How the Seahawks and Lions have defied a recent NFL trend

JOHN SCHNEIDER HAD never seen it in his quarter-century in the NFL.

Around the end of the first round of the 2018 draft, the Seattle Seahawks general manager got a call from an executive of another team who was trying to gauge Schneider's interest in an NBA-style trade for running back Rashaad Penny -- the player Seattle had just chosen No. 27 overall a few minutes earlier.

"A true rarity," Schneider said that night when relaying the story to reporters, without mentioning the other team.

As it turns out, the call came from the Detroit Lions.

And as unusual as it was, it was fitting when you consider how each franchise has continued to place a high value on running backs, even as the tide has changed drastically in the NFL at that position. The Seahawks and Lions -- who will meet Sunday at Ford Field (1 p.m. ET, FOX) -- have each spent three first- or second-round picks on running backs since 2018. No other team has spent more than one such pick in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

In addition to Penny, the Seahawks spent second-round picks on Kenneth Walker III in 2022 and Zach Charbonnet in 2023. The Lions' run on backs has spanned two regimes. After missing out on Penny, then-GM Bob Quinn took Kerryon Johnson in the second round in 2018 and spent another second-round pick on D'Andre Swift two years later. The new brain trust of GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell took Jahmyr Gibbs No. 12 overall this past spring -- analytics and outside opinions of the value of running backs be damned.

"Yeah, I just kind of look at it as they're all football players," said Holmes, who was hired by Detroit in 2021 after spending nearly two decades in the Rams' front office. "They're all football players and if they can help you, they can help you. I understand the narrative about that, but ... I don't think anybody's said in 2016 or '17 or '18, 'Wow, Todd [Gurley], he really picked him at 10.' No, he was just a really good running back and he was one of the top prospects in the draft.

"We didn't really bat an eye about it."

Said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: "They're kind of in the middle of the game. If you want to run the football, it's great to have guys you can really count on that can make things happen, and make your line better and make your whole team better. We just really value them. Johnny [Schneider] and I have been like that forever."

THE NFL IS increasingly seeing the running back position differently.

The devaluing of running backs hasn't just played out at the negotiating table. Thirty-seven running backs were selected in the first two rounds of the past 10 drafts, 19 fewer than in the previous 10 drafts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The number from the two prior decades was 59 (1994-2003) and 72 (1984-1993).

In 2022, no running backs were taken in the first round. That's why Gibbs was surprised when the Lions took him 12th overall at the 2023 draft, making him the second running back off the board in the first round behind Bijan Robinson at No. 8 to the Atlanta Falcons.

"Yeah, because running backs usually get picked [later] in the draft because of value stuff," Gibbs said. "Yeah, we don't really usually get picked top-15 like that. When I got the call at 12, I was pretty shocked. It was cool though."

One of the arguments against spending high-end draft capital on running backs, as explained in by ESPN's Bill Barnwell, is the opportunity cost of not reaping significant savings by hitting on a draft pick at a more premium position. Because the top of the running back market lags well behind that of other positions, a good wide receiver or pass-rusher on a cheap rookie contract will generate much more value than a running back compared to what a veteran with similar production would cost at those positions.

And for teams to hit on a running back, he has to stay healthy while playing a position that takes a physical toll.

But therein lies part of the Seahawks' rationale. They've been one of the NFL's most run-heavy offenses since Carroll took over in 2010.

"The attrition rate," Schneider said. "It's a very, very hard position to play ... If you want to run the ball, if you want to be a physical football team, you're going to need more than two or three guys. The year we brought Marshawn [Lynch] back, we lost three running backs in a matter of like 10 days."

Schneider was referring to what happened late in 2019, when Chris Carson, Penny and C.J. Prosise all went down with season-ending injuries in December. The Seahawks went from a potential No. 1 seed in the playoffs to a wild-card berth and a divisional-round exit.

They picked Penny the year before amid uncertainty as to how Carson would come back from his season-ending leg injury. Penny missed nearly half of Seattle's games over five seasons due to injury. The cruel irony of that is the Seahawks picked him over future Pro Bowler Nick Chubb because of his durability in college; they gave him the highest medical grade they've ever assigned to a prospect, a perfect 6 out of 6.

This summer, Seattle's top four running backs all suffered injuries over the first two weeks of training camp. Walker (groin), Charbonnet (shoulder) and seventh-round pick Kenny McIntosh (who will remain on injured reserve until at least Week 6 with a left knee sprain) all missed time while DeeJay Dallas played through pain.

"We just don't think you have enough," Schneider said. "And then also just taking the best players regardless of a specific need or a specific value."

SCHNEIDER RATED WALKER and Breece Hall among the 15 best players in last year's draft. Walker led all rookies with 1,050 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Hall, a second-round pick of the New York Jets, was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before tearing his ACL in October. The Buffalo Bills' James Cook, the third and final running back taken in last year's second round, finished with 507 rushing yards.

Walker (12 carries, 64 yards) got off to a strong start in the opener before Seattle's offense hit a wall in the second half. Charbonnet (three carries, 11 yards) hardly factored.

Gibbs is the Lions' highest-drafted running back since Barry Sanders in 1989. But as with Robinson and conversation about their respective draft values, it may be best to view them more as offensive playmakers, given how much they figure to produce as pass-catchers.

Gibbs led Alabama with 44 catches last season (444 yards); he also led in rushing yards (926 yards on 151 attempts). He gained 42 yards on seven carries and added two catches for 18 yards in Detroit's season-opening win over the Kansas City Chiefs while splitting touches with David Montgomery.

The Lions are easing Gibbs into the system without trying to overload him with too much responsibility with Montgomery also in the backfield, fulfilling the power back role. Campbell envisions them becoming a duo like Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were for the New Orleans Saints, a comparison that Lions rookie safety Brian Branch also made.

"Gibbs is a generational talent, Alvin Kamara 2.0. He does a lot of things that are unteachable and un-guardable," said Branch, who played with Gibbs at Alabama. "I feel like his running style is [(like]) nobody I've ever seen. He can get in and out of holes, cut easily. Him being able to be a receiver I feel like sets him apart, and the sky is the limit for Jahmyr."