Can Rashaad Penny end post-Marshawn Lynch instability?

RENTON, Wash. -- Durability is one of the traits the Seattle Seahawks have mentioned nearly every time they've talked about running back Rashaad Penny, their first-round draft pick.

It was the second word out of coach Pete Carroll's mouth after Seattle chose him 27th overall on April 26.

It's no coincidence given what's happened in their backfield -- a whole lot of injuries and not a lot of production -- over the past two seasons.

"Absolutely," Carroll said when asked if the instability Seattle has experienced made Penny's durability a bigger deal. "It was an important element in his makeup and background."

Consider the stability the Seahawks had with Marshawn Lynch and what it's become since he left.

From 2011 to 2014, a four-year stretch in which Lynch missed one game, only six other tailbacks carried the ball for Seattle. Lynch was the team's featured back while the likes of Justin Forsett, Leon Washington and Christine Michael took occasional turns. Lynch averaged over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns while the Seahawks led the league in rushing over that period.

In the two seasons since Lynch left the Seahawks for what would become a one-year retirement, they've handed off to 12 different tailbacks -- in no small part because none of them have stayed healthy enough to keep the job. After finishing no worse than fourth in rushing from 2012 to 2015, Seattle has fallen to 23rd and 25th the past two seasons.

It was so bad last year that Russell Wilson became only the fifth quarterback since 1970 to lead his team in rushing. He did so with 586 yards while none of Seattle's running backs managed more than 240.

Shoddy offensive-line play has been a major part of the problem. That should be obvious to anyone who has seen the frequency with which Seahawks tailbacks have been buried in the backfield before they ever had a chance.

But it hasn't helped that it's been so many different tailbacks doing the carrying.

"It's just been hard to get the continuity that we want," Carroll said midway through last season, after C.J. Prosise joined Chris Carson on injured reserve, "and it's not because we're not trying and the guys aren't working hard at it, but it just hasn't fit."

It looked for a brief time like Seattle's post-Lynch backfield would be in good hands with Thomas Rawls. He took over as an undrafted rookie in 2015 while Lynch was injured and led the NFL with a 5.6-yard average, but he suffered an ankle/leg injury in December of that season and never really got going again.

Carson looked like he could be the guy when he beat out Rawls and Eddie Lacy last summer for the starting job, but his promising rookie season ended early because of an ankle/leg injury of his own. Lacy, signed to a one-year deal, didn't do much when he got his shot either.

Enter Penny, who played in 54 of a possible 54 games at San Diego State.

"Speed, durability, humble," Carroll said after the first round.

That humility was evident to the Seahawks in how Penny never complained about his role in the Aztecs' offense while spending three seasons behind Donnel Pumphrey, a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2017. Penny still topped 1,000 yards in 2016 with Pumphrey ahead of him on the depth chart. This past season, his first as the full-time starter, Penny led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards to go along with 23 touchdowns, which ranked second.

"He hasn't been overworked," Carroll said. "But he can still carry the load. His running game, too, is very similar to things that we do. He's run some of the exact same plays, so we've seen him run behind a fullback; we've seen him run downhill and the perimeter stuff. Everything just fit. It was a beautiful pick."

Not every Seahawks running back need be compared to Lynch. That's not the point. But Penny has shown the tough running style that had been Lynch's calling card. Penny's 720 rushing yards after first contact last season ranked fourth in the country, according to ESPN charting. Pro Football Focus noted that he broke 80 tackles on rushing plays last season, by far the most of anyone in this draft class. And according to PFF, Penny averaged 3.32 yards per carry last season when contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage. That ranked first among 58 qualifying runners in this draft class.

Tyler Ramsey, an area scout for the Seahawks whose territory includes San Diego State, recalled two plays from last season that illustrated Penny's ability to run through contact.

"The one against Hawaii, there was a big 6-4, 250-pound middle linebacker and Rashaad burst through the hole and the guy kind of falls off on him, and it was like something out of 'Little Giants' or something because he drags him 10 yards while he's hanging onto his T-shirt," Ramsey said. "The one against UNLV, he bounces outside and he runs over this guy and then he runs for another 25 yards. He's got a pretty cool highlight reel."

Neither the Seahawks nor Penny have made any secret of the fact that he has to improve in pass protection. How quickly he does that will go a long way toward determining how quickly he sees the field. After the team finished its rookie minicamp Sunday, Carroll expressed confidence Penny will be up to speed in that regard and praised his pass-catching despite some drops over the three practices. Penny looked like a receiver on one play when he beat a jam from a cornerback off the line of scrimmage and then caught a back-shoulder throw on the sideline. A few plays later, he let a well-placed deep ball go through his hands.

"He can do whatever we need to do in the throwing game," Carroll said.

What has been perhaps the biggest question about Penny's selection isn't really about Penny specifically. Some observers will cite data that suggests running backs aren't worth taking in the first round.

"We’re not just handing him the job; he has to come in here and battle, which he’s ready to do," Carroll said. "He’s such an excited player and he’s so versatile and dynamic that we know every time he gets his hands on the ball, he can score a touchdown. That’s in the running game and the passing game because he’s very gifted catching the football and running routes as well.”