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Ken Walker III could do the impossible: Make analytics believe that running backs matter
Seaside Joe 1324: A retrospective on everything special about the Shrewd Negotiator
“Kenneth Walker III plays the running back position like an elite Dance Dance Revolution player. At any given moment, with each careful footstep, Walker reassesses the situation in front of him and like a great quarterback, alters the plan based on what the defense is giving him.”
That was the first paragraph that I wrote about Ken Walker III in a series of offseason newsletters that I didn’t expect to be as long and comprehensive as it turned out to be: 15 articles, over 10,000 words, and at least 100 GIFs.
The message that I wanted to send in the beginning of the series was not, “I’m out to prove that critics of the pick are wrong and deserving of a lifelong punishment handed out to them by Walker himself.” My only objective was to do the one thing that most of those people were not willing to do, which is to actually watch him play football. This is a reminder that those critics said that Walker couldn’t change their minds regardless of how good he is or would turn out to be in the NFL. They left themselves no outs, even though Ken Walker III had/has really good odds to become a Seahawks fan favorite.
Another sign that they didn’t watch Walker’s college film. Not that I want to turn this into a “film” discussion—I might as well be an amateur explorer with a ham radio, so what place do I have to talk?—but everybody has their right to an opinion on a player and the only acceptable way for me to share my opinion on Walker would be to know who Ken Walker III is for myself.
So I set out to do the research and to share it with my readers, which is also what got me got started as a blogger 20 years ago and my purpose has never changed: I have a thought, I research the thought, I share it with you.
Is categorizing an entire position as “Not worthy of further inspection” a sign of advancement in scouting thanks to analytics… or just plain, simple laziness?
Now is also not the time to proclaim that Walker’s career is already the nail in the coffin for running back-based criticisms (I don’t even want to classify this as “position-based” because no other position gets put under the microscope like this one) because a) Walker’s only getting started and b) that nail already existed for you or it doesn’t and it probably never will. To me, it’s not even about running backs at this point, it’s about the ego.
The voice in somebody’s head saying, “Hey, you can’t go back on your word now. You said that running backs don’t matter and you need to hold onto that forever.” I had that same voice once. I was writing “running backs don’t matter” before Ben Baldwin was writing that “running backs don’t matter” and I even encouraged him to keep going down that train of thought during his brief stint at Field Gulls.
My problem is that I hate being a part of the in-crowd so when I noticed that “running backs don’t matter” had crossed over a line of rationality and reason, I reconsidered my belief and went back and did more research. There will always be some room for debate but what’s been extremely evident since that conscious decision to ask if running backs matter is: They sure do matter more than the self-proclaimed “analytics experts” claim that they do.
What I’ve been anxiously waiting to monitor since the start of the Ken Walker series is how Seahawks bloggers, podcasters, tweeters, and fans who criticized the pick for positional value would react and respond to a world in which the running back on Seattle’s roster was everybody’s favorite player. It’s perfectly okay for a Seahawks social media star to laugh at the Steelers or Rams or Chiefs picking a running back early… Who’s going to push back on that? “He’s not our problem, so haha.”
But what if the Seahawks had the next Derrick Henry or Jonathan Taylor? Then what? Fans can always stomach criticisms of a player on another team. However, Twitter’s going to ratio you and comments are going to blast you back to the 90’s if you are openly against a Seattle player… who is doing great!
And since I’ve long believed that these Seahawks-based social media accounts were being driven by the dopamine hits that come with internet popularity, at what point could Walker cause the narrative to shift? Especially since the “running backs don’t matter” movement all but started in Seattle.
Walker’s last two games have been a glimpse into that newfound reality.
It is only two games, but Walker’s impact since the Rashaad Penny injury and his presence on the field over 52 touches in his first five games is a continuance of the dominance that he has had since the day he scored on a 96-yard touchdown for Wake Forest… in his college debut as a running back.
As I said in the beginning, I never expected to do a series on Walker that was as long or as comprehensive as the one that we got. Yes, he finished sixth in Heisman voting in 2021. Yes, he was the best college running back in the nation last year. Yes, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored 17 touchdowns despite sharing the backfield and getting limited touches at Wake Forest. But I didn’t expect Walker to be so consistent, so explosive, and so fascinating to watch game after game.
In many cases, play after play.
Players are supposed to have bad games. They’re supposed to have bad weeks or bad months. They’re supposed to struggle as they get used to new environments and yet Walker, one of the least-acclaimed recruits in the 2019 class, has consistently been great. That’s why I felt so empowered to start my Ken Walker III series on May 4 with the title, “Uh oh, Ken Walker III is going to be good right away :/”
Because to anyone who actually watched him play football, it was obvious… Walker matters.
Since we have a lot more Ken Walker III to watch in the future, I want to compile a brief retrospective on each article in that series. There are many new Seaside Joe readers now than there were in the summer and you may have missed many of those key highlights that led me to believe that he’s a unique player who will have a massive impact on the team. Or you devoured every word and GIF and just wanted to be reminded, as I do today.
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The first post that started it all, I wasn’t afraid to call Walker a “generational” prospect at running back once I had started to watch each of his games. Plays like this one resemble and exemplify that type of Walker we’ve seen in the early stages of his NFL career: Check out that patience.
