The distinction between a quality draft pick and a quality player is both important and overlooked. After being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, running back Rashaad Penny has found himself at the core of much debate regarding whether high-round running backs are a worthwhile investment. I am of the mind that selecting a tailback on day one is poor value for reasons including lack of financial benefit relative to league average salary and a back’s success being so largely tied to offensive line performance.
The problem with this discourse is that, while we can draw any conclusions we like about positional value, a player’s talent can often be diminished in the midst of such a common argument.
What I’m trying to say is simple: Rashaad Penny was probably a bad draft pick, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good player. No matter where you stand on the spectrum of value, it is better to have a very good running back than a bad running back.
So many have been quick to dismiss Penny as a “bust” after accumulating merely 42 carries for 146 yards heading into Week 10. Was it Penny’s choice, though, to be both blessed and cursed with such significant draft position? Does he deserve to be penalized because of an unfortunately broken finger during the preseason that stole crucial reps from him as he entered his rookie season? Where do our reservations and actual analysis converge into something constructive?
The most puzzling facet of the Seahawks’ selection of Rashaad was the presence of 2017 7th rounder Chris Carson. Carson has established himself as a top-notch tailback and, considering where he was drafted, an absolute bargain. So why, may we ask, did Seattle deem it necessary to spend a first rounder at a position in which they already have a borderline elite talent along with decent (if not good) depth?
Who f**king cares? What’s done is done and it doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the perception by many of Penny as being a useless cog in a machine that runs through Chris Carson’s legs. It doesn’t even matter that he was essentially drafted as an injury hedge. All we can do at this point is to evaluate Rashaad Penny the player and chronicle his development.
The relationship between the Seahawks and quantum mechanics is meager at best, save for their newest tailback. The team, after drafting Rashaad so highly, forced fans and pundits alike into a Schrödinger’s Penny scenario; if your running back is good but doesn’t get any carries, is he actually good?
As previously mentioned, Penny entered Sunday’s game against the Rams with 42 career carries and surrounded by forceful exasperation. Some had already given up on Seattle’s first-rounder turning into even a decent player halfway through his rookie season.
The overreactions after 54 career touches have been widespread and baffling. Shipping off a rookie for a mid-round pick when you’ve barely even given him a chance to succeed? Giving up on a player with such obvious talent so early in his career? I can understand being disappointed in the pick from a team-building perspective. But dubbing Penny as bad so early in his career was unfair and, frankly, lazy to a degree.
With Chris Carson missing Sunday’s game in Los Angeles due to a hip injury, Penny received 12 carries. He wasted no time in making the most of them.
On both handoffs, Penny is decisive, explosive, and displays lateral cutting ability that would make even 2015 Thomas Rawls soil himself. In the first, he quickly slides away from a tackler in the backfield before bouncing outside and setting up a block from David Moore perfectly. In the second, he quickly identifies space to cut back and easily outrun Cory Littleton to the edge for a score. Penny demonstrates an ability to create for himself while also improving on the subtle nuances that separate good running backs from just running backs.
The tendency for young running backs to bounce runs in an attempt to beat defenders outside is always a concern, but when results are consistently very good, it’s hard to complain.
Penny receives the handoff and, while it would be nice to see him burst through the B gap here, he again cuts it back to the right and again makes a defender whiff. The elusiveness and lateral agility have been there since day one. Penny is just beginning to put it together.
This time, Rashaad takes the handoff out of a singleback formation and immediately breaks a tackle in the backfield:
The prevailing complaints about Penny’s game throughout the first several games of the season focused on seemingly lethargic play, a tendency to go down on first contact, and an inability to make defenders miss. I think it’s fair to say that he showed quite a progression in these specific areas on Sunday.
As I mentioned previously, there are kinks to work out. Watching through every Seattle offensive snap, I didn’t see Penny stay in the backfield to pass protect once. It’s no stretch to say that a healthy Chris Carson is easily the best all-around running back on the Seahawks roster. The dude is a monster and I won’t dispute that. When it’s all said and done, he might just be better than Penny.
But only nine games into the rookie’s career, there’s no way to know that definitively. If you want to perpetuate a narrative and criticize a young player just because of your displeasure with where he was drafted and/or your attachment to another back, go ahead. Just know that your take is bad and you should feel bad.
Penny proved to us on Sunday that he is absolutely a fun player to watch and that his ceiling is indeed high. I for one am excited to watch him develop and tear it up as a Seahawk no matter how I feel about the team drafting him.