Rashaad Penny is Seattle’s best 1st round draft pick since Earl Thomas

It was a stunning pick (and Seattle hasn’t set a high bar), but here’s why Rashaad Penny is the Seahawks’ best 1st-round player in eight years.

The Seahawks don’t often draft a player in the first round. But when they do, they prefer a shocking reach…

Kidding aside, the Rashaad Penny pick follows a pattern of perceived first round reaches for Seattle. Scouts also generally viewed Germain Ifedi as a day two prospect. Same goes for James Carpenter way back in 2011, and even Bruce Irvin in 2012. (Man, time flies).

Despite the precedence, fans were still stunned by this draft pick. The player himself wasn’t necessarily surprising though. On the contrary, really. We’ve repeatedly discussed Penny as a potential Seahawks draft pick on HawkTalk over the last few months. I mocked him to Seattle in my January Senior Bowl mock draft:

“Penny checks the size & athleticism boxes that Pete Carroll looks for in an RB, and Seattle may view him as a great complement to Chris Carson’s power element in the backfield. Thunder and Lightning.”

And I mocked him to Seattle again on draft day itself, in my Seahawks “CB-first” 7-round mock.

Nor was drafting an RB early all that shocking – Pete Carroll frequently singled out the running game as a top priority this offseason. Which is mainly why I had the Seahawks going RB with their first pick in HawkTalk’s final 7-round mock draft.

But to use that first pick on Penny? And in the first round? If nothing else, Carroll and John Schneider deserve credit for continually blowing our minds on draft weekend. I’m going to focus on Penny here rather than comparisons to past Seahawks first rounders. However, there is plenty of reason to believe he’s the best prospect they’ve drafted since Earl Thomas. 


Rashaad Penny – analytics darling

Okay, let’s start by hyping up the crowd. Penny’s statistical resume is unmatched by anyone in this terrific RB class. In fact, it’s off the freaking charts:

  • Consensus All-American – the only one in the 2018 RB class.
  • FBS rushing leader – 2248 rushing yards in 2017, averaging a ridiculous 7.8 yards/carry.
  • #2 in FBS with 28 TD’s – 23 rushing, 2 receiving and 3 return TD’s in 2017.
  • #6 all-time at 7.5 career ypc – among all qualifying NCAA RB’s since 1956 (wow!).
  • #2 in yards-after-contact/attempt – 4.47, per Pro Football Focus.
  • #1 in PFF’s Elusive Rating – a measure of how RB’s perform independent of blocking.
  • #1 in ypc – when contacted at/behind LOS. 3.32 ypc on those carriers, per PFF.
  • #1 in rate of missed tackles forced – 29.6% of all rushes, per PFF.
  • Most explosive runs – 31 carries last year went for at least 15 yards, per PFF.
  • #1 in Yards Created between the tackles – per Graham Barfield’s YC model.
  • T-1st all-time with 7 kick return TD’s – tied for NCAA lead since 1976.
  • #4 all-time at 30.2 yards/kick return – among all qualifying NCAA players since 1976.

Outstanding, phenomenal, elite – take your pick. Each perfectly describes Penny’s production at San Diego State. He finished 5th in Heisman voting last season, led the nation in rushing, and leaves college with the 6th-highest career yards per carry of all time. Not to mention absolutely crushing the field in several advanced rushing stats. Oh, and he’s arguably the most prodigious kickoff returner in FBS history.

That collection of stats paints the picture of an incredibly effective and efficient runner, which is exactly what he is. In terms of pure ability to run the football, Penny is on par with any of the backs in this draft class. Including Saquon Barkley. Here are his glorious highlights from last season:


Heisman-worthy senior season

I started evaluating the 2018 RB class last summer because it was clear Seattle would have a need come this draft. Penny immediately stood out as an intriguing player, even before his remarkable senior campaign. He provided glimpses of his special talent while backing up Donnel Pumphrey in 2016, rushing for 1018 yards (7.5 ypc) and scoring 14 touchdowns. Here were my brief scouting notes on him last fall:

  • Good size/speed combo – cuts smoothly with exceptionally quick feet & snakes through traffic.

  • Not a power runner – but keeps feet churning through contact with terrific balance to max out yardage.

  • Versatile receiving weapon – plus hands and YAC-ability. Inconsistent pass pro. Elite kickoff returner.

Penny quickly emerged as the Aztecs’ workhorse RB last fall, yet maintained his superb efficiency. I touted him as a day-two talent in October after he exploded out of the gate for SDSU:

“Penny has received a lot of hype throughout September, and justifiably so. He appears to have all the traits of a feature back in the NFL. The only real concern at this point is how he translates from the Mountain West to the NFL level. I’d like to see him participate in the Senior Bowl this offseason, to see how he stacks up against quality competition. If he performs well compared to his peers (combine included), Penny could potentially find a home in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft.”

