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Handicapping Seahawks' free agents: K.J. Wright more likely to stay than Chris Carson

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 3/5/2021 Gregg Bell, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

Mar. 5—Shaquill Griffin wants to stay.

He knows he may become too expensive for the Seahawks to keep.

"I know at the end of the day, everything is a business," Seattle's 2019 Pro Bowl cornerback said in January when his rookie contract ended.

"At this point I'm just praying on it and hoping for the best."

His best may not be Seattle's.

The Seahawks are up against a salary cap that is dropping this year. Like every other NFL team, they're not exactly sure by how much. The league and its players' union have agreed the 2021 cap will go from $198.2 million last year to no lower than $180 million. That's the result of decreased revenues because of the coronavirus pandemic.

If it's $180 million, the Seahawks have $4 million in available cap space, according to overthecap.com.

That's not enough to keep Griffin. He plays a position of supreme value in the pass-a-rama NFL. His Pro Bowl pedigree could net him $10 million or more per season in his first try at free agency.

To retain Griffin, Seattle likely will have to trim salaries by cutting veterans, as they and every other team will be doing in the next two weeks leading to the start of free agency. The Seahawks also may have to renegotiate their highest cap charges to more team-friendly figures for 2021, by converting base salaries to bonus money spread over future years.

Russell Wilson ($32 million), Bobby Wagner ($17.15 million), Tyler Lockett ($14.95 million) and Carlos Dunlap ($14 million) have the team's highest cap charges this year. Renegotiating Lockett's and Dunlap's salaries would likely involve signing the 100-catch wide receiver and the 32-year-old defensive end to extensions with new bonus money. Lockett and Dunlap are entering the final years of their deals. There are currently no more years on their contracts to spread cap charges into the future, as there are with Wilson and Wagner.

Teams had hoped to know by the end of February the league's exact cap limit for this year. As of Friday, they still didn't know.

If it's $185 million, as some believe it will be, that's $5 million more per team, which the Seahawks could use to buy an offensive lineman. They need to replace two from last year, and to address quarterback Wilson's remarkably loud frustration last month over "getting hit too much." Left guard Mike Iupati is retiring. Center Ethan Pocic is joining Griffin among the two dozen Seahawks about to become unrestricted free agents.

On March 15, they will be allowed per NFL rules to begin negotiating with other teams. The market officially opens two days later when the new league year begins March 17.

Seattle also has six restricted or exclusive-rights free agents the team is likely to keep for 2021: defensive tackle Poona Ford, guard Jordan Simmons, defensive tackle Bryan Mone, defensive backs Ryan Neal and Linden Stephens, plus backup center Kyle Fuller.

Let's set them aside for now and focus on the Seahawks' dozen key unrestricted free agents, headlined by Chris Carson's increasingly likely departure:

Carlos Hyde. Chance of returning: 75%

This is the flip side of Carson finding a market too rich for Seattle to retain him.

Hyde is four years older; he turns 31 in September. He is coming off a debut season for the Seahawks in which he rushed just 81 times for 356 yards while backing up Carson and missing six games with injuries. Seattle signed Hyde to a one-year contract at $2.75 million before the 2020 season. That was with him coming off the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career, with Houston.

Hyde can return more cheaply, and with what coach Pete Carroll sees as a thumping style similar to Carson's. The Seahawks' offense is seeking to return to the run more with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron in from the run-based Rams. It makes sense that Carroll will bring back at least one of his two top backs so he isn't starting over completely at the position this year.

"I really like Carlos," Carroll said. "Carlos and Chris, really they're the kind of the epitome of hardball running guys. They bring you attitude. They bring you a connection to the physical part of the game the way we'd love it.

"Carlos is right in there. He's one of our guys. We'd love to have him back."

Quinton Dunbar. Chance of returning: 70%.

Both of Seattle's starting cornerbacks are poised to enter free agency with expired contracts.

But Dunbar is going to be cheaper to bring back than Griffin.

Dunbar played just six games last season, his first for the Seahawks after his trade from Washington. He had knee surgery at the end of a pretty much lost year. It included his drawn-out, bizarre arrest, jailing and legal case in Florida over an alleged robbery at a house party there.

So Dunbar's market value isn't exactly soaring right now.

Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. remain excited about the 6-foot-2 Dunbar's Seahawks-prototype length for a cornerback. Plus, he has what almost all other outside free-agent and drafted cornerbacks don't: extensive experience with Carroll's unique step-kick technique playing receivers on the line of scrimmage. Dunbar has worked for years with coach and former Seahawks defensive back Marquand Manuel on the technique in their native Florida.

Phillip Dorsett. Chance of returning: 60%.

The team got nothing out of signing the wide receiver from New England on a one-year contract at the veteran minimum of $1.05 million. He played in as many games for Seattle as you did in 2020. A chronic foot injury dating to his Patriots tenure eventually required surgery.

Carroll said last year Dorsett was "the fastest guy we've ever had here" in Seattle. That's why at the end of the season the coach had already talked to Dorsett about re-signing with the Seahawks for 2021.

Seattle is still searching for a third receiver behind DK Metcalf and Lockett. The team released suspended former All-Pro Josh Gordon officially on Thursday, though his contract was already expired.

Since Dorsett hasn't played in two years, it won't cost much more than another veteran-minimum deal to bring him back.

K.J. Wright. Chance of returning: 60%.

The longest-tenured Seahawk has made it clear after his 10th year and one of his best seasons that he isn't accepting a hometown discount to stay in Seattle.

