The state of Seahawks’ running backs in the three years since Marshawn Lynch remains, well, not good.
So not good, that news from rookie Rashaad Penny’s broken left index finger and surgery is almost more encouraging than what’s going on with the guys who were supposed to be replacing him.
Penny broke his finger doing what he and the Seahawks have been emphasizing since the first-round draft choice arrived months ago: pass blocking. But coach Pete Carroll said following Wednesday’s practice that Penny’s surgery earlier in the day with a specialist, Dr. Randall Culp of the Philadelphia Hand to Shoulder Center, went “beautifully”—and that the team expects him to be ready to play in the season opener Sept. 9 at Denver.
“He was in a pass-rush drill (Monday) and just caught a finger,” Carroll said of a session in which Penny impressively stopped rookie draft choice Shaquem Griffin twice and undrafted fellow rookie linebacker Jake Pugh once. “He had surgery and it worked out beautifully.
“It’s a couple weeks (of recovery). He can already move it. He’s not going to be in a cast or any of that kind of stuff. So he’s in pretty good shape. We got a great report on it. He’s not going to be out very long.”
Asked specifically if the team thinks it’s possible Penny will be ready for the start of the season Carroll answered quickly with an affirmative head nod: “Yes.”
Penny is the third top running back in three years to sustain an injury that led to a derailing surgery. Thomas Rawls was rolling as Lynch’s heir in the 2015 season as a record-setting undrafted rookie. Then he broke his ankle that December in a game at Baltimore and hasn’t been the same since. Seattle cut him this offseason, and he now plays for the New York Giants.
Last season Chris Carson was the surprise starter as a rookie seventh-round draft choice, then broke his leg and had serious ankle-ligamant damage on Oct. 1. That ended his 2017 season.
Mike Davis stood to gain the most playing time with the starting offense while Penny mends.
Now Davis is out hurt, too.
Seattle’s starting back at the end of last season watched Wednesday’s drills with a toe injury that was prohibiting him from pushing off his foot to run or make moves.
Carroll didn’t have a lot to say about Davis’ injury.
“Yeah, he’s got a sore toe that just popped up today. He didn’t even know he had it until he tried to get out here and run today,” the coach said. “I don’t have much to report on him, but he’s got a sore great toe.”
That’s not so great for the Seahawks’ depth at running back. Davis absence left the team with three tailbacks healthy enough for scrimmaging: Carson, J.D. McKissic and Gerald Holmes.
Carson has been the most impressive Seahawk physically for months coming off that broken leg. He didn’t do much in Monday’s practice, though he fully participated Wednesday. Penny’s injury cements what was obvious all month, that Carson will begin this season as Seattle’s lead runner.
McKissic is a former wide receiver. Holmes is an undrafted rookie free agent Seattle signed last week.
“We felt it today, yeah. We felt it a little bit today,” Carroll said of the lack of healthy backs. “Those guys had to do extra duties.”
C.J. Prosise returned to practice Wednesday, but was still held out of team scrimmaging because of the hip-flexor injury he’s had for a week. He ran on the side during the scrimmaging. The oft-injured third-round pick from 2016 has had seven injuries in 28 months with Seattle. He’s played in only 11 of 32 regular-season games in his NFL career.
Prosise said he will play Saturday in the Seahawks’ second preseason game, at the Los Angeles Chargers. Aside from what he calls a minor hip-flexor tightening, he feels new focus in his offseason training on running back-specific skills such as cutting and more dedicated, daily work on strength in the weight room has him the best he’s felt in the NFL.
“I mean, I feel 10 times, 100 times better than I have any other year that I’ve been here,” Prosise said. “I’m just excited to be out here, back out here with my teammates.
“I’ve just got to step up now, with Penny being down for a little bit. ... I’m just excited to be back out here, like I said.”
Carroll said the team’s goal is to have Prosise available for the Chargers’ game. But given his injury history, who knows?
“He’s on the verge of being ready to play this weekend,” the coach said.
For now, Carroll inferred the Seahawks won’t be shopping too hard for imports at running back, a position they feel is far deeper now than it was last preseason.
“Well, we’ve been very fortunate with...I mean, (Penny) goes out and we still feel strong about what we have,” Carroll said.
“At this point, we’re OK. We’re in good shape.”
Penny’s pass blocking after leading major-college football in rushing last season at San Diego State has been the most common question of this Seahawks preseason so far.
Turns out pass blocking is the reason for his first NFL setback.
Monday, the Seahawks did a pass-rush drill of blitzing linebackers at running backs. It’s a tough assignment for the backs: they are in a two-point stance, standing up behind the line. The linebackers sprint at them with a 5-yard head start then unleash an array of rip, swim and spin moves to get around them to the quarterback.
Penny got matched up with Griffin, a star of this Seahawks camp, and, heck, a star of this NFL preseason. Griffin has been sprinting through and past offensive players all month; he had a game-high nine tackles in his first pro game last week against Indianapolis.
Penny stopped Griffin. Twice. The first time, Griffin tried a quick spin move. Penny moved his feet smoothly to keep his shoulders squarely in front of Penny while parrying him away with his hands. The second time, Griffin tried to use his speed to get around Penny. Penny was equally quick and rode Griffin outside well past the would-be quarterback.
Penny was the first one of the running backs to win his pairings. He also repelled Pugh, whom the Seahawks in May paid the largest signing bonus of any of their rookie free agents, $15,000.
A few reps after Penny stopped Pugh, Pugh ran over Davis. Penny left the practice early with the injury soon after that.
Carroll said the Seahawks have seen enough from Penny in rookie minicamp, organized team activities of June, a minicamp, two-plus weeks of training camp and one preseason game—in which Penny gained 16 yards on eight carries including an impressive 6-yard run in the red zone past three defenders of his lone preseason game—to know how to use the rookie in the regular season.
“I don’t have any doubt about what he’s capable of doing. I really don’t,” Carroll said. “We’ve just got to make sure he’s in great shape and let him play ball. He’s shown us all the instincts. His want-to is great. His learning ability is excellent. He’s applied himself in this pass-protection stuff, which he knew that was something he was going to have to work out. He’s already applied himself. He’ll get better at that in time. He’s not as good as he will be.
“But carrying the football instinctively, how to catch it and run it, he’s done all that stuff. We’ve seen plenty.”