RENTON, WA - When it comes to assessing his all-around game, Seahawks running back Chris Carson isn't lacking in the confidence department.
Kicking off his fifth NFL training camp and the first since he signed a new two-year deal in March, the bruising two-time 1,000-yard runner views himself as a do-it-all three down back. He's especially bullish on his skills as a receiver out of the backfield and isn't shy when it comes to letting you know where he stacks up compared to his teammates as a pass catcher.
"I've got the best hands on the team," Carson proclaimed following the conclusion of Wednesday's practice. "I tell everybody that."
While Carson smiled and admitted "everybody" on the team would disagree with that statement, most notably All-Pro receiver DK Metcalf, the veteran has been a reliable weapon in the passing game since arriving as an unknown seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2017. In all four of his prior seasons, he has posted a catch rate north of 78 percent, and on three different occasions, he caught at least 80 percent of his targets. Although he has yet to top 300 receiving yards in a season, even after missing four games due to injury, he caught a career-high four touchdown passes in 2020, continuing to improve his craft as a receiver.
It's commonplace for NFL players to be in the best shape of their life when they report for training camp in late July. Players aren't going to be bad-mouthing their offensive or defensive coordinators either and everyone loves the system they are playing in this time of year. Reporters have to be able to determine what is reality and and what is fictional idealism, as body language and tone have to be accounted for when analyzing the veracity of such statements made by coaches and players.
But based on comments made by Carson and coach Pete Carroll on Wednesday, big things look to be in store for him and the rest of Seattle's running back corps in 2021, especially with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.
"What we do with the running game and particularly now with the way we emphasize even more so, in the ways that we emphasize stuff. It's just it's really it's a dream come true for a guy like Chris," Carroll said. "The fits of the runs, the style of things that we're doing and how we're coaching is — they're [the running backs] really excited. You probably could tell that from Chris."
Indeed, Carson seemed genuinely thrilled with what he's seen thus far from Waldron, who has drawn raving reviews from players and coaches alike. Specifically, he lauded the simplicity of the offense for running backs and has been impressed by his ability to marry the run game and passing game while incorporating a faster tempo.
"I think Shane does a great job with making everything balanced. It's not just relying on the run, it's mixing up different schemes and making everything kind of look the same versus a run play or a pass play," Carson said. "The defense can't tell the difference between which one."
Previously serving as the passing game coordinator for the Rams, Waldron coached under Sean McVay, who has earned a sterling reputation for creating an illusion of complexity in his scheme. In other words, they don't deploy a ton of different formations, but they call a handful of plays that look the same and play off one another, keeping opposing defenses on their toes.
The Seahawks know about this all too well facing their NFC West rivals twice a year. Up until last year, McVay's Rams lit up scoreboards when the two teams hooked up and Carroll struggled to find answers on defense to slow them down.
With Waldron bringing those principles with him to the Pacific Northwest, the Seahawks will likely utilize under center formations more than they did under previous coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Though he didn't touch on how the run game looks to this point, Carson indicated backs will be deployed differently with more usage split out wide, which he believes will create more chances for them to be involved in the passing game.
"He kinda splits us out wide a lot more than Schotty would do, so I think there's going to be a lot more opportunities for us out there," Carson remarked. "Even the passing game out of the backfield. A lot more code words, a lot more different schemes and different formations that allow the running back to get the ball. It's going to be interesting."
Carson won't be the only back to benefit from Waldron's presence. Carroll gushed about the backfield depth on Wednesday, calling it an "exciting place" with a healthy Rashaad Penny back in action, DeeJay Dallas returning for his second season, and a rejuvenated Alex Collins looking explosive on the practice field. All three of those players, and Travis Homer once he returns from the PUP list, should receive ample opportunities to impress in the run and pass game.
But ultimately, Carson is the heart and soul that drives Seattle's run game. He's the catalyst that puts everything in motion with his downhill, punishing running style. Aside from his statistics, Carroll has always been drawn to him because of his mentality and how he plays the game.
"He's always been one of my favorites from the start," Carroll said. "I love the story, he came out of nowhere, seventh-round pick and all that. He probably wasn't going to get drafted; we were in love with the guy from those 82 carries he had in his senior year. His attitude he brings, his style that he runs with is exactly what we like. I thought it was a real emotional deal when we got him back, because he didn't know what was going to happen, but he wanted to be here; we wanted to him to be here, but we had to figure it out and it worked out."
Injuries have been problematic for Carson in his first four seasons. He missed most of his rookie year with a fractured ankle, suffered a cracked hip at the tail end of the 2019 season, and missed four games dealing with a foot sprain a year ago. For that reason, it's a good thing they have amassed the depth they have behind him.
But when healthy, Carson has been one of the NFL's most productive all-around backs. He eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards during the 2018 and 2019 seasons and while he didn't reach 700 yards last season, he still averaged a career-high 4.8 yards per carry in addition to his aforementioned receiving contributions. An argument can be made that he belongs in the discussion as a top-five running back if he's able to stay on the field, which explains why his re-signing was so important for the team.
After incorporating a revised training regimen under the direction of trainer Joel Seedman this offseason with an emphasis on core strength, Carson hopes to curb the durability issues that have hampered him to this point. If he's able to do that, playing in an offense that caters well to his strengths and should provide more opportunities in the passing game, there's no reason to believe he won't rebound and push for his first Pro Bowl selection.