SEATTLE — When Chris Carson left Seattle last January following the Seahawks’ playoff loss to the Rams, he headed into the unknown.
“It was definitely a possibility I was done with Seattle,’’ Carson said Thursday when he talked via Zoom to reporters.
Indeed, Carson spent the 2020 season — the last on his initial four-year rookie contract — unsure what the future held.
Carson was still unsigned when the free agency signing period began on March 17. And he was still unsigned two days later after the Seahawks and other teams around the league had made major moves.
“Stressful,’’ Carson said candidly of the process, which was his first journey into free agency and one he hoped could help set he and his family up for life.
Adding to it was the challenging nature of free agency in 2021, with teams having $15.7 million less in salary cap space, and also the ever-changing views around the league on the value of running backs.
But finally the calls started to come, not just from the Seahawks but also from a few other teams around the league, reportedly including the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers.
The decision, Carson said, “was definitely difficult. … Teams made offers. Some teams made it tough to decide to sign with the Seahawks.’’
But Seattle’s offer — essentially a two-year deal worth up to $10.4 million with $5.5 million guaranteed (it includes a voidable third year) — finally proved enough to keep Carson around.
“It was the team that gave me my first shot in the league,’’ Carson said. “So it felt like it was the right decision.’’
The contract means Carson will be a free agent again following the 2022 season when he will be 28 years old, potentially in a position to cash in big again.
But for now, the contract gives him the kind of financial and professional security he has long sought and wasn’t sure was possible when he fell to the seventh round of the 2017 draft out of Oklahoma State, taken 249th overall.
“Me, I’m not supposed to be here,’’ said Carson, who made $3.7 million total in his first four years. “You know, the odds are a seventh-rounder doesn’t get to free agency like that.’’
In fact, of the 35 players taken in the seventh round in 2017, Carson is one of only four listed by Pro Football Reference as having been a starter for even one full season (one of the three others is former Seattle receiver David Moore).
But Carson’s road to NFL success was hardly a straight line. After making the team in 2017 as something of a training camp sensation, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the fourth game just as he was making the position his own.
That injury — and the Seahawks’ subsequent running woes the rest of the season — influenced Seattle’s decision to draft Rashaad Penny in the first round in 2018, making it unclear what Carson’s role would be going forward.
Carson rebounded with 1,000-yard seasons each of the next two years but endured a brief bout of struggling with fumbles. He then suffered another season-ending injury late in the 2019 season that revived questions of his durability dating back to his college days.
That had Carson admitting that heading into the 2020 season, one of his main goals was to play all 16 games (he played four, 14 and 15 his first three years).
That didn’t happen. Carson missed four games at midseason with a foot injury (though maybe showing his worth, a Seattle team that went 12-4 for the season was just 2-2 in the games he sat out).
That injury, and a Seattle offense that favored the pass early in the season helped hold Carson to just 681 yards, though he had a career-best average 4.8 yards per carry.
“Man, that was my whole goal last season was to play 16 games,’’ Carson said. “And when it didn’t happen, going through that period was stressful.’’
But now Carson can relax.
The guaranteed money, which included a $4.5 million signing bonus, allowed Carson to pay off his mother’s home. She had been renting since a fire burned down the family house outside Atlanta in 2013.
“It was something that we wanted to do and something I’m really blessed (to be able to do),’’ Carson said.
And now he can turn his sights to the 2021 season and rejoining a backfield with Russell Wilson and Penny, who played just three games last year while recovering from a knee injury. Penny is expected to be fully healthy for training camp as he enters a pivotal year in his own career, with just one season remaining on his rookie deal.
Carson said he kept in constant contact with Wilson during the offseason and said the quarterback “was definitely in my ear’’ about re-signing.
So was Penny, even if Carson’s return means the two will now battle for playing time, though Carson’s contract and history of production means there’s little doubt he will be the starter. Among many impressive numbers, Carson’s 12 100-yard games since 2018 are fifth-most in the NFL.
Carson and Penny have grown close the past few years — bonding in part over their too-frequent battles with injuries — with each saying the other is “like a brother.”
And to Carson, they are not so much in a competition with each other this year but rather a dual quest to make Seattle’s running game among the best in the NFL.
Coach Pete Carroll said after the 2020 season he wanted the Seahawks to get back to running it better and running it more, which Carson knows means there should be plenty of carries to go around.
“I think we can be one of the top rushing duos in the league,’’ Carson said. “We both bring a different feel to the game, like different attributes. But we complement each other so well. I feel like his limit is ridiculous once he starts getting his feet wet in the game. I think it’s going to be something special.’’