Our look at the approaching training camp position battles continues.
On Friday, we went over the contenders for key roles along the defensive line and how things could shake out. Today, we flip to the other side of the ball, taking a look into the backfield.
After they benched a fumble-prone Matt Jones as their starting running back midway through last season, the Redskins received good production from undrafted rookie Rob Kelley, who finished the year with 704 yards and six touchdowns on 168 carries (averaging 4.2 yards per attempt).
Although encouraged by Kelley’s production, Redskins decision-makers wondered if they could do better and drafted Samaje Perine in the fourth round. A prolific and punishing runner at Oklahoma, the 5-foot-11, 238-pound Perine should certainly help Washington in goal line and short-yardage situations, but he also could contend for a larger role.
Kelley, however, remained atop the depth chart during offseason practices, and he isn’t about to just hand the job over to the rookie.
Instead, he enters Year 2 with loads of motivation. He spent the offseason working on his pass-catching skills, and he lowered his body fat percentage while adding more muscle. Kelley also spent the offseason watching film of more successful backs in the league as he looks to refine his techniques and understanding of defenses.
Perine is absorbing information like a sponge, his coaches say. And he has a ways to go to catch up with Kelley. But as a fierce competitor, he doesn’t want to settle for a backup role.
Meanwhile, he has another veteran in Matt Jones to contend with for touches. Jones opted to skip all of the voluntary practices but came to the mandatory minicamp saying he was ready to work. Running backs coach Randy Jordan has done a lot of talking to the demoted back, recounting situations where he himself was benched during his playing career, and telling Jones what he learned and how he needs to respond.
During offseason practices, Jones was slotted behind Kelley, change-of-pace back Chris Thompson, and Perine. But we’ll see what kind of motivation Jones displays as he enters training camp.
The initial depth chart will probably look the same: Kelley receiving the bulk of the first team snaps, Thompson sprinkling in with his defined role, and then Perine and Jones occasionally getting some carries with the starters but getting most of their work with the second unit. Mack Brown and Keith Marshall likely will split time with the third unit.
The true indications will come during the preseason, however. Those game situations provide the best evaluation opportunities for running backs. That’s where Kelley outshined Marshall and Brown last season and moved up to second on the depth chart and positioned himself to take over as the starter.
And similarly, although they can show coaches some of their abilities during practices, this preseason will best indicate if Kelley is indeed primed to make a leap forward. And those games will reveal if Perine is best suited as a backup, or if he can force Jones out of the picture and also leapfrog Kelley.