INDIANAPOLIS – They’re due.
It’s been 10 years since the Seattle Seahawks drafted a tailback in the first round. Back then they got it right, selecting Shaun Alexander 19th overall. Alexander went on to win league MVP honors in the team’s Super Bowl season in 2005, and finished his career as the franchise rushing leader.
The only other tailback Seattle has selected in the first round is Curt Warner, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1983 draft, and a member of the team’s Ring of Honor after an impressive eight-year career.
Selecting running backs early has been the exception, not the rule, for the Seahawks, who have looked to free agency to fill the void after Alexander’s departure in 2007.
The alternatives to Alexander have not been productive.
Since ranking third in the league in rushing in 2005, the Seahawks have finished no better than 14th overall. Seattle signed free agents Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett and Edgerrin James to serve as stopgaps at running back, but none was able to provide a consistent ground game for the offense.
But Seattle found a diamond in the rough in Justin Forsett. A seventh-round draft choice in 2008, the Seahawks let Forsett slip away to Indianapolis when Seattle waived him after the first week of his rookie season, only to later add him to the team’s practice squad when the Colts released Forsett a month later. The elusive runner out of Cal emerged as one of the few bright spots for Seattle in 2009, finishing with 619 rushing yards and averaging 5.4 yards a carry.
New head coach Pete Carroll said Forsett and Jones are part of the team’s plans to improve the running game next season, along with adding a third back to the mix.
“I think we’re fortunate to have two guys,” Carroll said. “And we’re anxious to find out more. Julius was consistent, and Forsett had his moments. He had some big moments; he averaged over five yards a carry. That’s significant in this league. So I think they’re different. They have different roles to fill. But they both have the ability to be effective.”
Carroll has one of the deepest drafts in recent memory in running back prospects to choose from to select a runner to complement Seattle’s backfield tandem.
Looking for game-changing speed? Clemson’s C.J. Spiller and Cal product Jahvid Best fit the bill.
Spiller is considered the top running back in the draft, topping out at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash and finishing his college career with 21 touchdowns of 51 yards or longer. Spiller also is a good pass catcher out of the backfield and explosive in the return game.
Best topped all running backs at the NFL scouting combine with a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, and is familiar with Seattle’s zone-blocking scheme, having performed in a similar offense at Cal. However, some scouts are concerned with Best’s health after he suffered a season-ending concussion in a scary fall diving for the end zone against Oregon State in early November.
Teams looking for big, powerful backs with speed will find plenty of those as well. Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart boosted his stock by running a surprising 4.53 in the 40-yard dash. Gerhart, a bruiser who terrorized Pacific-10 Conference defenses at Stanford, measured in at 6-foot, 231 pounds. And Auburn’s Ben Tate flew under the radar most of the season. But at 5-10, 220 pounds, Tate ran a 4.43 40-yard time and bench pressed 225 pounds 26 times, tying the most for a running back at the NFL combine.
But perhaps the best combination of speed and strength is Ryan Mathews, a Fresno State product who led the nation in rushing yards per game (151.3). At 5-11, 225 pounds, and with a 4.45 40-yard time, Mathews could be the every-down back NFL teams covet.
Carroll came away from the combine impressed with the overall depth at running back.
“You’re always looking for guys that can do things and playmaking ability,” Carroll said. “There are some wonderful speed guys in this draft, extraordinary speed guys. And guys with catching ability that can add more dimensions to the running back spot.
“And I’ve had enough experience with our running backs over the years that I know they come in different shapes and sizes, and it’s what they bring that is unique, and that makes them special. And we’ll fit it together when we see what we come up with.”
But Carroll understands he doesn’t necessarily have to select a running back in the first round. Seattle offensive line coach Alex Gibbs has proven he can create an effective run game with solid but not spectacular running backs. When Gibbs coached the offensive line in Denver, Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis all ran for over 1,000 yards in a season for the Broncos. None was drafted in the first round.
However, more than size or speed, Carroll wants his backs to run hard. A hard-nosed running game was a signature of Carroll’s offenses at USC, and he’d like to establish the same thing in Seattle.
“I think it’s a huge factor for us – in fact for our entire football team – when you can run the football with authority and with attitude,” Carroll said. “It helps your throwing game. It helps the pass protection. It helps your quarterback play better. It accentuates the style of our defense that we like to play.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437
RUNNING IN PLACE
The Seattle Seahawks haven’t drafted many tailbacks in the past dozen years. None have been drafted in the first round since Shaun Alexander was the 19 overall pick in 2000. In fact, Curt Warner, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1983 draft, was Seattle’s only other tailback selected in the first round.
2008Justin Forsett7thAveraged over 5 yards a carry in 2009
2002Maurice Morris2ndA capable backup to Alexander
2000Shaun Alexander1stLeague MVP, team rushing leader.
1999Charlie Rodgers 5thA good return man for Seattle
1998Ahman Green3rdExplosive, but fumbles led to trade
Eric D. Williams, staff writer