Chris Carson’s penchant for putting his head down and plowing through defenders’ chests with the brute force of a medieval jouster made him one of the NFL’s most intimidating runners. As the perfect spiritual successor to Beast Mode, he made a career out of crashing through and over would-be tacklers. When he was able to suit up for at least 75 percent of the Seahawks’ contests, Carson broke tackles at a dizzying pace because you didn’t Chris Carson, he hit you.
Ultimately, that physicality took a toll on his frame. A year ago, Carson signed a two-year extension worth between 14.6 million and $24.625 million if it reached the third year. Instead, Carson’s final season ended in Week 4 so that he could undergo cervical surgery to repair “chronic pain.” At the time, Carson acknowledged that there was just a spot in his vertebrae that needed to be addressed which turned out to be the football equivalent of suggesting a coup is just a dust-up.
In actuality, the cervical fusion that Carson had performed on his neck was career-ending. The surgery was intended to relieve the pressure a herniated disc was creating on a nerve root and spine. The souvenir surgeons left behind gives you a better idea of how significant the surgery was. Not surprisingly, Carson announced the end of his NFL career on Tuesday.
A failed physical designation allows Carson to collect millions in injury protection benefits, but the big paydays he anticipated collecting in 2022 and 2023 are hypotheticals now. Carson’s exit opens a door for Rashaad Penny to sprint through. When Carson assumed the featured runner gig in 2018, he relegated the then-rookie to understudy status, and never relinquished that role as the Seahawks led the entire NFL in rushing that season.
In Carson’s place, the Seahawks’ fifth-year back will finally start the 2022 season as Seattle’s undisputed No.1 pick, which may be a gift or a curse. On one hand, Penny was chewing up yards in 2021 as the No. 1 back. It’s been a long journey for Penny from first-round bust to potential starter in Week 1.
Unfortunately, he might see him facing stacked boxes as defenses shrug at the notion of Drew Lock making them pay through the air. Fortunately, Penny has fresh legs after only accumulating 161 carries in his first three seasons as a pro, but when we last saw him he was the NFL’s most effective running back. Between Weeks 16 and 18, Penny rushed 102 times for a league-leading 706 yards in that span.
In his limited carries prior to last season, Penny averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry as a rookie in 2018, 5.7 in 2019, and 3.1 in 2020 when he was limited to 11 touches in three games. The last time we saw Penny as the starter for the entirety of a season was during his senior year at San Diego State when he made waves by rushing for over 2,200 yards, 23 touchdowns, and led the nation in missed tackles forced.
Carson’s retirement is the latest instance of a tailback getting dumped in the running back graveyard at the age of 27. Penny turns 27 next February and if he stumbles out of the gate, rookie Kenneth Walker will be nipping at his heels.
Penny’s competition has even fresher legs than he does. After being an afterthought reserve in Wake Forest’s backfield, Walker led the NCAA in yards after contact and missed tackles forced last season after transferring to Michigan State. His top-end speed won’t wow anyone, but his patience as a runner, strength, and wiggle in tight space stand out on film. In his lone season as the starter, Walker earned the Doak Walker and Walter Camp Player of the Year awards.
Seattle’s selection of Walker with the 41st pick bothered the Seahawks faithful. The team had holes at defensive end, offensive line, and quarterback. While his draft capital was better saved for a different position, he individually has the tools to be a starter, but it may not happen in 2022. Penny is so good off the radar for so long, that most people forgot he can burst through arm tackles to make runs like this.
Penny, who is currently signed to a one-year deal, will be playing for a bigger contract — likely looking for his only shot at a big payday — but Seattle will also explore what they have in Walker. Penny and Walker battling to be the featured back feels like déjà vu to 2018, when Carson emerged as the starter. The Seahawks hope for an equally prosperous outcome in 2022. For Seattle, Pete Carroll, and all running backs involved, this entire season is about determining a new hierarchy. In Carson’s absence, they have big shoes to fill.