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Seahawks May Have to Make Tough Decision on RB Chris Carson

With sights set on retaining Rashaad Penny this offseason, the Seahawks may have a new lead dog in their backfield. But will the obvious risk that Penny carries be enough to warrant keeping a recovering Chris Carson on the roster for a cap hit north of $6 million?

Chris Carson's season was cut short just four weeks into the 2021 schedule. Suffering what Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll initially referred to as a "long-term" neck injury, the fifth-year running back underwent successful surgery on December 16 and is currently rehabbing with intentions of returning to football activities later this year.

Whether that will be in Seattle or not remains to be seen. Carson is entering the second and final year of the two-year, $10.4 million contract he signed last March, which carries a salary cap hit of $6.4 million in 2022. Given the type of injury—and subsequent surgery—he's recovering from, and the nature of the position he plays, that may be too expensive to justify for general manager John Schneider and company. 

Cutting Carson now would free up $3.4 million of cap space and incur a dead cap hit of $3 million. But with a post-June 1 designation, the Seahawks can save $4.9 million against the cap with a dead cap hit of just $1.5 million. They will also be on the hook for $1.5 million in 2023 for the third, voided year included in the deal. 

With a projected $42.7 million in salary cap space, Seattle is not pinching pennies heading into the offseason. But with several 2021 contributors set to hit the open market, those funds could "go faster than you think," as Carroll noted in his end-of-season appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle. Hoping to retain many of their impending free agents while simultaneously improving a roster that went 7-10 this past season, the Seahawks may eventually have to pull a few levers to give themselves more financial flexibility—and Carson, frankly, is a glaring possibility. 

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The decision to potentially move on may have become easier over the past month with the sudden breakout of Carson's backfield mate, Rashaad Penny. The former first-round draft pick was one of the NFL's most efficient ball carriers over the final five weeks of the season, leading the league in rushing yards (671), touchdowns (6), yards per carry (7.29), rushes of 20 yards or more (11) and yards after contact per attempt (5.27) during that stretch. 

Penny is among the many noteworthy names in Seattle's upcoming free agency class, and a reunion is expected to be mutually sought after. But despite his recent overwhelming success, he's likely to present a far more team-friendly price tag than Carson due to his well-documented injury history, lack of track record and a fairly saturated market at a devalued position. 

Of course, Penny's career has been antonymous with reliability. Therefore, if the Seahawks decide to move forward with him as their No. 1 back, it may behoove them to have an insurance policy in place. That could be a timeshare with Carson—an expensive one at that. But the Oklahoma State alum has had his own struggles staying on the field, missing 32 of 77 games over the course of his young professional career, so there's a noticeable level of risk in that as well. 

That said, Carson has arguably been one of the game's most productive runners when he's healthy. From 2018 to 2020, he ranked fifth in rushing yards (3,062), 12th in touchdowns (21), fourth in yards after contact per attempt (3.44), fifth in percentage of rushes resulting in first downs (26.9 percent) and 12th in expected points added per rush (-0.04), per TruMedia.

But will he be able to produce at a similar level—and stay healthy enough to do so—coming off a serious, potentially career-threatening injury? That's the $5 million gamble the Seahawks are being presented with. In the end, they may have to walk away from the table.