RENTON — As the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, and the first running back selected that year, Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette has a contract worth $27.15 million based on the league’s four-year rookie scale.
The Seahawks’ Chris Carson was the 249th selection (out of 253) in that same 2017 draft, and the 29th out of 30 running backs taken. As such, his four-year rookie contract, according to OverTheCap.com, is worth a total of $2.4 million.
The Seahawks indeed struck seventh-round gold at the bottom of the bargain bin, as Carson has become as one of the most productive running backs in the NFL in his third season.
Through 10 games, Carson has 1,042 yards from scrimmage, eighth-most in the NFL, and he’s averaging 20 carries per game — second-most in the NFL this season and the most by a Seahawks running back in any season since Shaun Alexander in 2005, the year he won the NFL MVP award.
Just how valuable is Carson to the Seahawks?
To try quantify that question, it is instructive to analyze his value relative to Fournette’s. Here’s one way to measure them:
Taking into account his production (104.2 combined rushing and receiving yards per game) and his 2019 per game salary ($41,330), Carson is costing the Seahawks $397 for every yard he has gained so far this season.
Based on that figure, Carson is the best bargain among all NFL running backs (see chart).
Fournette, meanwhile, is averaging 118.3 yards from scrimmage while making $462,799 per game. That averages out to a cost of $3,912 per yard he has gained.
Based on that figure, Fournette is the NFL’s most expensive top-tier running back.
The average price-per-yard gained among the top 10 running backs this season: $1,488.
Run, rest, recover
As most of his Seahawks teammates ran through light warmup drills at the start of practice Wednesday, Carson was flat on his back in one corner of a grass field.
There, Jamie Yanchar, the Seahawks assistant strength and conditioning coach, was pushing, pulling and contorting Carson’s legs in one direction and then another.
This is how Carson spends much of his days during the week. Whether he’s stretching on his own, or with trainers, or getting regular massages or working out in the weight room, Carson makes taking care of his body his No. 1 priority.
That doesn’t make him unique among NFL players, but it is paramount for a running back whose workload is as great as Carson’s is — and will likely continue to be as the 8-2 Seahawks make a run at a playoff bid over the next six weeks.
Carson’s 227 touches this season — 200 carries and 27 receptions — rank fifth-most in the NFL. He is on pace to finish the season with 320 carries, which would not only shatter his career high but would be the most carries by a Seahawks running back since Alexander in 2005.
“I feel good,” said Carson, who spent much of the Seahawks’ bye last week resting and recuperating alongside his 8-month-old dog, a Cane Corso named Sosa.
“Like you said, career high in touches — you don’t really realize that until you get later on into the season and you start feeling it. But at this point in time I feel pretty good.”
A couple years ago, when Carson was a rookie, Seahawks running backs coach Chad Morton said it could be a challenge for him to gauge how Carson was truly feeling on any given day — mostly because of Carson’s quiet nature.
“We’ve become closer over the years — I just know him more,” Morton said. “He’s not going to complain. I always want to know, ‘What’s going on? Talk to me. I’m not necessarily going to let you out of stuff, but I want to be aware of it.’ …
“So he’s growing — he’s grown tremendously with that. Because there’s a difference between injured and just being sore and a little fatigued. And he’s been great with that.”
Morton has a better sense now for when he can push his star running back and when he needs to pull back during workouts and practices. Lately, there’s been more push than pull, and Morton has no plans to limit Carson’s touches going forward.
What’s the best way to quantity how valuable Carson has been?
Let’s not overthink this. Perhaps the most simple explanation is the best one: The Seahawks rarely take him off the field. Carson has played in 75% of the team’s offense snaps this season, fifth-most in the NFL and up from his rate of 42.5% in 2018.
“He’s one of the best in the NFL,” Morton said, “and it’s hard to take out one of the best.”
That, Morton said, also explains why second-year running back Rashaad Penny hasn’t been featured more in the Seahawks offense. Carson is simply too good — too valuable — to give way to anyone else.
“It’s not like we don’t want to get (Penny) the ball and we don’t trust him or anything like that. He has a tremendous amount of skill,” Morton said. “It’s just hard when you have a top back in the whole NFL and he’s doing well — it’s the situation.”
Morton is quick to add that Carson hasn’t been perfect. Carson’s fumble issues were a predominant story in September, and those can’t be ignored (he had another fumble against San Francisco last week that center Joey Hunt recovered). And, Morton added, Carson was responsible for two of the 49ers’ five sacks of Russell Wilson because the running back missed basic protection pickups.
“That should have never happened,” Morton said.
And yet, as a seventh-round draft pick, Carson has obviously far exceeded any reasonable expectations.
“We knew he could do some of this stuff,” Morton said. “We’re not surprised, but it’s cool that he’s taken it to this level.”
How valuable is Chris Carson to the Seattle Seahawks?
We could get a definitive answer soon.
Teams can rework contracts after players’ third season, meaning Carson could negotiate a contract extension after this season. Is that his hope?
“I’ll let that all play itself out,” he said.
There is recent precedent for the Seahawks to give core players new deals after Year 3. They did it for Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman and Tyler Lockett, among others.
The key question for the Seahawks might be a philosophical one: How much more do they want to invest at running back?
Part of that answer will have less to do with Carson and more to do with how much the Seahawks really believe in Penny, who as a 2018 first-round pick is scheduled to earn $6.3 million combined in 2020 and ’21.
How much might they be willing to spend on Carson? That’s another question to pick up again in the offseason.
For now, this remains quantifiably true: The Seahawks have already gotten more out of Carson than they ever bargained for.