2012 Seahawks Off-Season Analysis Part VI: Running Backs & Fullbacks
This series will examine seven position groups on the Seahawks, reviewing their 2011 performance, the impending free agents, and the potential for free agent or draft additions. The final part of the series will summarize the recommended plan of attack across the entire team.
State Of The Position
People are fond of saying that Marshawn Lynch is the face of the franchise now. They say the team is helpless without out. Sentiments like that would have been laughed at midway through this season when he was averaging under 50 yards per game. Sure, he had authored the best run in Seahawks history, but that was last year. The rest of his Seattle career had been underwhelming. Then, Pete Carroll spoke to Tom Cable after a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and told him that they were going to commit to the run. That shift had ripple effects throughout the team, but most directly on Lynch. His output skyrocketed to Pro Bowl levels, and his will to fight for every yard became a symbol of the transition the team was going through. The Seahawks push you around. Not vice versa.
The unpopular reality is that while Lynch is better than most backs in the league, he is not required for this to work. There are plenty of backs that could be productive in this system, and with this sort of commitment to running the ball. He is an unrestricted free agent, and the team will have to think about whether it is worth the investment necessary to keep a top-flight running back. There is reason to believe Lynch will be even better next year over the course of a full season, and may have another 1-2 years of his best production still to come. Beyond that is a crap shoot.
Justin Forsett and Leon Washington mixed in with Lynch over time. Combined, they still had less than half of Lynch’s rushing attempts. Washington made the most of his chances with a healthy 4.7 average per carry and three runs over 20 yards (Lynch only had four in nearly 6X the carries). Washington is still valuable as a change-up back, and as a returner, but he turns 30 next season. Next year could very well be his last for Seattle.
Forsett was a major disappointment. He only managed 3.2 yards per carry, and it would have been worse if not for his 3rd and long (9+ yards) runs where he averaged 6.4. This is a guy who has averaged close to five yards per carry through his career, and he was basically a sub-3.0 guy this season. He has never been the most physically gifted player, and his spot on the team is highly suspect next season.
Michael Robinson earned a Pro Bowl spot for his efforts this year. He made some key blocks for Lynch, who has consistently run better out of two-back formations. Robinson remains an undersized fullback, and there is no position more physically taxing than fullback. The team needs to be bringing in new fullbacks to challenge Robinson, who will be 30, every training camp. Some fullbacks last into the mid-30s. Robinson is not built like those fullbacks, so the breakdown could come sooner.
Seahawks Running Backs & Fullbacks Under Contract:
RB Leon Washington
RB Jay Finley (Practice Squad)
Lynch almost certainly will be back. The team can franchise him for $7-8M this season, and have the cap space to do that. They may try to get him signed to a 3-year deal that lowers his cap number, but they have the franchise tag if that falls through. There is no reason for the team to simply let Lynch walk, and they are not in a situation where they have to sign him to a long-term contract. How it unfolds will be important. An unmotivated Lynch would be a totally different player. The worst-case scenario here would be the Seahawks making a long-term investment (over 3 years). Letting Lynch walk is not worst-case.
Robinson likely comes back for a 2-3 year deal, but will get some interest elsewhere. Forsett will not be back.
Some alternative free agent running backs to be aware of:
RB Peyton Hillis
Yes, Hillis was a disaster and a douche last season. He’s also 26, and one year removed from a 1,600 yard (rushing and receiving), 13 TD season. He runs hard when healthy and motivated. Same thing here, though, in terms of no deal over 3 years.
RB Mike Tolbert
Tolbert is football. The guy is built like a tank, and is also 26. Even splitting carries, he managed almost 500 yards and 8 rushing TDs last season. He is also a surprisingly good receiver who pulled in 54 balls for another 433 yards and 2 TDs. I would take him over Hillis any day.
RB Michael Bush
Bush may be the best Lynch alternative. He is 27, runs with similar ferocity, and knows Cable’s system. He went for nearly 1,500 total yards at 6’1″ and 245 lbs.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Ellis is only 26, and is smaller at 5’11” 215 lbs. He has a combined 24 TDs in the last two seasons, and is a hard runner. He is not a breakaway threat. His career long run is only 33 yards. He was over 1,000 yards only a year ago.
RB Ryan Grant
Grant is not the runner he once was at 29, but has always been a good yards per carry guy. He might be a good signing as a rotational player.
Free agent running backs are almost never a good idea in terms of value. Running backs almost always have their best years of production in years 1-5, and you can find some amazing value even late in the draft. Spending a first-round pick on a running back is always a mistake, even for a player like Adrian Peterson. Disagree? Name the last league-leading rusher to win a Super Bowl. Name the last All-Pro running back to win a Super Bowl. Championship teams are rarely running teams. Green Bay and New York showed how an effective running game is becoming more important than it was, but first-round picks should be spent filling needs that are difficult to address like pass rushers, quarterbacks, lineman. Pick a couple running backs in rounds 3-7, and your team will be better for it.
Seattle probably comes back with Lynch at running back next season, and at least one new face to play with him. Washington can still be the change-of-pace, but the team is missing another dynamic runner. They don’t need another Lynch, but they do need another back capable of playing every-down should Lynch get injured. Adding young running backs is fun, and should help spark the offense if the front office can find the right player.