The other night, Pete Carroll was messaging with his general manager at 3 a.m.
The Seahawks’ architects are spending such late hours ruminating over what to do with the team’s 17 imminent free agents. They are trying to decide whether to make cash-seeking veterans such as Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor happy. They are deciding whom to acquire next month in free agency and whom to draft in April among the 332 prospects working out here at the NFL scouting combine this week.
But they are not losing any sleep over who is going to replace Marshawn Lynch.
Carroll said Thursday that although Seattle sign running backs to compete for the job of replacing the retiring Lynch as the team’s lead running back, he expects Thomas Rawls to be Seahawks’ new mainstay on the ground.
“Well, Thomas is going to get a great shot at it,” Carroll said of Seattle’s 2015 undrafted rookie wonder. “He did everything he could his rookie season to make a statement that he belongs.
“We love the style. He’s a great kid. I can’t imagine that he’s not going to be right in the middle of it.”
Rawls wasn’t even invited to the combine last year after his lone season at Central Michigan. But when Lynch had an injury-filled season after Seattle had traded one-time heir apparent Christine Michael and sent fellow backup Robert Turbin away before the season started, Rawls entered as Plan D — and proved to be Grade A. He became the first undrafted rookie to rush for at least 160 yards in a game twice.
Then Rawls broke his ankle and tore ligaments in the Dec. 13 win at Baltimore.
“I just saw him two days ago. He’s in really good shape right now,” Carroll said at Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the combine’s workouts. “He’s getting ready for it. It’s going to be a haul for him, but he’ll make it for camp and be ready to go.
“And we’ll expect a lot out of him.”
Carroll went further Thursday than general manager John Schneider when the day before here when he stopped short of saying the job of lead runner was Rawls’ to lose. Schneider chose to emphasize the competition for Rawls that he plans to add to the roster.
Carroll acknowledged that competition is coming, but he emphasized Rawls.
“I don’t know who else is going to be added to the team, but he’s coming in as the guy that we’re looking to him to give the ball to,” Carroll said, “and he’s recovering really well.”
Off the stage, in a suite-lounge area of the Colts’ domed stadium, Carroll called these next few months “a very crucial time for us.” Hence, the 3 a.m. messaging with Schneider.
Free agency begins March 9, and the coach made clear that he, Schneider and the player-personnel staff are trying to figure out how to prioritize and keep the most important of those 17 veterans whose contracts have expired, including left tackle Russell Okung, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, linebacker Bruce Irvin and guard J.R. Sweezy.
The trick is staying under the salary cap, which is expected to be about $154 million for 2016. The Seahawks are estimated to have about $23 million in available cap space, 14th-fewest in the 32-team league.
And Seattle has scant wiggle room. The NFL players’ union announced Thursday the carryover totals for each team from last year’s unused cap space, and the “all-in” Seahawks are carrying over a meager $11,587 — relative pennies. Only three other teams are carrying over less than $1 million — the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions — and all of them carried over more than $862,000.
Carroll acknowledged Okung’s unique situation of representing himself in negotiations with the team. Seattle’s first-round pick in 2010 might prove too expensive to retain, given that he plays a premium, valued position.
“It’s a challenge. No, it doesn’t change the dynamic, but it is a challenge,” Carroll said. “It poses a challenge for him to do a nice job with this process. It’s a very complicated process. He’s very close to us. We care a tremendous amount about him. We’re hoping it all works out right. Of course we’d love him back — just like our other guys.”
Kearse, a former Lakes High School and University of Washington standout, is intent on testing the market as a free agent for the first time.
“There’s some work to be done there,” Carroll said. “He’s unrestricted.”
Bennett has two more seasons on the $28.5 million deal he signed before the 2014 season. He’s been grousing for a pay raise since last spring, but unlike Chancellor, Bennett reported to last summer’s training camp on time, did not hold out and played in every game — even through toe pain that eventually required an injection. Bennett had a career-high 10 sacks and made the Pro Bowl.
Carroll said he met with Bennett last month at the Pro Bowl, in which the disruptive end was named defensive MVP. The coaches’ comments Thursday hinted at how Bennett’s complain-and-play-anyway tactic was better received than Chancellor’s holdout.
That might translate into an effort to get Bennett addition money this offseason while Chancellor stews on into the final two seasons on his deal — neither of which is guaranteed.
“Michael’s doing good. Mike’s got business,” Carroll said. “I respect the heck out him. He did a great job this season, and we’re looking forward to another big year.
“Mike did all the things he’s supposed to do, you know. And he did it with a flair. I love that he brought leadership. He brought great energy — and really terrific consistency, too — to our season.
“We’d like to reward everybody. Can’t always do that.”
How about himself? The 64-year-old Carroll will be entering the final season of his Seahawks contract in 2016. In 2014 he said he’d like to coach Seattle until he’s at least 72 because “I love this formula.”
Would he like his contract extended to avoid a lame-duck regular season?
“I’m doin’ great,” is all a grinning Carroll would say to that. “I’m doin’ great.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
Carroll hopeful for Sarkisian
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Thursday that he is hopeful Steve Sarkisian, his former assistant at USC, can return to coaching soon. Sarkisian, also the former coach at the University of Washington, was fired as USC’s head coach in October before he checked into an alcohol-rehabilitation center.
“I’m sure when Steve’s ready to do it he’ll get back. And he’s a fantastic coach,” said Carroll, who has spoken with Sarkisian in the past six weeks. “In life, a lot of people go through some issues in their lives, and he’s working through it now and getting himself ready and right to get back to compete again.
“I’ve always thought real highly of his coaching ability. … (He is) working really hard, and he’s doing well and making progress.”
Asked whether he would like to put Sarkisian on his coaching staff, Carroll said: “I’m not going to go there right now.”
Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org