I’d also be remiss not to mention his late-season dominance. Despite managing a feature-back workload all year, he completely carried SDSU down the stretch. He eclipsed 200 rushing yards in 5 straight games to end the season, totaling 13 TD’s and 1133 yards on 10.3 Y/C over that stretch. Unbelievable.

True bell-cow Running Backs have the most physically grueling job in the NFL. Most develop nagging injuries over the season-long grind, while many outright miss time. It’s a dying breed really, as NFL teams mostly use committees now to keep their backs fresh.

For Penny to not just stay healthy and keep producing in that role, but also throttle-up as the season went on? That’s rare, and speaks to his toughness and reliability. Which are traits we know the Seahawks wanted in each draft pick this offseason.

He proceeded to stand out as the clear top Running Back at the Senior Bowl, shining most in the big game:


Why Rashaad Penny in this RB class?

I don’t think the initial fan-shock came from drafting an RB in the first round. Carroll and Schneider place considerable value on the position after all. They’re the same guys who traded for Marshawn Lynch, drafted Christine Michael in the second round during Lynch’s prime, drafted 3 RB’s after Thomas Rawls’ magnificent rookie year, and repeatedly told us they would improve the run-game this offseason.

No, the surprise was all about choosing Penny over other RB’s in this exceptional class. Fans mostly clamored for the likes of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Derrius Guice, or Ronald Jones, all of whom are great RB prospects.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of reason to think he’ll be just as good if not better than those guys in the NFL. And a tremendous fit in Seattle. Here are some snippets from PCJS’ day-one press conference (video at the top of this post), along with my thoughts:

Vision

“It’s like he has several pupils. The guy’s got amazing eyes.” – Schneider, 4:45.

It’s nice of John to write Penny’s dating profile, but it’s true. Penny’s vision, both in the backfield and on kickoffs, is extraordinary. He sees developing blocks and collapsing defenders, wasting incredibly little movement in finding the right lane. Most RB’s are either urgent or patient, excelling using one style or the other. But Penny is the rare back that displays both at the same time. It’s amazing to watch yet also very tough to describe. Watch how he hits this cutback lane calmly and smoothly, using controlled footwork to quickly pick up speed:

Big-play ability

“(An explosive RB) is really the addition, the element we were hoping to factor into this season. We like our Running Backs, we got a good young room of guys that are going to be competing. But this just gives us one more chance to really make (the running game) an explosive aspect (of our offense)… He’s been a downhill runner, but he’s can also bounce the ball to the perimeter and take great advantage of that. Whether he’s cutting back or going front-side, he’s got a special way about him. He’s got big play ability and that just makes such a difference when you’re defending us. He’ll bring something really explosive – it’ll be a great dynamic for our football team.” – Carroll, 6:01.

Penny’s 31 explosive runs of 15+ yards led the country, as did his 1000+ yards on those carries. And the Seahawks were clearly looking for that lightning to complement Carson’s thunder in the backfield. There’s no doubt Penny had some big holes to work with vs. Mountain West opponents this year. However, he has a unique ability to make defenses pay. An elite combination of vision, urgency, quick feet, balance and long speed. It’s almost like a linebacker covering more ground than seems possible because he always takes the perfect angle.

Penny gets what’s blocked for him and creates when blocking breaks down. He also breaks through arm tackles like they’re not even there. And he always finds a way to work north-south, even when bouncing the ball outside. The best way to sum him up is that he’s simply spectacular with the ball in his hands. It’s an overused phrase, but he’s a guy who can literally score any time he touches the ball. Here’s one of the very few times you’ll see him bounce an inside run all the way outside. Look how he natural and smooth this is, and then the finishing speed at 220+ lbs.

Fit in Seattle’s offense & NFL-readiness

“His running game too was very similar to things that we do. He’s run some of the exact same plays, so we’ve seen him run behind the fullback, run downhill and the perimeter stuff.” – Carroll, 2:37.

“We have no question about (his ability to transition to the NFL). And the fact he went to the Senior Bowl and did all the stuff there too. He learns really well, it makes sense to him. But he has truly run a lot of stuff that we want to run with him. So that’s great in the evaluation. He’s also been a shotgun runner at times too. We’ve seen the moves and the cuts – he needs to show us that stuff too because it’s big way to include Russell’s factor. No limitations, just no limitations.” – Carroll, 6:58.

We’ve talked about Penny’s Senior Bowl success already, though he excelled in tougher matchups this year as well. In power-5 games vs. Stanford and Arizona State, he combined for 391 rushing yards (7.8 ypc), caught 9 passes for 69 yards, and scored 4 all-purpose TD’s. There’s no reason to believe he isn’t physically and mentally ready for the step up in competition.

