Wednesday, February 19, 2014

2014 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks

The Seahawks are Super Bowl Champs. The best team in football. Players want to be with them, teams want to be like them. So starts the Dynasty Off-Season for one of the youngest teams to ever win the Lombardi Trophy. This series will dig into each position group, look at who we have, who might be available, and what the team may do in each area. It will end with a projected off-season plan. You can check out last season's analysis here. They have been largely accurate, so if you want to know what Seattle will do before they do it, look no further.

Part I: Defensive Line
Part II: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Part III: Secondary
Part IV: Linebackers

Part V: Offensive Line
Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
Part VII: Quarterbacks
Part VIII: Summary & Recommendations



Marshawn Lynch is still coming, and he's bringing Hell with him







State Of The Position
Marshawn Lynch spent much of the season shoving his hand in the face of opposing defenders. He spent most of the Super Bowl dancing on the sideline. When he wasn't dancing, he was clowning his coach, asking if the Seahawks offense was allowed to score more points. Whatever Lynch was doing last season, he was at the heart of who the Seahawks were and what they do. A team largely considered to be braggarts and loudmouths, was more accurately captured by the all-action, all-hitting, no-talking Lynch. My favorite play of the regular season was when Richard Sherman picked off Matt Shaub, but my favorite moment came in week two when Lynch paused and stared at the 49ers before crossing the goal-line. Bad ass.

Lynch did not have quite as productive of a season in 2013 as he did in 2012 in terms of yards and yards per carry, but a significant part of that has to be attributed to a offensive line that was in triage most of the year. When it mattered against two of the best defenses in football, Lynch and that line produced big rushing totals in the playoffs. He will be 28 next season, and it is hard to count on his body holding up much longer given his style. We know his will is invincible. It is time, though, for the team to start more heavily rotating in other runners. Like it or not, the transition to the next featured runner needs to start next season. That does not mean Lynch has to be phased out prematurely. A Seahawks team that relies on a rushing game as its foundation simply cannot be caught flat-footed when Lynch cannot carry them any longer.

The competition to get those extra carries will be among the most fierce heading into training camp. Robert Turbin got nearly all the back-up carries this season. He was a durable and willing runner, but showed little upside in terms of eluding tackles, breaking tackles, or out-running defenders. He had a few breakaway runs that were called back for holding, but few other memorable moments. He is a plus receiver and a good blocker in pass protection. His best chance to be a starter may be if the team offers him a chance to be the next John L. Williams or Leonard Weaver at fullback. Tom Cable had a player in Oakland that Huskies fans should remember in Marcel Reece. He is a multi-faceted threat that has made the Pro Bowl twice. There is a path to glory and reward here, but the team has to be creative (something they have done time and again) and Turbin has to be open to the idea. I just don't see a starting running back in Turbin.

Christine Michael, on the other hand, is a guy the NFL will soon marvel about. He has been a play-maker at running back, even in small intervals. The thought of Michael and Harvin in the same offense is breathtaking. Running backs are not hard to project, especially after seeing them on the field with other NFL players. Michael will be a big-play runner and receiver, who may have some durability and ball security issues. He may also land in Cable's doghouse for dancing around in search of the big hole instead of just hitting it and getting the tough 2-3 yards we have seen Lynch sacrifice his body for. Even with that, it is hard to see how Michael loses back-up snaps to anyone on this roster at the running back position. Pete Carroll loves players that become factors opposing teams needs to account for. Michael is destined to be one of those guys.

Spencer Ware may also factor into the back-up running back battle, but not as a featured runner. He could be a situational player. Ware was a promising special teams player from the jump, and runs with an aggression and eagerness for contact that the coaching staff covets. They will be inclined to find a way to use him. His injury robbed him of a rookie year, but he will be full-go come training camp and most likely will get snaps at running back and fullback. The word last year was he was going to be a fullback, but nearly all of his training camp snaps came at running back. He got a few fullback opportunities later in the pre-season, but we simply do not know what he looks like at fullback yet. Maybe he becomes the multi-faceted player at that position if Turbin is not tried there. A Ware and Michael back-field of the future certainly is appealing in concept.

