RENTON, WA - According to his player profile on the team's website, DeeJay Dallas has officially started his second NFL season. Statistics bear that out, as he appeared in 12 games for the Seahawks during the 2020 season.
But although Dallas experienced his first taste of NFL football and even started a pair of games for Seattle in place of Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde, as he began training this offseason, he still felt like he had just been drafted out of Miami. Considering circumstances, it's not difficult to understand why.
"In some ways [this spring], I felt like I was going into year two. In other ways, I was still feeling like I was a rookie," Dallas said prior to Thursday's second training camp practice.
Like every other first-year player breaking into the NFL last year, Dallas didn't get the opportunity to participate in rookie minicamp, OTAs, or any other traditional staple of an NFL offseason program due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams weren't able to get together with the majority of states enacting stay-in procedures to combat the virus, instead resorting to virtual Zoom meetings.
Once training camps officially opened in mid-August, rookies lost out on another chance to impress when the league axed preseason games to eliminate unnecessary travel. Though Dallas impressed on the practice field and drew acclaim from coaches and teammates alike, losing those exhibition showcases didn't help his cause battling for playing time behind Carson and Hyde.
While it will never be known whether things would have played out differently with the benefit of a normal camp and preseason, Dallas wound up being a healthy scratch in each of the Seahawks first two games and didn't make his NFL debut until Week 3 against the Cowboys. He finally received his first offensive snaps the following week, logging a pair of carries and catching two passes in a win over the Dolphins. Through the first five weeks, he had played just 11 offensive snaps.
Then two weeks later, opportunity finally knocked as Dallas was thrown into his first high-leverage situation as a pro. With the Seahawks nursing a slim lead over the Cardinals in Arizona, Carson exited late in the first half with a mid-foot sprain and did not return. Fellow back Travis Homer also exited with a knee injury, opening the door for the rookie to get extensive playing time in a tightly-contested NFC West matchup.
Unfortunately, Dallas wasn't able to capitalize on this first shot. After Arizona stormed back from a 10-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to force overtime, the back made a patented rookie mistake in pass protection, failing to identify blitzing linebacker Tanner Vallejo shooting through the A-gap on 2nd and 10. Untouched up the middle, Vallejo blasted quarterback Russell Wilson, who managed to get the throw off for an incompletion.
Immediately after the play, Seahawks running back coach Chad Morton subbed Hyde back into the game after the blown pass protection assignment. For Dallas, it was a rude reminder he wasn't playing in the ACC anymore.
"You can never have that happen," Dallas said when asked about the missed blitz pickup during the week after the loss. "I went back and looked at the film. I just have to have better eye discipline in that situation."
During his three years with the Hurricanes, much like Homer, the 5-foot-10, 217-pound Dallas excelled in pass protection. He never feared taking on a blitzing linebacker or stepping up towards the line to meet a defensive end who outweighed him by 50-plus pounds. He also was assignment-sound, rarely failing to identify the proper blitz pickup.
After being so effective at the college level, what was behind these early struggles? Looking back, Dallas felt he had lost his edge a bit. He wasn't as prepared as he needed to be and from a physicality standpoint, the "want to" aspect of pass blocking wasn't on par with his standards.
"I think last year, I kinda lost my dog mentality, my usual toughness that I had at Miami," Dallas reflected. "Then I think I started to find that again in the Buffalo game, had a couple good pass pro [reps]."
Luckily for Dallas, with Carson, Hyde, and Homer all nursing injuries, the Seahawks would be giving him a chance to redeem himself in quick order. He started each of the next two games, and though he wasn't perfect in pass protection and missed on a couple of blocks, he made noticeable improvements in that regard, particularly from an assignment standpoint.
Additionally, Dallas showed off his versatility as a playmaker out of the backfield. He scored his first two NFL rushing touchdowns and also snagged his first receiving touchdown from Wilson, a sign of progress for the Brunswick, Georgia native.
From there, Dallas only saw the field sparingly with Carson and Hyde eventually returning to action. An ankle injury suffered on kick coverage in a Week 15 win at Washington ultimately ended his season, as he didn't play another snap in 2020 and concluded his first campaign with 34 carries for 108 yards, 17 receptions for 111 yards, and three total touchdowns.
Turning the page to the offseason, Dallas had plenty to juggle this spring away from the field. As if trying to train for an upcoming football season wasn't difficult enough amid an ongoing pandemic, with the virus still wreaking havoc, he was also wrapping up preparations for a wedding to his long-time partner Yasmin. The two were finally able to tie the knot earlier this month.
"It was challenging to plan because of the logistics. We had over 200 people invited," Dallas indicated, adding that they had all of their guests take 12-hour rapid COVID-19 tests prior to the ceremony and reception.
Unlike last year, Dallas also had offseason activities on the docket. With many players and coaches getting vaccinated, teams were able to convene for OTAs and minicamps, providing development opportunities that weren't available to him as a rookie. He was one of the first veteran players to report early in OTAs and took advantage of extensive reps. Earlier this month, he also trekked to southern California to attend Wilson's annual pre-training camp workouts with teammates for the first time.
After being indoctrinated to the NFL last season, as many players do in their first full offseason in the league, Dallas shaped his offseason program around altering his body. He worked diligently to get leaner, particularly in the upper half of his frame. He also continued to emphasize improvements as a receiver and pass protector, which may be the two biggest keys to him seeing the field more often in 2021.
So far, the extra work has paid off on the field. Even with just two practices in the books thus far, Dallas has been one of the shining stars. In Wednesday's opening session, he took a handoff during the 11-on-11 period, juked a linebacker at second level, and then accelerated past the secondary for a 70-yard touchdown run. As expected, even with the whistle blowing well beforehand, he made sure to sprint all the way to the end zone.
Though Dallas looks noticeably faster and more explosive, Dallas downplayed the notion he added speed in the offseason. Instead, he's running the ball with greater decisiveness, hitting the crease harder than he did during his rookie season.
"You can't really get faster once you get to this level. Not how it works," Dallas smiled. "You can maybe cut 0.1 or 0.2 seconds [to your 40-time], but that's it. I think I was just too hesitant when I got my shot to play last year."
As well as Dallas has played during the early stages of camp, he faces stiff competition for snaps in a crowded running back room. Carson re-signed during free agency and has looked great so far, while a lighter, fully-healthy Rashaad Penny also broke a pair of big runs on Thursday. Alex Collins has also been impressive in his own right, exhibiting clear improvements in the receiving game to go with his running talents. All three of those backs, plus Homer when he comes off the PUP list, will be jockeying for playing time.
But already off to a quick start in his second "rookie" year, Dallas' skill set should be an excellent fit in new coordinator Shane Waldron's offense. Carson has already hinted that Seattle will use backs in the passing game more frequently, including splitting them out wide. With Dallas having a prior receiver background at Miami, that should give him a significant advantage battling for the third down role.
Approaching padded practices in the near future, Dallas embraces the competition and though he's not afraid to admit what he perceives as his limitations, he's not lacking in confidence either. The edge is back. For what he may lack in the athleticism department compared to other backs on the roster, he believes he can more than compensate with his intangibles.
"I'm not the fastest guy. I've never been the fastest guy," Dallas paused for a moment. "But I believe I have the most heart."