For Washington, finding the best fit in the NFL draft at running back depends on how comfortable the team is with its current backs — and how willing the Redskins would be to use their first-round pick on a runner.
If the team is content to stay with Robert Kelley, who worked his way up the depth chart after signing as an undrafted free agent, as its starting running back and workhorse, then a change of pace back with receiving ability might take priority. But if Washington decides Kelley is more of a backup, then finding a workhorse back would be required.
To acquire the best player in either category, the Redskins would most likely have to spend their top draft pick to get him. If they were willing, here’s who they should target.
Workhorse back: Dalvin Cook, Florida State, age 21
Cook is the best fit with Washington’s offense. He suits a zone blocking scheme, which Jay Gruden has kept in place since it was installed by Mike Shanahan. He’s also capable of running from the traditional I formation, from the pistol behind the quarterback, or to the side of the quarterback in the shotgun.
Here, Cook lines up to the right side of the quarterback. Florida State run an inside zone play to the left. The first read is the play-side defensive tackle. That tackle takes outside leverage, which tells Cook to cut it back inside to his second read, which is the back side defensive tackle. That tackle works inside toward the play side and has good leverage on the left tackle. Cook could try to cut this run all the way back, but the defense has a linebacker and safety unblocked on the back side.
That leads Cook to work his run back to the play side. As he reads back to the outside, he notices the left guard has managed to wash out the play side defensive tackle, while the fullback works up to help the right guard seal off a blitzing linebacker inside. The center works up and seals off another defender inside, clearing a lane for Cook to run through. Cook beats the back side defensive tackle to the hole and adjusts his path to elude the arm tackle of the safety before walking into the end zone for a touchdown.
Cook excels at inside and particularly outside zone plays, but Gruden and offensive line coach Bill Callahan incorporate other concepts depending on the opponent. They use both power and gap-blocking schemes, in which Cook is also comfortable.
This time, Florida State calls for a counter run, pulling the right guard and tight end to lead the way for Cook. The guard pulls and wraps around, sealing off the defensive end inside while the tight end works across to attempt to kick out the scraping linebacker. Cook presses the gap created between the two blockers, drawing the safety inside before he bounces outside. Cook beats both the linebacker and safety to the edge, turning the corner and bursting down the sideline. His wide receiver makes a good block on the corner, allowing Cook to run past freely on his way to a long touchdown.
In the Clemson game in particular, Cook had three huge runs, including two long touchdown runs, all of which came on that same counter play. Washington used a similar counter concept a lot this past season, to great success.
Cook can also run gap-blocking plays. He does have a tendency to attempt to bounce his runs outside, but it often works for him.
This is just an inside gap play that Cook is meant to run up the middle and find his own lane. Cook starts on the path up the middle, but quickly bounces his run outside to the right. He does an excellent job setting up a block, pressing to the edge to get the defender to commit outside, opening up a cutback lane behind him. Cook makes a quick cut inside and then bounces the run back outside as he avoids a linebacker and safety in pursuit. He walks through a poor arm tackle from the corner on the edge and then charges down the sideline on his way to another big gain.
Cook is a scheme diverse back that fits what Washington runs most, but also offers versatility to run whatever Gruden and Co. want to run any given week. He can be a workhorse back that carries the ball 20 or more times a game, but he is also a solid option as a receiver out of the backfield.
On this third-and-10 play, Cook lines up in the backfield to the right of the quarterback. Cook checks his protection responsibilities and then works out of the backfield to make himself available as a check-down option underneath. The quarterback feels pressure and dumps it off to Cook, who is well short of the first down marker. Cook makes the trailing defender miss with a spin move before showing off his physicality by lowering a shoulder and powering his way through the next tackler to pick up the first down.
Cook has a few parts of his game he needs to clean up — fumbles are a concern (13 in college) — but could upgrade the position if he falls to pick No. 17 and if Washington pulls the trigger. Overall, he’s the best fit for Washington as an every-down, workhorse back.
