Chris Carson finds himself in that netherworld inhabited by all high-quality running backs in a league that is increasingly cautious — if not dismissive — about their worth.
Carson enters the 2020 season as a vital cog in the Seahawks’ success. But he also enters with his rookie contract in its fourth and final year, and far from a guarantee that he will be back with Seattle in 2021, regardless of how well he performs.
When asked Tuesday if the team had discussed his future in Seattle — i.e., a new contract — Carson replied, “Not really.” Which leaves him squarely in the netherworld I mentioned — vital to the Seahawks’ present but hazy for their future.
Carson’s real-time value to the Seahawks is undeniable. Carson fits coach Pete Carroll’s blueprint to a T (give or take a fumble or two). He’s a tough, physical, hard-driving back in an offense predicated on just that. The flip side of letting Russ cook, the social-media phrase used as a plea to take the restrictions off quarterback Russell Wilson, is that it would mean less sizzle for Carson, who has satiated Carroll’s appetite for a bruising, ball-control running game better than anyone since Marshawn Lynch. Carson is among the best in the league in both breaking tackles and yards after contact.
But the paradox is that backs of Carson’s ilk are being devalued in the long term, in part because of the success they’ve shown leading up to their walk year. Analytics, and real life, have both revealed the risk in giving a second contract to any back who has carried the rock with regularity for four years.
Todd Gurley, who withered in L.A. after the Rams gave him a $57 million deal and was eventually released, is a case study, but there are countless other examples. The sad reality is that the pounding taken by NFL running backs often comes with a steep cost — an accelerated cycle of hitting one’s peak and then one’s decline.
That’s not to say lucrative deals don’t still happen for running backs, mind you. In the offseason, the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey become the highest-paid back in NFL history at four years, $64 million. And just on Tuesday, Joe Mixon of the Bengals signed a four-year, $48 million extension. That happened a few days after Jacksonville released Leonard Fournette, a first-rounder in the same draft as Mixon (and Carson), coming off a year in which he rushed for 1,152 yards.
Yes, the Mixon deal caught Carson’s notice, because Mixon is precisely on Carson’s contractual timetable, having been selected, as mentioned, in the 2017 draft. Of course, Mixon was picked in the second round, No. 48 overall. Carson was picked in the seventh round, No. 249 overall — out of 253.
“That’s just the NFL,” Carson said in a Zoom video call Tuesday. “You see someone get paid, your phone blows up, everyone hitting you up, like, ‘Did you see that so and so got paid?’ I try not to focus too much on it. Me and Joe Mixon have a relationship, so I’m happy for him. I reached out to him, but I try not to pay too much attention to it.”
Carson has plenty of other stuff weighing on his mind. He has missed much of camp to deal with deaths in the family. He politely declined to discuss the situation, other than thanking Carroll and general manager John Schneider for letting him leave to tend to the matter. Carroll noted how Carson, who turns 26 this month, seemed to have “fresh legs” upon his return.
“I don’t really consider myself having fresh legs,” Carson said. “I see what he was talking about, because I haven’t been practicing a lot. But I’ve been working out hard, just getting my mind off the situations I was going through. It does feel good to be back out there running around.”
The big question with Carson, other than his contract — and inextricably linked to it — is his health. Though his productivity has been high, Carson has yet to make it through a full NFL season. As a rookie he broke his left leg after four games and had season-ending surgery. Carson exploded for 1,151 yards in 2018 and tied for seventh in the NFL with nine touchdowns, but he missed two games and had to battle hip and groin injuries. Last year was even better — he finished fifth in the NFL with 1,252 yards — but missed the last game and the postseason because of a hip injury.
The status of his hip, which didn’t require surgery, will play a role in deciding if the Seahawks want to commit to Carson long term — a decision that will almost certainly be deferred until after the season. Carson said he feels 100 percent, and that he’s not stressing about whether he’ll hold up.
“I can’t really think about injuries when I’m out there,” he said. “I just play. My mind-set is going to be the same this year as it was last year. That’s just who I am, I guess.”
The progress of Rashaad Penny, who is on the physically unable to perform list after surgery late last season to repair a torn ACL and other damage in his left knee, will also play into Seattle’s decision on Carson. Penny was drafted in the first round in 2018 with the plan to slide him into the starting job. But he has to show that his knee will allow him to do so.
The Seahawks have two young backs, as well — DeeJay Dallas, a fourth-round draft pick, and Travis Homer, in his second year — who could emerge, as Carson once did. The Seahawks also signed veteran Carlos Hyde, coming off a 1,000-yard season with Houston.
Carson, however, enters the season as the Seahawks’ lead back. He ended a long period of instability at the position following the departure of Lynch after the 2015 season, and has only gotten better each year. That includes his receiving out of the backfield.
Lynch was the last Seattle running back to get a substantial contract, which happened twice — with diminishing returns. Teams have been more reluctant to devote substantial financial resources to running backs when the analytics show not only that their decline is often precipitous, but that comparable replacements can be found for much cheaper.
On the other hand, if Carson has another stellar year — and makes it through to the end — the lure of keeping him around would be strong.
“Of course, it’s something that’s on my mind,” he said of his contract situation. “You see a lot of guys, they’re starting to get paid, but I try not to let it distract me from the season. I try to push it away.”
Carson’s unsettled future, however, will be a definite undercurrent to Seattle’s 2020 season.