By Andrew Metcalfe
We’ve all been hearing the “Let Russ Cook” mantra being chanted across the fantasy community since the offseason. It appears that the cries from “Mr. Unlimited” fantasy managers have been heard, as Russell Wilson has been unleashed and is currently the No. 1 overall player in fantasy football. With this high-powered passing offense leading Seattle to a 5-0 record going into their Week 6 bye, why should we care about a 2nd string running back coming off of a major knee injury? I’m going to take a deep dive into the rush/pass splits and game scripts for Seattle so far, and tell you why Rashaad Penny should still be a major part of Seattle’s plans for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Rashaad Penny was the Seahawks’ 2018 1st Round pick (27th overall) out of San Diego State. He led all of College Football with 2,248 rushing yards and was 2nd in TDs (23), behind only Devin Singletary. As a rookie, Penny was set for a training camp battle with Chris Carson for the starting RB role until he broke his finger after the first preseason game and was forced to miss the remainder of camp. Even though he was ready to start the season, Carson had taken full control over the backfield at that point and Penny struggled to get onto the field early on. It wasn’t until Week 10 of his rookie season that Penny saw more than 10 carries and he took full advantage of the opportunity, rushing for 108 yards with a TD on 12 carries against the Rams. Despite Penny leading the team in yards per carry and yards per touch as a rookie, Chris Carson was still able to maintain the lead role which led to a pedestrian rookie season for Penny.
2019 was more of the same for Penny, struggling to find a consistent role behind Carson until after the team’s Week 11 bye. Penny officially broke onto the scene in Week 12, rushing for 129 yards and a TD on 14 attempts (9.2 yards/carry) against a stout Philadelphia defense. He followed that performance up by rushing for 74 yards and a TD on 15 attempts (4.9 yards/carry) in Week 13. I would like to point out the snap counts between Penny and Carson for those two games:
|2019 snaps||Week 12||Week 13|
This was starting to become a clear 50/50 split and Penny had been outperforming Carson, once the opportunities were even. Unfortunately, Penny suffered a significant ACL injury at the beginning of their Week 14 game and we have not seen him on the field since.
A Shift in Philosophy?
Penny is near the end of a lengthy rehab from his injury, but it’s been reported that he is ahead of schedule and expected to make a full recovery. Even when he does return, his biggest hurdle is that Carson has excelled as the lead back and has done everything right. The offense has transformed into a more pass-heavy approach and there seems to be fewer opportunities for a second RB — Penny, or others on the depth chart — to get carries.
I’m not sure that is really what’s going on though.
Seattle currently has 1.7 more pass attempts per game than last season. The actual passing volume has not increased as much as we perceive, it’s the efficiency that has gone through the roof. Russell Wilson’s 2020 TD rate is currently 11.2%, which is nearly double his career average of 6.2%. The emergence of D.K. Metcalf is a major factor in the offensive shift as well, but with only one game this season of more than four receptions, he isn’t necessarily taking up a lot of opportunities. I expect Wilson’s TD rate to slightly regress towards his career-high of 8.2%, which should shift more of the offensive production to the running game.
In regards to their running game, Seattle is running the ball on just 39% of plays– their lowest rate since Carroll’s first season as head coach in 2010. Even though I believe they went into the season wanting to pass more, I’m not sure they intended for the shift to be this extreme. Through five weeks, the Seattle defense has allowed an average of 27 points per game. That is the worst they have been on defense during Carroll’s 10-year tenure as head coach. Obviously, more points given up by the defense leads to an increase in pass attempts to keep up with opposing offenses. The Seahawks lost several key players from their front seven to free agency this past offseason, including Quinton Jefferson (DE), Al Woods (DT), and Jadeveon Clowney (OLB). This season, the secondary has been banged up with Quinton Dunbar (CB) and their big splash acquisition, Jamal Adams (S) missing multiple games early on. Adams has a good chance to return after their Week 6 bye and recently signed free agent, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, is preparing to make his debut with the team in the coming weeks. We should see a much improved Seattle defense, which will allow them to get back to a more balanced offense that can control the clock by running the ball.
There is still no guarantee that Rashaad Penny will be able to secure a consistent role in the offense this season, especially if Chris Carson continues to shine. It does appear that Seattle is limiting his carries so far though — Carson has averaged just 12.2 carries per game, which is down from 18.5 last season. He also has not exceeded 61% of offensive snaps played up to this point. When you consider the current healthy options behind him — Carlos Hyde and Travis Homer — I don’t blame Carroll for choosing to call a few extra pass plays instead of handing it off when Carson isn’t on the field. There is certainly opportunity for a 2nd RB to get work. Even if Penny can get just 8-10 touches per game, he has shown the efficiency to put up fantasy-relevant numbers with limited opportunities. In 2019, his 5.1 TRUE yards per carry (removing all runs of 10+ yards in order to measure a RBs consistency) was 2nd best among qualified RBs and he had the 5th best Production Premium (+32.8). Production Premium is a Player Profiler metric that, in short, measures how efficient an offensive player is compared to other players at his position (you can read more in-depth at PlayerProfiler.com).
In dynasty leagues, Penny is an easy buy for me. He’s in the 3rd year of his rookie deal and since he is a former 1st round pick, the team will have the right to exercise his 5th year option if they choose, giving them another two years of control after this season. Carson is in the final year of his rookie deal and while Seattle should have the cap space that would allow them to extend him, it might not be “smart business” to extend a RB that has suffered several major injuries over the last two years. They also have their top corner, Shaquill Griffin, due for a new deal before next season and will certainly consider an extension for Jamal Adams who will be playing on his 5th-year option next season. You shouldn’t have to pay much for Penny in a trade; right now, most fantasy managers are in dire need of roster spots to fill with healthy bodies in this injury-filled, COVID season. Don’t forget about Rashaad Penny!