Seahawks running back Chris Carson (right) fends off Rams cornerback Troy Hill during the first half of a wild-card playoff game on Jan. 9, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Seahawks running back Chris Carson (right) fends off Rams cornerback Troy Hill during the first half of a wild-card playoff game on Jan. 9, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Seahawks position overview: Running back

Seattle’s top two backs, Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde, are set to become free agents in March.

By Bob Condotta / The Seattle Times

A review of the Seattle Seahawks’ position groups continues with the running backs, a group as intriguing as any other heading into the offseason with the top two running backs now able to be free agents, and a former top draft choice entering a critical year in his career.

Here’s a look:

STARTER

Chris Carson

Age: 26.

Snaps played in regular season: 403.

Contract situation: Unrestricted free agent.

BACKUPS

Carlos Hyde

Age: 30.

Snaps played: 260.

Contract situation: Now an unrestricted free agent.

Rashaad Penny

Age: 24.

Snaps played: 38.

Contract situation: Entering final season of four-year rookie deal. Due to make $1.948 million in 2021 but with a dead cap hit of $2.057 million.

DeeJay Dallas

Age: 22.

Snaps played: 146.

Contract situation: Rookie contract lasts through 2023. Due to make $780,000 in 2021.

Travis Homer

Age: 22.

Snaps played: 138.

Contract situation: Rookie contract lasts through 2022, due to make $885,000 in 2021.

Nick Bellore

Age: 31.

Snaps played: 35.

Contract situation: Now an unrestricted free agent.

2020 review

It ended up being a pretty weird year for Seattle’s running attack. In what might be one of the more overlooked stats of the season, Seattle averaged 4.795 yards per carry in 2020, third-best in franchise history, behind only the 2012 and 2014 seasons when Marshawn Lynch was in his prime and Russell Wilson was running with abandon. It was the fifth-best yards per carry average in the NFL.

Carson averaged a career-high 4.8 per carry with a long of just 29, meaning he was gaining yards pretty consistently — in six of his starts he averaged 5.0 yards or better.

But despite those numbers, the running game didn’t seem to always make the game-changing difference the stats might suggest, and the season ended with coach Pete Carroll saying the team needed to run it both better and more in 2021.

Carson played in 12 games but never once had more than 17 carries after averaging 18.5 and 17.6 carries per game the previous two seasons as Seattle threw it as much as ever in the Carroll era in the first half of the season — injuries also played a role in that decrease some. Carson finished with an average of 56 yards per game, down from the 82 of 2018 and 2019.

Seattle paid Hyde $2.75 million as both depth and to be a complementary piece, but then saw him miss six games due to injury and rush for 356 yards and then just 5 yards on four carries in the playoff game against the Rams.

Seattle had high hopes for Penny contributing big when he returned late in the year. But Penny still seemed rusty and had just 34 yards on 11 carries over the final three games, then missed the playoff with a knee injury unrelated to the ACL tear suffered in 2019, making it more uncertain than the team might have wished regarding where he is heading into what is now the final year of his rookie contract.

Homer, in his second year, opened the season as the team’s third-down back but played just nine games due to injury and had 88 yards on 25 carries. Dallas, a rookie, got two starts at midseason due to injuries and delivered mixed results with 108 yards on 34 carries with a long of 13.

Alex Collins and Bo Scarbrough, who each had had previous stints with the team, were signed to the practice squad at midseason and then each saw some action with Collins gaining 77 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns.

Seattle’s rushing attack was complemented well by Wilson’s 513 yards on 83 carries. But take out Wilson’s attempts and Seattle still averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which would have ranked 13th in the NFL this season by itself, which maybe helps explain why Carroll wishes they’d run it a bit more.

2021 preview

As for Carroll’s desire to run better and more, it’s hard to answer exactly how Seattle plans to do that until we see who the new offensive coordinator is. What we also don’t know yet is who will run the ball. Penny, Homer and Dallas all remain under contract, but both Carson and Hyde can be free agents when the new league year begins March 17.

Carson seemed to accept he was likely to hit the free agent market when he spoke about his future a few times, and the Seahawks could well let him do that and see what his value is and then try to jump in if they want — the running back market can be particularly unpredictable and might be more than ever this year with the lower salary cap number.

How much might it cost to keep Carson? Spotrac.com estimated his potential value as a four-year deal worth $29.6 million, or $7.4 million per year. What’s certain is that Carson, who has made $3.7 million in four previous seasons, is going to want to maximize his earnings.

The only running back the Seahawks have paid that much since Carroll took over in 2010 is Lynch, with no one else coming anywhere close to that number.

Carroll said he wanted Hyde back and that would seem easy enough to do if each side really wants it. The Seahawks also seem to want Collins back, and if the team thinks he can really be a factor that could well play into how they handle the position overall.

Penny is the wild card in this. The Seahawks will give him every chance to prove worth the gamble it took on him in the first round in 2018. But Penny has been available for just 27 of 48 regular-season games and only one of four playoff games in three seasons. It feels like it’d be pretty risky for Seattle to build its running back corps in 2021 assuming Penny can be the centerpiece.

Particularly if Carson leaves and Seattle wants to go the free-agent route to replace him, there figures to be plenty of big names available.

Among players who can be free agents are Arizona’s Kenyan Drake, San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman, Miami’s Matt Breida, Tampa Bay’s Leonard Fournette and former Seahawk Mike Davis, who spent last season with Carolina, and Baltimore’s Mark Ingram, who was released Monday.

Also a pending free agent is Todd Gurley, who the Seahawks rated at the top of their draft board in 2015. Gurley had a rough season in 2020 with Atlanta, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and used sparingly down the stretch. But he’s also just 26 years old and for a cut rate he will be intriguing to someone (Spotrac.com estimated his market value at two years, $5.5 million per season — that might be too high for Seattle).

Intriguingly, Carroll mentioned in his end-of-year press conference last Monday that the Seahawks “would really like to see if we can develop a third-down factor from the running back spot, a guy that can really beat you there.” Whether that means continuing to groom Homer, who of the players on the current roster has been used there the most, or finding someone from outside is unclear.

And worth noting is that Patrick Carr, an undrafted free agent out of Houston, spent the season on injured reserve and now is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he’ll be back if the team wants him.

As for fullback, Seattle would figure to want Bellore back after a year in which he was a Pro Bowler at what is his most significant role — special teams. But Bellore has not been much of a factor on offense in his two seasons and maybe the Seahawks would be tempted to bring in some competition there in 2021.

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