Versatile back: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, age 20
McCaffrey doesn’t necessarily have the desired frame or size of an every-down running back, but he offers a skill set that very few other backs can replicate. As a running back, McCaffrey runs with great vision and patience, making him a good fit regardless of scheme.
On this play, Stanford lines up in a run-heavy formation, with 23 personnel (two backs, three tight ends). The Cardinal run a counter play to the right, with McCaffrey following the pulling left guard and the fullback to the hole. McCaffrey almost comes to a full stop as he allows the blocks to develop in front of him. That patience sets up the fullback’s block, drawing in the defender to the outside for the fullback to kick him out. McCaffrey then cuts back inside and bursts through the hole, running through an arm tackle before other defenders eventually catch up and make the tackle.
On that play he ran from an I formation in a run-heavy personnel group. But Stanford uses a lot of different personnel groups and McCaffrey was comfortable from switching between lining up in a traditional running back position and to either side of the quarterback in the shotgun.
Here on third-and-seven, Stanford elects to spread out the defense but calls a run from the shotgun. Both the center and left tackle pull around as lead blockers for McCaffrey to follow. A lot of running backs in this situation would be too eager to hit the hole and try to get to the first down marker as quickly as possible. But McCaffrey is patient, allowing his blockers to lead the way for him. As before, he almost comes to a full stop. He uses his hand on the back of his blocker to guide him.
Once the block develops, McCaffrey shows a sudden burst through the hole before making a quick lateral cut to elude a linebacker from the back side. Other defenders chase him down, but McCaffrey manages to break through the tackles and pick up the first down before he’s eventually brought to the ground.
McCaffrey also has good hands, which make him a threat as a receiver. Stanford made the most of his ability, drawing up screen passes for him and lining him up as a wide receiver at times.
This time, Stanford calls a running back screen from the shotgun. McCaffrey initially sells a fake block on the defensive end before peeling off into the flat. As McCaffrey secures the pass and turns his head to find his blockers, he spots an unblocked defender at the line of scrimmage closing on him. McCaffery doesn’t fret, instead using a great stutter step to get the defender to bite outside as he cuts back inside. He eludes two more blockers as he works back inside, before making another great cut to elude a fourth tackler. He’s eventually caught from behind, but not before he managed a first down.
The elusiveness is clear to see. On that screen, he caught the ball seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and managed to convert a second-and-12 without any real blocking from the designed screen. His sharp lateral cuts translate well to his ability to work in and out of breaks as a receiver.
Here, Stanford moves McCaffrey out to the slot to the left of the formation. On third-and-six, Stanford has McCaffrey run a stick route to try to convert and move the chains. The corner matched up against McCaffrey plays well off him, but still bites on his inside fake. That creates a huge amount of separation for McCaffrey as he breaks outside. The ball is delivered a little late and too far inside, but McCaffrey adjusts easily, securing the catch and then quickly dodging a tackle to pick up extra yards.
McCaffrey is an incredibly versatile chess piece. He’s someone that will command 15 to 20 touches a game, but a good chunk of those touches will be receptions instead of runs. With the loss of DeSean Jackson, who stretched the field vertically, adding a back with McCaffrey’s versatility could offer a change in philosophy. Instead of having a vertical option, McCaffrey’s ability to motion out of the backfield and line up at receiver with tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis could allow Washington to spread defenses out and stretch the field horizontally. A 12 personnel group (one running back, two tight ends) consisting of McCaffrey, Reed and Davis could line up in a run-heavy look one play and an empty backfield the next, which would put a lot of stress on a defense in a hurry-up offense.
McCaffrey and Cook are both equally good fits with Washington, depending on how the team views incumbent starter Robert Kelley. Both are likely first-round picks. If Washington wants to upgrade and commit to the running game, then a high pick would likely be required, though a first-round pick could prove to be too rich for a team that needs a lot of help on the defensive side of the ball.