But the 31-year-old veteran also said there's time and space to get "creative."

He's earned another year with the only NFL team he's known. And the Seahawks need him. They drafted Jordyn Brooks in the first round last year to play Wright's weakside linebacker spot. But then Bruce Irvin, the strongside linebacker, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in September and had season-ending surgery. Wright subsequently excelled in Irvin's strongside spot in Seattle's 4-3 scheme.

Irvin's contract is also up. He isn't coming back anytime soon from his reconstructive knee surgery.

It may take Wagner restructuring some cap money to get Wright re-signed. And Wagner wants Wright re-signed.

Nick Bellore. Chance of re-signing: 50%.

The 10-year veteran special-teams ace made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2020. That's likely to earn him a raise well above the $750,000 he earned last year.

Seattle's stated goal of running the ball more could give Bellore added value to the team in 2021 as a fullback, his other job he's rarely done for the Seahawks. Then again, Shane Waldron, the team's new offensive coordinator, is coming from a Rams system that rarely uses a fullback.

If they let him go to market, the Seahawks could lose Bellore.

Benson Mayowa. Chance of re-signing: 50%.

The 30-year-old veteran had six sacks while missing three games because of injury. That's production the Seahawks need more of on their defensive line in 2021.

Again, cost will be the issue. How much more than the $3 million Mayowa made last season can Seattle spend to keep Mayowa?

Neiko Thorpe. Chance of returning: 50%.

The special-teams captain played in only three games last season and had season-ending core-muscle surgery. He only cost $1 million last season. If he's can prove to be healthy he wouldn't cost much and is a valued locker-room and team presence.

Damontre Moore. Chance of returning: 50%.

The defensive end had one sack in 10 games last season. But Carroll praises him every chance he gets. And he is likely to come at the veteran minimum again of about $1 million.

Jacob Hollister. Chance of re-signing: 45%.

If he stays, the versatile Hollister probably will have to take less than the $3.26 million he earned as a restricted free agent.

The team needs to upgrade this position, with Greg Olsen retiring and Luke Willson talking about playing rugby. Colby Parkinson, a 6-6 target who missed most of his rookie season in 2020 after breaking his foot, could make Hollister expendable.

Shaquill Griffin. Chance of re-signing: 40%.

Chance of bringing back both Griffin twins: Less than 40%.

Griffin's likely cost of $10 million per year or more makes him more likely to leave than stay.

His twin brother Shaquem is the team's restricted free agent least likely to come back in 2021. He's barely been a bit pass rusher for parts of the last two seasons.

The Seahawks' feel-good story of the Griffin twins may be ending.

Ethan Pocic. Chance of re-signing: 40%.

The team's former second-round pick won the starting center job for the first time last season. He got overwhelmed at times against the best interior pass rushers, but who doesn't have trouble with Aaron Donald?

Problem is, Seattle has to control Donald to beat the Rams and win the division.

Status quo with the two open spots on the offensive line is not the way to improve Wilson's pass protection and address his loud frustration.

The real question: how much are the Seahawks willing (and able) to pay Corey Linsley? The Packers All-Pro center has said he doesn't expect to stay in Green Bay this year.

Signing Linsley over Pocic would show Wilson the Seahawks are giving his issues the highest priority.

David Moore. Chance of returning: 35%.

He's had a few years and chances to seize the third wide-receiver spot. He had career highs of 35 catches and six touchdowns last season, but only nine receptions and one score over the final six games.

If Dorsett is indeed healthy to return, Moore could be off the Seahawks roster in 2021 for the first time since they drafted him in 2017.

Geno Smith. Chance of returning: 30%.

Familiarity is the reason to bring back the 31-year-old former starter with the Jets and Giants on another one-year, minimum salary deal to watch Wilson take all the season's snaps again.

But Wilson having three years left on his contract and Waldron's arrival to run the offense signal the Seahawks may see this as the time to install a new backup for the future.

Chris Carson. Chance of returning: 25%.

If that.

Carson wanted a deal yesterday. Many yesterdays ago, in fact. Seattle's lead running back was talking about it in early September, wondering why his team hadn't talked to him about a new deal.

Carroll has said multiple times Carson has earned the right to shop in his first chance at free agency for the money he wants, likely $8 million or more per season. The top nine running backs in the league in salary all average at least that much, starting with Melvin Gordon with Denver on a two-year deal.

Carson's trying to get all he can now, at the position with the NFL's shortest shelf life.

Does Carroll placing the offense's priority for 2021 of running the ball more mean the team's top offseason priority is re-signing Carson?

"No, not necessarily," Carroll said in January.

That was telling.

"I think Chris is really one of us, and he's fit into the program great," Carroll said. "What he said (about wanting a new contract by now), I think he obviously means.

"But I do know Chris has got to — he's got to look out for himself. So he's got to see what the situation is."

The Seahawks have until 1 p.m. Tuesday to use their franchise or transition tags to keep any of their free agents. They could do that with Carson. But that would be at a cost above the $8 million per season for 2021 that they already are unlikely to afford.

Carson seems destined to shop in two weeks. And when he does, some other team seems destined to pay him what Seattle won't.

It appears it will be Hyde, Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer and recently re-signed Alex Collins in the Seahawks' backfield this year. At least to begin the offseason.

Irvin. Chance of returning: 20%.

Carroll said in January Irvin needed a second knee surgery in the winter. That puts his 2021 season in jeopardy—and is another reason the Seahawks need Wright back.

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