This post features some information on Walker’s recruitment status (Walker wasn’t in the top 2,000 recruits for 2019 and he only had two FBS offers) and highlights from his freshman season at Wake Forest. It’s where I first learned that Walker has a penchant for breaking big plays in his first games or first start, just as he did with the Seahawks on his 69-yard touchdown against the Saints. Tell me you don’t recognize plays like this one already:
As a freshman at Wake Forest, which runs a “slow mesh offense” and that’s the number one reason why his numbers weren’t eyepopping as a freshman or sophomore, Walker had 98 carries for 579 yards (5.9 YPC) with four touchdowns. The slow mesh also doesn’t have its running backs catch many passes and that’s why Walker only had six of them in two years at Wake. It wasn’t because he was incapable, which is something you only learn from watching the games.
In part two, I go over the slow mesh offense in greater detail and focus on how special Walker’s freshman season was, albeit limited in opportunities as the team’s number two back. In his second game of 2020, Walker got a career-high 27 carries against NC State, gaining 131 yards and scoring three times. Doesn’t look a lot like the play that I posted at the top of this article?
Two weeks after the NC State game, Walker has 23 carries for 128 yards and three touchdowns against Virginia. Walker picked up a lot of tough yards and scored three times, including a direct snap, but he changed the game (and the lead in the fourth quarter) with this 75-yarder:
Walker had 579 yards as a sophomore (exact same total that he had as a freshman) but he scored a remarkable 13 times on only 119 attempts.
A change of pace article, I wanted to cover how Walker ended up in the transfer portal, why he chose Michigan State, and highlighted how even a year ago he wasn’t seen as an elite recruit and many expected him to be a backup in the Spartans backfield. That’s not what happened.
My explanation for why Walker would actually be a dual-threat in the NFL despite everyone else saying he was a one-dimensional back. In fact, a receiver in high school, I could see Walker regularly lining up in the slot. But now Seattle knows exactly where they need him the most, which is behind or next to Geno Smith.
Walker’s very first carry for Michigan State:
The explosive home run plays are definitely in Walker’s skillset and something he should be known for, but this 75-yard touchdown was not more than half of his debut total. In fact, Walker rushed for almost 200 more yards after this play and scored another three times.
I also love this play, look at this CUT!
This could be my favorite Ken Walker college game. He had 27 carries for 172 yards and caught three passes with a touchdown. But really there were quite a few of those “How did he do THAT?!?!” moments against the Hurricanes. I recommend just watching the whole game. As I wrote in this article, “I am getting Grayson McCall chills.”
Seasiders know how rare it is for me to give out praise like that to anybody.
After a quiet day against Nebraska (but with some solid, understated play) Walker runs for 126 yards and three touchdowns against Western Kentucky, firmly planting himself in the Heisman conversation. Walker setup MSU for an OT victory with this run.
I start with an explanation on how the transfer portal works and how Walker ended up benefiting from these new rules in a way that he would not have in previous eras. Then he dominates Rutgers with 233 yards and a 94-yard touchdown, arguably his most famous highlight amid a career full of memorable moments. I would post the GIF here but it is literally TOO LONG! 94 yards!
A return to the Walker series after a brief absence. I write about how choosing to side with “running backs don’t matter” against Ken Walker and Seahawks fans would turn out to be a bad bet. Then cover Walker’s game against Indiana that season.
Walker might have only been one more upset (Ohio State) away from winning the Heisman last season thanks to performances like this one against Michigan: 23 carries, 197 yards, five touchdowns. But losses to Purdue and Ohio State didn’t help his argument even though those defeats were definitely not his fault.
The Wolverines had one of the top defenses in the country but Walker’s “patience, vision, and burst” helped propel him through Aidan Hutchinson and company for nearly 200 yards. There were long runs, but sometimes Walker’s best highlights can be for one or two-yard gains. Here he is embarassing one of the top recruits in the nation last year:
Two more terms I’ve had for Walker this year: “Waterfalling through a defense” and nicknaming him “The Shrewd Negotiator.” The latter based on how he somehow manages to turn “obvious losses” to gains by negotiating with a defense to get much more than they’re apparently willing to offer.
The former based on how he manages to keep cutting until he finds the sideline and gains another 10 to 15 to sometimes 75 more yards.
In this one, Walker runs for 143 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland, also catching two passes for a season-high 29 yards. As I said, he’s very consistent: He can catch, he can score, he can take direct snaps, he can make people miss, he can break out of tackles, he can hit the edges, he can run up the middle… Everything we’ve seen from Walker this season is what we saw from him in college, including embarassing good linebackers.
Michigan State was a good match for Michigan. They were no match for Ohio State. There’s no question that the Spartans wanted to give as many opportunities to Walker as possible but watching the game it becomes obvious that this was never going to be his day. Even if Walker was a quarterback, that would have been true: If the other team is severely outmatching you at most positions, it’s going to be a long day.
Still, I feel that Walker showed the same NFL promise on those seven touches as he did in many of his other games.
In his final college game, Walker had 30 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown in a win over Penn State. Another interesting fact about Michigan State: They were 2-4 the year before they got Walker. Then they were 10-2 with Walker. Then when Walker decided to skip the bowl game to focus on the draft, backup Jordon Simmons had 16 carries for 23 yards against Pitt.
Now without Walker again this season, Michigan State is 3-4. His replacement Jalen Berger has been terribly unproductive, to put it nicely.
Just another excuse I came up with to recount Walker’s impressive college career and why it’s worth watching! Not only because it’s the right thing to do if you’re going to comment on Ken Walker III as a draft pick, but also because it’s damn entertaining.
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