Carroll’s quotes about his usage are telling. Penny led the 2018 RB class with 94% of his carries coming from under-center formations. And 71% of his rushing attempts came out of 2-TE or 2-back personnel. Chris Carson was also largely used in the same capacity last season. While Pete paid lip service to the shotgun zone running, we’re going to see a ton of heavy under-center sets this year. Let’s hope the blocking is up to the task.

Receiving weapon & pass protection issues

“He’s so versatile and so dynamic. We know that every time he gets his hands on the ball he can score a touchdown. And that’s in the running game and the passing game because he’s very gifted catching the football and running routes as well.” – Carroll, 1:37.

“He’ll be a 3-down back for us, he can do everything. He needs to work on his pass protection, which he was not asked to do a lot of. But he’ll give us the ability to play him on all downs.” – Carroll, 4:52

“He’s a kid who knows who he is and what is game is. He knows he has a lot of work to do in pass protection, and he’s been adamant about that.” – Schneider, 7:24.

When it comes to receiving out of the backfield, Penny is no Saquon Barkley. But he does possess the versatility to make an impact in that area. He’s a plus route runner and catcher, though he really stands out after the catch. Just get the ball in this guy’s hands.

Pass protection is the biggest knock on his game, and the criticism is warranted. I must’ve watched 30 backs in this draft class, and Penny was among the worst in that area. It’s a legitimate concern in such a passing-dominant league now.

Perhaps there is hope he can improve immediately though. Per PFF:After some struggles early in the season, he surrendered just two total pressures in pass protection over the final six games and will need to continue to elevate this portion of his game for the next level.”

Reliable, humble & coach-able

“Great kid. Two brothers. Played behind Pumphrey last year, split time with him, didn’t complain about not getting as many carries as he would’ve wanted.” – Schneider, 0:36.

“Probably the best part about this kid, this young man, is he’s humble. He’s ready to work… Whatever we want, he’ll do.” – Carroll, 1:06.

Pete & John described so many of the Seahawks’ draft picks as “humble”. It seems like they’re really trying to reverse course this offseason. From the coaching changes to the veteran trades/cuts and now this, they want to regain control in the locker room. Penny is coach-able, reliable, and apparently a hard worker, so everything seems squared away with him.

Durability

“Hasn’t been overworked… but he still can carry the load… (Durability) was an important element of his make-up, his background.” – Carroll, 2:33, 3:25.

Schneider mentioned during one of the pressers that Seattle give out orthopedic (medical) grades and a durability grades. Penny might have the best marks of all the drafted RB’s. We talked about how he didn’t wear down over a huge workload last year. Due to backing up Pumphrey in prior years, he’s still fresher than other feature back types in this class. He carried the ball fewer than 500 times over his college career, never missed a game, and he’s never even had a reported injury.

It can’t be overstated how important those facts are at RB, and it sounds like Seattle heavily valued them. Coupled with his size and running style, Penny projects as a durable beast in the NFL.

Special teams value

“Dynamic kickoff returner – he’s returned seven career kickoffs. Had (only) two punt returns and took one to the house. Just incredible spatial awareness and instincts.” – Schneider, 0:47.

“The special teams is… so unique, I mean he’s really something. To be able to help Tyler, take the burden off Tyler at times. He’ll compete for all the return stuff.” – Carroll, 1:16.

Don’t be surprised if Penny takes kickoff duties away from Tyler Lockett this season. Lockett could stay on punts if he shows more juice another year removed from injury.

Excitement

“I don’t mind telling you. This pick fires me up. I’m jacked about this pick.” – Carroll, 0:01.

Pete’s fired up? That’s the true shocker of the Seahawks draft right there.


Final thoughts

The only thing that bothered me about the Penny-pick was the value. I’m a big proponent of run-game importance in the NFL (though I have a healthy respect for the analytics suggesting it isn’t). Still, I de-value the top RB’s in the draft a bit because you can find good ones later than most other positions.

I also wish Seattle could have traded down one more time to acquire another premium pick. They were forced to wait until the 5th round on need positions (OL & CB) without enough day-two picks. It doesn’t sound like there were any reasonable offers for #27 on the table though.

All things considered, 12’s should be thrilled with the player we got in Round one. Rashaad Penny is a brilliant ball-player and should make a big impact right away in Seattle. He’s very capable of surpassing the careers of Irvin and Carpenter, and I suspect he will. With the natural development of Ethan Pocic and Ifedi, the return of Carson, the additions at Tight End, and of course Penny, the Seahawks running game should improve by leaps and bounds in 2018.