During the middle of Super Bowl 50, in a fashion only "Beast Mode" could pull off, Marshawn Lynch announced his retirement from the NFL by posting an image of his cleats hanging off of a telephone wire via Twitter.
Though Lynch has proven himself to be the master of unpredictability over the years, his decision to walk away from the game wasn't necessarily surprising. The five-time Pro Bowler was set to turn 30 years old in April and had missed all but seven games in the 2015 season due to a sports hernia injury, opening the door for undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls to burst onto the scene as his replacement.
Due to Rawls' presence, the Seahawks felt they would be in good hands in the backfield without their long-time superstar back. Unfortunately, upon his return from a broken ankle, he never could recapture the magic of his rookie season when he led the league averaging 5.6 yards per carry and rushed for 830 yards in 13 games. Over the next two years, the team missed Lynch badly, finishing 25th and 21st overall in rushing yardage in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Fast forwarding four years later, Seattle finds itself at a similar crossroads in the backfield. Chris Carson, who has started 41 games since 2018 and rushed for 3,062 yards and 21 touchdowns during that span, will become an unrestricted free agent next month. After serving as Carson's main backup in 2020, veteran Carlos Hyde will also hit the market.
While Carson hasn't reached the same superstar status as Lynch and has never been named to a Pro Bowl in his career, when healthy, he has been one of the NFL's best running backs and a crucial component of the Seahawks' offensive identity. Even considering he had a "down" season by his standards in 2020, he ranks fifth among all backs in total rushing yards, has broken 61 tackles, and has added 94 receptions to his resume since 2018.
Considering his measurable impact on the team's success over the past three years, Seattle would love to re-sign Carson. Given his injury history - he has missed 19 games in the past four years - and a tight salary cap situation, however, it remains unclear whether he will be back or not. If he does depart, the loss would be comparable to when "Beast Mode" stepped away, once again leaving the team with immense uncertainty in the backfield.
Looking at Seattle's current depth chart, only Alex Collins has ever rushed for more than 500 yards in a season, and he did that way back in 2017 with Baltimore. Ironically, that career year came after being released by the Seahawks out of training camp. Since then, he's rushed for a grand total 488 total yards and missed the entire 2019 season recovering from a broken leg.
Aside from Collins, who re-signed with the Seahawks earlier this week, former first-round pick Rashaad Penny has battled numerous injuries throughout his career and rushed for just 823 yards and five touchdowns in three seasons. DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer, a pair of late round selections picked out of Miami in the past two drafts, have 310 combined rushing yards to their names.
But despite these dismal numbers, there are plenty of reasons to believe Seattle's current cast of ball carriers could be more than sufficient enough in 2021, starting with the fact this is a young group without much wear and tear.
While Collins ran the ball 326 times during the 2017 and 2018 seasons for the Ravens, he has logged just 49 carries in his other two NFL seasons and obviously didn't run the ball at all in 2019. He will turn 27 years old in August and he's easily the "elder statesman" of the Seahawks' backfield group.
Now entering his fourth season, Penny turned 25 years old earlier this month and has never had more than 85 carries in a season. After playing in just three games last year due to a lengthy recovery from a torn ACL, he should be fresh heading into 2021 and will have the benefit of not having to worry about rehabbing this offseason. Dallas and Homer are both 22 years old and have 77 NFL carries between them.
What may offer the most hope for Seattle's run game moving into 2021, however, is the contrasting styles for all four running backs in a new scheme coordinated by Shane Waldron.
Though he has been a bust to this point due to his durability issues, Penny has shown brief flashes of his first-round talent. Before injuring his knee late in the 2019 season, he rushed for a career-best 129 yards against the Eagles and posted 100-plus all-purpose yards in a win over the Vikings in consecutive weeks, showcasing his playmaking skills with three touchdowns in those contests, including a 58-yard touchdown run in Philadelphia.
Dating back to his time at San Diego State, Penny has been at his best running the ball from under center formations, something Waldron likely will incorporate more into Seattle's arsenal using 11 and 12 personnel groupings. Since being drafted, he's found his greatest success using his speed running off tackle, which should make him an ideal candidate to thrive in Waldron's wide-zone, stretch oriented attack.
While his re-signing may have gone under the radar, Collins could have a legitimate shot to push for a starting role. Known as a patient runner with light feet and excellent vision, he ran with an attitude in his second stint with the Seahawks, plowing through and dragging defenders while consistently finishing his runs with authority. This newly-discovered punishing style suits him well as a complementary runner to Penny and if he produces as he did in limited action last year, he will be one of the league's biggest bargains.
Meanwhile, though each player has endured their share of issues acclimating to the next level, Dallas and Homer have shown signs of being capable NFL runners in limited action and each offers upside as a third down back.
Built with a stocky 217-pound frame, Dallas' former receiver background showed as a rookie, as he caught 17 passes for 111 yards in just 12 games. Shiftier than advertised and capable of bouncing off tacklers, he stepped into the starting lineup for a pair of games replacing Carson and Hyde and rushed for 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
As for Homer, most of his sophomore season was wiped out due to injury. But he exhibited promise late in his rookie season when injuries to Carson and Penny forced him into action, rushing for 118 yards and adding 11 receptions out of the backfield while also shining as a pass protector. He offers a bit more speed and explosiveness than Dallas and like Penny, a scheme with more emphasis on wide-zone running could play to his strengths.
Deploying a backfield-by-committee approach didn't work out for the Seahawks four years ago, though looking back in hindsight, poor investments along the offensive line had a far greater bearing on those struggles than the talent at the running back position. Free agent signings of guards Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi proved disastrous and poor play by Rees Odhiambo at left tackle forced a midseason trade for Duane Brown.
If Seattle wants to show it has learned from that failed experiment, general manager John Schneider shouldn't be too worried about who will take the torch from Carson in the backfield if he leaves. Aligning with the goal of bolstering protection for quarterback Russell Wilson, the key this offseason will be for Schneider to upgrade the offensive line. Instead of trying to fix a leaky front line with a bandage as he has done in years past, he needs to add a premium talent such as center Corey Linsley or guard Joe Thuney to the mix.
Signing either player would instantly improve Seattle's run blocking and benefit all of the team's backs. With quality blockers in front, Penny still has the potential to be an electric playmaker if healthy, Collins has a track record of being a more-than-capable starter, and the duo of Dallas and Homer can succeed in a reserve role.
There's always the possibility Hyde or a serviceable veteran like Mike Davis could be brought back on an affordable one-year deal if reinforcements are desired. The team also could use a draft pick on another running back if they aren't 100 percent sold on what they currently have. Hell, given the NFL's dire financial situation, the idea Carson could still fit into the budget isn't far-fetched.
But unless Carson's market doesn't materialize as anticipated, the Seahawks appear to have a steady contingency plan in place without him and can't let what happened after Lynch's retirement sway their decision making process. There's no reason to force the issue and overpay to re-sign him. With limited cap space, the primary focus should be reserved for improving in the trenches, making Wilson and all of the running backs happy.