That's a gold grill reading "Beast Mode." If you don't know, now you know.
The most important offensive skill position player free agent that the Seahawks have, unquestionably, is Marshawn Lynch. Lynch was essentially the lifeblood of the team’s offense this year, Beastmoding and Skittleing his way to 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. The team had very few bright spots on an offense led by Tarvaris Jackson, but Lynch played at a Pro Bowl level despite playing behind a very young offensive line.
And in our January poll of the month, re-signing Beastmode was the second most common response to the what the Seahawks top priority should be this offseason.
But we’ve learned in recent years that the usable life of an NFL running back is very short. We saw close up when Shaun Alexander dropped off the face of the earth, but much of his drop off was attributed to a reduced effort after signing a huge extension. It’s not like Lynch is immune the same criticism. The reality is that the reason why Lynch was sent to Seattle for such a modest packages is that he had some attitude issues in Buffalo. It’s really only been since last year’s playoff game against the Saints that Lynch has been as productive as he’s been, and this is by far the best season of his career. It’s not unheard of to think that Lynch may have seen 2011 as a financial opportunity, exerted extreme effort, only to revert back to his old effort level next year when he’s sitting under several million dollars of guaranteed money. That may not be the case, but it wouldn’t be the first time.
We’ve also seen careers cut short by injury. The Chiefs can’t be very excited about the contract extension they signed Jamaal Charles to before the 2011 season (technically at the end of the 2010 season), as Charles is now recovering from a torn ACL. A lot of advancements have been made in sports medicine and reconstructive surgeries, but there’s no guarantee that Charles, or Adrian Peterson for that matter, will ever be the same after a knee injury.
Then there’s Ladainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson was seemingly unstoppable, and it seemed unlikely that Father Time would hit a player the quality of Tomlinson as hard as he had hit the likes of dozens of other running backs. After an age 30 season where Tomlinson averaged only 3.3 yards per carry he was let go by the San Diego Chargers. He’s spent the last two years in New York as a complementary back in the Jets rotation. Lynch will be 26 years old next year and a five year extension (which Lynch appears to want) would take him to his ever-scary age 30 season.
So the questions become these: Can Lynch be a part of the next great Seahawks team? How hard would Lynch be to replace if he left? And how much is Lynch worth on the free agent market?
The way that the Seahawks have composed this Seahawks team is to create a big, physical defense that can hold a small lead as well as a big one. They aren’t as quarterback dependent as many other teams. Some of that has been by design, while much of that this year was a luxury of having a runner like Marshawn Lynch, who ran the ball 19 times per game and controlled both the pace of the running game when he was in the game, but also seemed to influence the offense when he was off the field, and kept defenses honest in play action. The team still needs to fill some defensive holes—either by bringing back their own free agents or replacing them in the draft or with other team’s free agents—but they don’t seem too far away from competing for an NFC West title, or a shot to play in the Super Bowl.
Traditionally though, in a zone-blocking scheme, the running back is almost a complementary piece. We’ve seen Denver, Houston, Atlanta, Oakland, and now Washington have barely-reduced success when their forced to change from their top running back. There is most definitely a legitimate skill set for a zone-blocking running back. Such a running back must be a smart runner more often than a powerful runner, and be able to spot running lanes at the line of scrimmage and make cuts to get through the second level. Lynch definitely has those skills, but those skills aren’t nearly as exclusive as elite athletic ability. None of this is to say that Lynch isn’t talented, but rather that the system employed by the Seahawks makes the running back position nearly interchangeable, and the front office seems to be fine with controlled roster churn.
Then we must look at other free agent contracts. Jamaal Charles may be the most comparable running back to Lynch to sign an extension recently, but he did so under the past collective bargaining agreement. We’ve seen veteran salaries skyrocket in the deals signed since the CBA was completed. With the understanding that Chris Johnson is a much better athlete, and a running back who had a much better resume when negotiating his extension. He was the same age as Lynch even, and had a similar amount of career NFL carries (though significantly more effective carries). A contract that is something akin to “Chris Johnson Light” seems likely. Johnson signed a six-year, $55.26 million contract this offseason, which gave him four more years, and an additional $53.6 million. His “new money” was an average of $13.4 million over his new years. In the same offseason a 28 year old Frank Gore signed a three year extension for an average of $7 million in “new money” per new year. Johnson’s deal included $30 million in guarantees, while Gore’s included $13.5 million.
But Lynch has the opportunity to peddle his wares to every other NFL team, rather than just threaten a hold out, as a way to leverage his contract. So while Lynch probably fits as a relative middle ground between Johnson and Gore in terms of present-day value, he’s likely to be able to end up on the higher end of the mid-point between those two running backs.
If the Seahawks want to keep Lynch, they are probably going to be looking at something like a four-year, $44 million contract, with about $24 million guaranteed. There’s a possibility that Lynch is genuinely happy here, and willing to take a discount, but counting on that seems unwise.
If Marshawn Lynch costs $44 million over four years, with $24 million guaranteed, do you still want him back in Seattle?