Chris Carson Can Be the Key to Seattle's Rushing Resurgence
Make no mistake about it: 2017 was the year of the rookie running back.
One would have to go as far back in time as 2008 to find a class of incoming ball-carriers that offered as much talent and immediate production as the incredible group of freshmen who hit the NFL gridiron a season ago.
This is true of early-round studs like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Dalvin Cook, as well as mid-round steals like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt. However, it's equally accurate of hidden gems found in the later rounds, like Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson.
Despite posting an impressive 6.8 yards per carry in his final collegiate season and a strong 120.8 SPARQ score at the Combine (74th percentile according to Player Profiler), there simply wasn't much demand for the former junior college transfer in such a deep and talented class of runners. As such, he waited a long time to hear his name called during the NFL Draft.
Over the course of the three-day extravaganza, 27 running backs were selected. Carson was the 26th, narrowly avoiding going undrafted by virtue of the Seahawks scooping him up with the 249th overall pick (fifth-to-last).
It's understandable, considering he'd only logged 231 carries during his two seasons at Oklahoma State. After all, as a senior, he had missed four games due to a hand injury and had played firmly behind then-rookie tailback Justice Hill.
With such a small college resume, Carson had a long path to a roster spot. Entering camp, his NFL future was very much up in the air. The Seahawks had signed free agent Eddie Lacy to a one-year pact worth up to $5 million and still had high hopes for Thomas Rawls as he recovered from a fibula injury that cost him much of the 2016 season. Conventional wisdom suggested the two veterans would compete for the lead role, while Carson and a handful of other runners would merely be looking to secure a roster spot.
But that's not what happened.
A Promising Premiere
During the preseason, Carson went from unheralded seventh-rounder to roster lock in no time, taking 24 carries for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns while adding 4 receptions for another 64 yards in the process. Arguably the team's best tailback throughout training camp, his talent was no longer a secret.
As the regular season approached, Rawls was still recovering from a preseason high-ankle sprain and Lacy was coming off a frustrating summer. Ultimately, the former was declared inactive for Week 1 and surprisingly, Carson drew the start. It was a huge accomplishment for a player who had been on the roster bubble mere months ago.
While he didn't enjoy a featured workload, he still led the team in snaps (26), carries (6), rushing yards (39), and yards per carry (6.5) during a 17-9 loss to the Green Bay Packers. It was an impressive showing considering no other Seahawks runner accumulated more than 11 yards on the ground.
When Week 2 rolled around, Rawls was back in the lineup and had reclaimed the starting role. That distinction ultimately made no difference, as Carson went on to produce the best game of his brief season, taking 20 carries for 93 yards, playing 62% of the team's snaps, and leading Seattle to a 12-9 road win over the San Francisco 49ers.
It was at this point that the media started taking notice of the rookie, but his play was no surprise to the people around him. In the video below, listen to how head coach Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson talk about the young tailback:
As the game went on, @chriscarson29 got stronger. 💪#SFvsSEA pic.twitter.com/6UksRAkDLE
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) September 18, 2017
With such a ringing endorsement from his coach, Carson appeared to have taken control of the team's backfield and looked poised for a solid year, but much like fellow impressive rookie Dalvin Cook, his season came to an unceremonious conclusion when he suffered a nasty-looking injury in Week 4.
Indeed, Carson suffered a fractured leg and a severe high-ankle sprain, and even though he was expected to make a full recovery (it was speculated that he might have returned had the Seahawks made the playoffs), it was a terrible way to end what looked like a promising freshman campaign.
A Crowded Backfield
From there on out, the Seahawks ran a true running back committee, mixing in veterans Rawls and Lacy with youngsters like J.D. McKissic and Mike Davis. While Davis had his moments and McKissic proved to be a valuable contributor as a pass-catcher, the running game was never as productive as when Carson was lined up in the backfield.
Investigating some of the numbers produced by Seattle runners last season validates this statement. For the purposes of this exercise, we're going to exclude anyone who received fewer than 20 total touches, so C.J. Prosise and Tre Madden don't make the cut.
At first glance, these totals don't look too impressive. In fact, none of the five men performed particularly well in terms of Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. NEP is our in-house metric that employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per play basis.
The league average for this metric was -0.05 so looking at the data, only Carson and McKissic were above that level. This is reflected in their solid but unspectacular YPC tallies, and reasonably modest rushing Success Rates. But a quick perusal of the the numbers produced by Davis, Rawls, and Lacy illustrates how much more efficient Carson and McKissic truly were.
|Player||Rushing Yards Per Contest||Yards Per Carry||Rushing NEP Per Play||Rushing Success Rate||Receptions Per Contest||Yards Per Reception||Reception NEP Per Target|
Carson was also the team's best runner in Football Outsiders' Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) rating. He produced a 7.7% DVOA, which not only led the Seahawks, but was actually superior to the four highest-drafted runners in Fournette (2.1%), McCaffrey (-6.4%), Cook (7.6%), and Joe Mixon (1.8%), albeit in a much small workload. An impressive accomplishment, considering the draft status and pedigree of those men.
With that said, when considering the state of Seattle's offensive line, Carson's play looks even better. Per Jeff Ratcliffe, Seahawks runners averaged only 1.15 yards before contact per rushing attempt, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. It's incredibly difficult to produce on the ground when you're slamming into defenders just beyond the line of scrimmage. The fact that he was able to surpass 4.0 yards per carry under these circumstances is truly impressive.
Furthermore, Carson proved he is a complete back and not a mere early-down runner. Even though there is no question that McKissic was the Seahawks' best third-down option, impressively (and somewhat surprisingly), Carson was the team's most efficient pass-catching back, averaging 0.72 Reception NEP per target. That isn't to suggest he should operate as a satellite player going forward, but it highlights the versatile skill that impressed coaches during his rookie campaign.
An Optimistic Outlook
At this moment, only Carson, Prosise, and Madden are under contract for 2018. Lacy is set to hit the open market, Davis and Rawls are restricted free agents, and McKissic is an exclusive player, so he likely isn't going anywhere.
McKissic should retain a role on third downs and Prosise will also be significant a factor in the passing game if he can remain healthy. It would also be a surprise if the 'Hawks didn't make an attempt to re-sign Davis after he performed capably down the stretch. Furthermore, the incoming running back draft class is once again deep and talented, and the franchise could invest in another young runner.
Still, Carson was the most impressive tailback on the Seahawks' roster in 2017. Whenever he was on the field, he provided a spark to the running game this franchise has consistently lacked since Marshawn Lynch was racking up Pro Bowl appearances. Russell Wilson carried this offense on his back last season and earned MVP consideration for his remarkable play, but he can't do it on his own. The foundation of Seattle's offense is built on a strong running game.
That's where Carson comes in.
It's impossible to truly assess a player's future based upon 56 career touches, but Carson passed the eye test and performed well in virtually every statistical category as a rookie. With fresh legs and talent to spare, he's positioned to be a productive NFL runner for seasons to come.
Pete Carroll loves him, general manager John Schneider has only drafted a running back in the first two rounds once, and the team's backfield could be considerably less crowded next season. It's entirely possible, if not probable that Carson will be starting in the backfield come Week 1. If all the available data is to be believed, he's more than ready for the challenge.