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The salary cap question raised by the performance of Alex Collins

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks have a quick turnaround following their Week 4 victory over the San Francisco 49ers prior to taking on the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday Night Football. While not as urgent following a second win of the season in Santa Clara, the Rams-Seahawks Wild Card rematch will be important in early positioning in the NFC West, with the winner of the game holding on to second place. Regardless of how the game Thursday turns out, the continued emergence of running back Alex Collins creates an interesting question for the Hawks as they prepare for not just the final three quarters of the season, but for an offseason of questions as well.

The debate regarding Collins’ status goes all the way back to training camp, but where exactly he stands on the depth chart is not what is up for debate at this juncture.

Whether it’s as the starter or backing up Chris Carson, Collins has obviously shown that he can play and deserves snaps in lightening the load to keep Carson fresh over the remainder of the season. How exactly those snaps are divided and split between the pair doesn’t really matter, what does matter is that beyond just an ability to stay healthy and productive, Collins has shown enough that he is, in all likelihood, in one of the top two running back spots.

Which leads to the follow up question. This coming offseason the Seahawks are looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of about $45M in available cap space with a whole lot of holes to fill on the roster. As of right now the Hawks have just 32 players under contract for the 2022 season, including at least eight starters who will be free agents, in addition to a handful of other contributors who are not signed past this year as well.

What that means is that the salary cap is not their friend and they could be looking to save as much cap space as possible over the coming weeks, which brings up one position in particular. Specifically, with Carson and Collins apparently holding the top two spots at running back and Travis Homer owning the third down role, how much room is there for Rashaad Penny when he is healthy and able to come off injured reserve after Week 6?

Penny, as the 27th overall pick in the 2018 draft, has $580,000 of his $1,948,014 base salary fully guaranteed this season. Running the numbers on that, it means that for each of the 18 weeks of the 2021 regular season Penny earns $108,223 each week. That means that his base salary is fully guaranteed through Week 5, with a portion of his Week 6 earnings also fully guaranteed.

Which means Penny’s contractual guarantees coincidentally happen to end at the exact same time that he is eligible to come off of injured reserve, which leads to an interesting question. Over the final twelve weeks of the regular season Penny would cost the team $1,298,676 in base salary, while a rookie such as Cody Thompson promoted from the practice squad would hit the cap for just $440,000 after Week 6. Even promoting 2015 first round pick Phillip Dorsett from the practice squad for the final twelve weeks of the season would save the team $638,676 in cap space, while offering depth at a position that has already seen injuries to Dee Eskridge, Tyler Lockett, Freddie Swain and Penny Hart.

This is not to predict or state that Penny’s days in Seattle are numbered, but it does raise the question about how much cap space is it worth allocating to the third running back on the depth chart? Would another team be willing to offer a Day 3 pick in 2022, or perhaps even 2023 to get a test drive for Penny? And if so, would that be enough, combined with the cap savings, for the Hawks to part ways? Or is it possible they could see if he might clear waivers and try to bring him back to the practice squad at a reduced rate?

Regardless of the answers to those specific questions, the reality is the Seattle roster will have a whole lot of holes to fill in the offseason, with limited cap space and draft capital to do so. Thus leading to the question of how they will prepare for that in terms of the roster with the trade deadline four weeks from today.