numerous injuries that have limited him to just 27 of a possible 48 regular season games over three seasons.
Another reason for the disappointing start to his career is that former seventh round pick Chris Carson has just been flat-out better than Penny. After having his rookie year in 2017 cut short by injuries, Carson took off like a rocket in 2018, the same season Penny was competing with him for snaps as a rookie. Carson accumulated 1,151 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, becoming Seattle's first 1,000-yard rusher in four seasons.
From then on, Penny has been in Carson's shadow. And he's going to have a difficult time crawling out from under it.
Carson is back in Seattle on a new two-year deal signed in March. Penny is entering his final season of his rookie contract and the Seahawks declined his fifth-year option. As has been the case throughout his time with the franchise, a lot stands in the way of Penny realizing his potential as a former first round pick.
Fair or unfair, Penny will be compared to other running backs in his same draft class. Three running backs were still on the board when Seattle selected Penny that went on to be selected in the next 11 picks.
The Patriots selected Sony Michel 31st overall and he promptly put together back-to-back 900-plus rushing yard seasons. Nick Chubb was picked up by the Browns early in the second round and now has two Pro Bowl selections to his name and is one of the best running backs in the NFL. Ronald Jones II was selected 38th overall by the Buccaneers and helped them win the Super Bowl in 2020 with 978 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Compared to these three backs that quickly went off the board after Penny, the former Aztec has been nothing short of a massive disappointment, with a career high of 419 yards, in his rookie year. He is also yet to start a single game in three seasons.
What does Penny have to do in 2021 to shed the label of "bust?" A better question might be - is it too late?
Frankly, without an injury to Carson ahead of him in the depth chart, it may be next to impossible. Seahawks fans likely have already signed, sealed, and delivered their final thoughts on Penny ahead of his fourth season, especially given the fact he's recovering from yet another procedure on his left knee according to coach Pete Carroll.
“Every year is important, and this one is for him for sure, with as much time as he missed last year,” Carroll said following Tuesday's minicamp practice. “He had a serious knee injury. Sometimes it just takes [a second] year to get back. Just the cleanup stuff and what he’s ready to take on right now, he can run full speed. We just want to make sure that his strength is balanced out in his quads. There’s no reason for us to take a chance right now [and we get him] in a bad situation."
"His attitude is great. His mentality is great, and yeah, it is [a big year] for every guy every year. It is ridiculously important to us and value and all of that and, and certainly it is for Rashaad.”
If Carson is healthy, he will be the feature back in Shane Waldron's offense in 2021. He has earned it, with at least 1,100 yards in two of the last three seasons. And it's not just Carson that Penny needs to worry about on the depth chart either. DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, and Alex Collins would like a slice of the pie as well. Penny will need to earn every bit of his playing time and he's going to get pushed for snaps.
In the unfortunate event that Carson does get injured, Penny will need to hit the ground running and prove he can actually stay healthy, something he's been unable to do since entering the NFL. The 25-year old will need to be instrumental in several big wins for Seattle in 2021 for the public opinion to shift, and even that might not be enough.
If Carson remains healthy, Penny will need to become a lethal sidekick. Several successful teams deploy a stable of running backs to carry the load in today's game. The Ravens have had two running backs with at least 700 rushing yards each, two seasons in a row. Chubb and Kareem Hunt both had at least 840 rushing yards last season for Cleveland.
Penny will need to put together a strong season, even as a companion to Carson. The examples are there, as mentioned, and he has shown flashes of being able to do that. Before tearing his ACL in 2019, he ran for a career-high 129 yards against the Eagles and followed up with over 100 all-purpose yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Vikings.
Expecting Penny to be healthy by training camp, Carroll remains confident in the former Aztecs star as he heads into a critical year in his career. Anything short of a 700-yard season will be another massive disappointment for the former first round pick. If Carson goes down, he will be expected to play at a near Pro Bowl level, like a first-round running back should.
Already carrying the "bust" label after three years of underperformance and injuries, it will take a monumental effort in 2021 to be rid of it. Based on the latest news, he's not off to a promising start.