The biggest question for Seattle’s running back position heading into 2021 free agency is also among the biggest confronting the entire team — will Chris Carson return?

As the calendar turned to March there still appeared to be no real clear answer.

The uncertainty over the exact salary cap amount appears to have somewhat slowed the overall pace of negotiations on free agents throughout the league, and Carson looks to be no exception as there’s no evidence the two sides have made any substantive progress toward a deal.

Before delving further into that, a look at Seattle’s running back situation heading into free agency:

Players under contract 

Rashaad Penny: Penny, Seattle’s first-round pick in 2018, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and carries a $3.425 million salary cap number and just over $2 million in dead money. In other words, the Seahawks need him to be healthy and productive in 2021 — and their confidence, or lack thereof, in his ability to do that after he had just 11 carries in three games last season figures to heavily influence how Seattle addresses this position in the offseason.

Alex Collins: Seattle didn’t invest much in Collins in bringing him back late last month — a veteran minimum benefit deal, meaning a cap hit of $850,000 this in 2021. But his performance in two games last season and a 973-yard season with Baltimore in 2017 show he could be a major factor in Seattle’s backfield plans.

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Travis Homer: Homer battled injuries in his second season with Seattle and played just nine games. But he shows promise as a third-down/two-minute back and has been a key special teams player, and those roles could keep him on the roster in year three. Has two years left on initial four-year rookie deal.

DeeJay Dallas: Showed both moments of promise and lots of room for growth as a rookie, and also showed some ability in the two-minute/third-down role. Has three years left on initial four-year rookie contract.

Impending free agents 

Chris Carson: Averaged career-high 4.8 yards per carry but also missed four games at midseason, which didn’t help quell the concerns about his durability — he has not played a full season in his four-year NFL career. Conversely, he has played 41 of a possible 48 regular-season games the past three seasons and was one of only three players in the league last year with four or more touchdowns both rushing and receiving (the others being Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara).  

Carlos Hyde: Hyde played just 10 games a year ago, second-fewest of his career, and will turn 31 in September. But coach Pete Carroll said after the season Seattle hoped to bring him back. Pro Football Focus estimates he could get a deal worth $2 million or so. But given Seattle’s cap situation, even that might be pushing it some, which made the Collins re-signing intriguing.

Nick Bellore: The only fullback on Seattle’s roster last season, he made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer, and that role could get him re-signed for 2021, even if he played sparingly last season on offense (just 35 snaps) and the Rams offense that could now become Seattle’s under new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron doesn’t make much use of the position, either. 

(Seattle also may bring back exclusive rights free agent Patrick Carr).

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Possible free agent targets 

Carson and/or Hyde alone might just about solve Seattle’s issues at this position.

But if the Seahawks were to go shopping, there is no shortage of names.

Here are a few worth pondering:

Leonard Fournette: If Seattle wants to make something of a splash it could go after playoff Lenny, who played the 2020 season with Tampa Bay for just $2 million, and given the market this year may not command much more in 2021 despite his postseason success.

Mike Davis: A former Seahawk, he had a quietly productive season last year at Carolina with 652 rushing yards and 59 receptions for 373 yards with eight total touchdowns.

Todd Gurley: OK, he’s not what he once was. But he knows the Rams’ offense and might come at a really reduced price worth taking a flyer on.

Malcolm Brown: Another who knows well the Rams’ offense, having played for Los Angeles since 2015. The 28-year-old is coming off his best NFL season with 419 rushing yards and 23 receptions.

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Final analysis

Pete Carroll’s stated goal after the season to run the ball more and better in 2021 might have indicated the team will try hard to re-sign Carson, generally considered one of the top options available in free agency.

Seattle could just slap a franchise tag on Carson by the March 9 deadline. But that number is estimated at more than $11 million by OvertheCap.com, and no one sees Seattle wanting to do that. 

Pro Football Focus assessed Carson’s value at three years, $27 million, and that also may be a lot more than Seattle would want to pay. Some think the one-year, $6 million contract David Johnson just agreed to with Houston may be more in line with what Carson can command.

What seems most likely is that the Seahawks will let Carson test the market and then see what happens. If Carson is re-signed to a one-year deal, a return to Seattle might be a little easier.

Hyde could again be a late fallback option though bringing back Collins solves some of the depth issues, especially if the team is confident in what Homer and Dallas can do.

And overall, Seattle may be patient and wait and see what kind of bargains it can get later, though the Seahawks probably wish Penny had shown more last season to make them feel more comfortable in how much they can count on him in 2021.

Next: Tight end.