Sometimes running backs fly under the radar and blossom in the right system. Other times, running backs continuosly demonstrate greatness but get overlooked because they are not flashy. I think Shaun Alexander fits the bill of an under-the-radar-yet-continuously-giving-stellar-performances running back. When Shaun Alexander was at Alabama, I remember thinking he was the best back in college. I felt there was something odd about Ron Dayne, and that his run to the college total rushing yard record felt phony. He felt like another stiff Big Ten running back. I told my neighborhood NY Giants fans that they should pick Alexander. They all wanted Dayne's hard running, big body. I said that Alexander could catch, run with power, has faced big time SEC competition, and carried the Alabama team at times. Dayne was running behind a monster line. Who wouldn't want to draft Alexander after reading this article? Five years later, I feel vindicated in my stance: Alexander is a premier back while Dayne is a back up. This was a rare time where my scouting sense was dead on.
Does Shaun Alexander deserve a huge long term contract like he is asking? On past performance, it is tough to argue with the numbers he has put up. He's averaged nearly 1200 yards a season including his rookie year where he hardly touched the ball. Alexander has 84 TDs & counting, and he has decent hands out of the backfield. One could argue that in big games Alexander gets stuffed as other teams focus on stopping him and force the Seahawks to beat them through the air. His postseason stats lead you to believe that he cannot rack up yards on the big stage. Despite all of this, Alexander has produced, and he is a known quantity vs. the unknown quantity of an expensive (money & opportunity cost) 1st rd draft pick. A contract with him could be loaded in a way that cutting him after 3-4 years can make a big cap difference.
If you wanted to award him a contract for the next 5 years (or 7, yikes), you might want to think of the aging process with RBs after 5 years. Alexander is playing his sixth season and is 28 years old. In this article, John Clayton states how "Age is the most dangerous number for a running back because history shows backs start to lose their value once they reach 28 or have six years in the league". Take a look at Marshall Faulk and Emmitt Smith: two premier backs in the NFL in the mid-late 90s. Faulk and Smith had 1642 and 2007 carries after 6 seasons (Alexander is on pace for 1700+/-). Faulk had 4 solid seasons left in him, which could have been better if Mike Martz had used him rather than pass 50 times a game. Smith had 5 solid seasons after his 6th year and is a bit of an anomaly. One thing that both of these RBs had on their side was that they were 26 during their 6th year. Alexander is 28 and despite fewer carries, the two years shows up in speed. Another problem arises in risk of injury and bouncing back the next season is not at age 25 but at age 30. Smith and Faulk both had injuries later in contracts and even Corey Dillon has had issues coming back after his nagging injuries of a couple of seasons ago. Jerome Bettis is another example as he has been effective when platooned after age 28. That is the risk of giving millions in double digit guaranteed money to RBs.
Ultimately, I think you sign Alexander to a 5 year deal. The thing to keep in mind is that you may trade him to a contender after 3 or 4 years when the window has closed on the Sehawks as they are currently structured, his salary would free up cap space, and some team "on the cusp" needs a proven RB and has a 2nd round pick to deal (example: Corey Dillon). Besides the production and versatility, I think you sign him because of his desire to stay in Seattle. In these articles here and here, Alexander comes across as a player who realizes what the Seahawks are on the verge of and wants to be a part of it. I was impressed with how he wants to win the Super Bowl with the Seahawks. This quote really hit me for his knowledge of the history of the city's relationship with superstars...
"Seattle as a city has been burnt so many times that they've been keeping their guard up with me," he said. "But they've never had a guy, like me in my position, that says, 'No, I want to stay here. I want to see us win. I want to see us get to the Super Bowl and win it.' They've never had that. People have been holding their guard up and holding their breath."
Go back to that first article I sited of Alexander in college. He went to Alabama because of the history; he stayed a year longer to win the SEC championship and cement his place in 'Bama lore. I believe that Alexander is serious in the SB talk because of the behavior exhibited in college. He's educated and knows how weak the NFC is right now. Alexander knows that his chance at a ring is easiest in the NFC, and they have the pieces in place right now to make a run. Even though the league will be flooded with RB free agents and a good draft for RBs for the second straight year, I think you go with Alexander. You can use the first two picks of next year's draft on positions you need help with rather than a rookie RB to replace a proven top 5 NFL RB*****.
As far as the Seahawks, I'm not sold on their defense or their receivers catching balls when it matters. They do have an easy schedule by being in the NFC west and could get a bye because the NFC North's champ will go .500 at best and the South & East will beat each other up so that one division champ will be 10-6. They are 5-2 with 2 games against the 49ers and 1 against the Titans and Cardinals left. That should be another 4 wins. I think they'll get a bye and end up 11-5. With the week to rest and homefield advantage, they might get the Falcons who they handled earlier this year, the young, unproven Bucs with a shaky QB, or an NFC East team that will be physically beaten by the end of the year.
*****My top 5 RBs in the NFL: L. Tomlinson, E. James, W. McGahee, Tiki Barber, and Shaun Alexander, in that order. I think if Clinton Portis had not bulked up this year so Joe Gibbs could punish him, I'd have him on this list. This list pretty much agrees with mine. I will expand on this list and make it a later post because I have seen all 5 in action this year and will watch 4 games this week at least which include some others.