Michael Robinson was predictably released before the season began, but came back after Derrick Coleman was injured. He was a clearly superior fullback, and a player that Lynch trusted far more. Nobody deserved the Super Bowl ring on the Seahawks more than Robinson. He is everything this team believes in: tough, selfless, professional, smart. The door is not completely closed on his possible return depending on how all the other pieces fall in place. The team, however, has to be looking for a younger and cheaper replacement.

Coleman attempted to fill Robinson's void early in the year, and simply was not to close to his level. His special teams value buoys his spot on the roster, and he is a better offensive weapon than Robinson. But his bread-and-butter has to be lead blocking, and he just was not great in that regard. We will find out if a year of seasoning helps him come back with a better idea of what he needs to do.

Phil Bates is a sleeper for the fullback spot. He is primarily a receiver, but got snaps at fullback late in camp. Teammates and coaches love Bates, and will be open to giving him a chance to stick wherever he best fits.

2014 Seahawks Free Agent Running Backs & Fullbacks:

  • FB Michael Robinson 

Seahawks Running Backs & Fullbacks Under Contract:

  • FB Derrick Coleman
  • RB/FB Spencer Ware
  • RB Marshawn Lynch
  • RB Christine Michael
  • RB Robert Turbin
  • FB/WR Phil Bates
2014 Positional Spending
These numbers are provided by OverTheCap.com, and represent what the Seahawks currently have on the books to spend at the position in 2014, as well as where that ranks in the NFL. Being ranked #1 means the team is spending more at that position than any other team, and #32 would mean they are spending the least.

RB/FB: $9,465,388 (#13)

Interesting to see a team so focused on setting the tone with the run is 14th in the NFL in offensive line spending and 13th in running back spending. And is 2nd in the NFL in WR spending (before an expected cut of Sidney Rice). Even with a cut of Rice, the Seahawks will be in the top ten in WR spending. One has to assume the team will have to trade, draft and overpay wide receivers to play in this offense that will likely never produce a receiver with top production numbers.

Free Agents


Michael Robinson
Robinson most likely moves on to a new career in media, but he definitely looks like he can play another year. It will come down to his desire to continue playing and the way the cap plays out. Less than a 30% chance he returns.


Draft
Spending a draft choice on another running back would be disappointing. The front office may do it if they find some crazy value they cannot pass up. There is plenty of talent in this position group heading into next year, so drafting another player would just mean there would be more talented players falling off the roster for another team to benefit from.

Bottom Line
This will be a transitional year for the Seahawks back-field. Lynch is one to watch. If he shows no signs of slowing down, it will have a ripple effect on the snaps for everyone else. He becomes a free agent after 2015, and is due to have a $9M cap number in 2015 where the team could save $7.5M if they chose to part ways after this coming season. Nobody wants to admit that would even be a consideration, but it has to be. Seahawks fans should start to brace for the reality that Lynch will not finish his career in Seattle. There is a slight chance the team could sign him to an extension through 2017, when he would be 30, but far more likely is they elevate another player to his position who is on his rookie contract and utilize that big chunk of salary for other parts of the roster.

Michael is the player I expect to break-out in 2014, or at least prove that he can be the featured back of the future. The biggest obstacle to this will be injury and Turbin. I don't see Turbin as a legitimate feature back option, but the coaching staff clearly thinks highly enough of him to give him all of the back-up running back snaps in 2013. If pass protection is a big part of why Turbin was ahead of Michael last season, as Carroll intimated a few times, that should be far less of a factor when you are evaluating a player as a featured back. Back-up runners are often brought in for passing situations. A featured runner is really about producing yards and points. Michael is just better at this than anyone outside of Lynch on the roster.

Seeing how the fullback position shapes up will be fascinating, and a great story throughout camp. It will be hard to match Robinson's production as a lead blocker, but there is potential to add another weapon to the back-field.

The team has experimented with using tight ends in the back-field as a lead blocker, but the results have been mixed. Percy Harvin will also spend some time in the back-field, stealing fullback snaps, and some back-up running back snaps. That could play a role in roster numbers when cut day comes down. Do you really need five backs on the roster if Harvin and a tight end are playing meaningful snaps in the back-field? Possibly. Going with four players at these positions can happen when there are players with true two-position use like Turbin, Ware and Bates could have.

The good news is that there is a pile of talent to choose from, and some potential for the back-field to be even more productive next year. 

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