RENTON, Wash. -- Two of the Seattle Seahawks' 2018 draft picks, like several of the team's moves earlier in the offseason, had one thing in common: they were made with an eye towards fixing a badly broken running game.
"It was right on the mark. It's exactly what we hoped to do," coach Pete Carroll said at the conclusion of the draft when asked how important it was to land Penny and Dissly given the emphasis on improving that part of their offense. "We wanted to see if we could factor it in. We were thinking that there was a good chance that we might have a shot at a running back because it was a great draft for those guys, and then Will was exactly in [line with] that. Even [earlier] in the offseason and the things that we’ve done, there's a number of things that are leading to that. We gave ourselves a chance to get better, there’s no question."
The Seahawks finished 23rd in rushing last year and 25th in 2016, a steep and swift decline for a team that was never worse than fourth over the previous four seasons. But that only begins to explain how bad it was.
Of Seattle's 1,629 rushing yards last season, 472 of them came via 56 Russell Wilson scrambles, according to ESPN charting. Each figure led the league. That means that on designed runs, the Seahawks averaged a measly 3.27 yards per carry, much worse than their overall YPC average of 3.98. Excluding scramble plays, Seattle averaged 3.76 yards per carry in 2016 and between 3.83 and 4.77 over the previous four seasons.
What's more: Wilson accounted for three of the team's four rushing touchdowns last season -- yes, only four -- and led the team with 586 rushing yards while no running back produced more than 240. He became only the fifth quarterback since 1970 to lead his team in rushing.
As far as Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value over Average), the Seahawks ranked 22nd in rushing last year. They were also 22nd in rushing DVOA in 2016 after finishing no worse than seventh from 2012 to 2015.
That should provide a sense of how badly Seattle's running game has deteriorated and why it was an offseason priority to fix.
Here's how the Seahawks -- they hope, at least -- have done that.
Replacing Tom Cable with Mike Solari
The Seahawks hired Solari as their new offensive-line coach in January after firing Cable, who had held the position since 2011 and whose dismissal came not a moment too soon for most fans. The disapproval intensified over the past two seasons as Seattle's running game -- which Cable oversaw -- fell apart.
Solari, highly-regarded throughout the league, has been a team's primary OL coach for 19 NFL seasons. In 10 of those seasons, his teams have finished in the top 10 in rushing and eight of them have finished in the top five.
By all indications, Solari won't have the title of run-game coordinator like Cable did. The Seahawks will instead streamline the arrangement with new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer holding full control of the offense. Seattle will also be different stylistically with Solari bringing more power blocking compared with the mostly-zone scheme that Cable ran.
"Mike does bring a little different variety," Carroll said earlier this month on 710 ESPN Seattle. "We’re still going to run zone plays. They’re still part of our offense, but Mike is a really good angle blocking background guy, and so he brings us the power, he brings us some ... plays where we can get the ball on the edge and we’ll be able to catch up a little bit differently to just take advantage of our guys."
Signing D.J. Fluker
Here's an indication of how much faith the Seahawks are putting in Solari to right their offensive line: They made only one change to the starting five from the end of last season.
But they feel that one change -- signing D.J. Fluker to play right guard -- will make a difference, particularly in the run game. ESPN's Jordan Raanan noted that in the six games Fluker (6-foot-5, 342 pounds) started last season for the Giants, they averaged 110.5 rushing yards compared with 86.1 without him in the starting lineup.
Fluker signed a one-year deal with Seattle worth $1.5 million, which represents a bargain compared with the nearly $8 million they paid last season to another free-agent guard, Luke Joeckel. He wasn't re-signed after his one-year deal expired.
The Seahawks are by no means expecting Fluker to be any sort of savior. In fact, his contract details reveal only a minimal commitment from the team. They're also counting on left guard Ethan Pocic and right tackle Germain Ifedi to make strides in their second and third seasons, respectively. Left tackle Duane Brown is also healthy after playing the second half of last season with a sprained ankle that he suffered one game after he was acquired at the trade deadline.
But they think Fluker, a 2013 first-round pick by the Chargers, can help.
"He's just all football," general manager John Schneider said on 710 ESPN Seattle. "All he cares about is just mauling people, so we're really excited to add that mentality to our offensive line."
The Seahawks took the San Diego State product 27th overall after trading back from No. 18. The move was met with some criticism from those who believe even the latter half of the first round is too early to take a running back.
But that argument is based on the relative value of the position. No one disputes that a running back chosen in the first round (or any round) can make an immediate impact. It's actually been a position where rookies have been known to contribute right away. Kareem Hunt, who led the league in rushing as a rookie third-round pick last season, was the latest example.
Penny will have to unseat incumbent Chris Carson for the starting job, but the fact that the Seahawks drafted him as highly as they did suggests there's a good chance he does that.
The injury that ended Carson's rookie season in 2017 was one of many that have contributed to the instability in Seattle's backfield over the past two years. Penny, meanwhile, played in 54 of 54 games in college. And while he wasn't a full-time starter until his senior season, when he led the nation in rushing with 2,248 yards to go along with 23 touchdowns, that also means he has less wear and tear than others.
"This is really the addition, the element that we were hoping to factor in to this season," Carroll said. "We like our running backs. We've got a good, young room of guys that are all going to be competing. But this just gives us one more chance to really make it an explosive aspect. He'll help us in the running game by being able to run the ball inside and outside. He’s been a downhill runner but he's also been able to 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. So he has big-play ability. That just makes such a difference when you’re defending us. We’ll figure out how it complements with the other fellas, but he’s going to bring something really explosive that’s going to be a great dynamic for our football team.”
The Seahawks will miss Graham in the red zone, to be sure. They will not miss his blocking. While Graham may have improved to some degree in that regard over his three seasons in Seattle, those with trained eyes will tell you that he never became a strong blocker and at times didn't seem particularly interested in the task.
Dickson, whom Seattle viewed as the best blocking tight end available in free agency, will be an upgrade in that respect even if he's less of a threat to score. Graham's backup, Luke Willson, also left in free agency, and while he was no slouch as a blocker, Dissly should give Seattle more there based on how the team has described him.
"We've really had a difficult time finding a guy that can come in and do both, who can catch the ball and run some routes for you but [who can also] be a strong blocker," Carroll said when discussing Dissly's selection. "It’s been pretty well-stated that we thought he was the best blocker in the draft, and for that reason we were tuned in to him early, and we were keeping our fingers crossed the whole time. It's why it was kind of nerve-wracking to wait it out because we thought that he really had a unique fit that he could add to our football team and make us better.”
Graham's long-awaited emergence as a goal-line threat for Seattle produced a team-high 10 touchdowns last season, all of them in the red zone. That came on 24 red-zone targets, which was only one fewer than he got over his first two seasons in Seattle combined.
It was probably no coincidence that Graham's increased usage in the red zone came at a time when Seattle couldn't run the ball, particularly in that part of the field. The Seahawks' 43 rushing attempts from inside the 20 last season produced all of 46 yards, according to ESPN charting. That ranked 31st while their YPC average of 1.07 was last by a wide margin. So perhaps a big reason why Graham finally became such a factor near the goal line was because the Seahawks, who would have previously preferred to run the ball into the end zone, realized that wasn't a viable option.
Graham's departure is one more reason why the Seahawks needed to improve their running game even if replacing him might also be part of the solution.