With the Super Bowl over, the NFL now turns its attention to free agency. To preview free agency this year, we’ll look at a potential high-level target, a possible under-the-radar player and a candidate for the Redskins to re-sign from their own group of free agents. The series starts off with a look at the running backs, where two big names could enter the mix at an unsettled position for Washington.
Re-sign candidate: None
The Redskins went through a number of running backs in 2017, with many of them ending the season on injured reserve. The top backs — Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine and Chris Thompson — are all under contract for next season, while both Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs, who impressed in their limited playing time at the end of the season, are under contract as well.
High-level target: Dion Lewis, Patriots
Lewis finally became the starting back in New England, a role he has deserved for a while. He finished the regular season with 896 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries. He is viewed as undersized at just 5-foot-8, but his 195-pound frame shouldn’t be underestimated. Lewis runs well between the tackles and packs a punch.
Here, the Patriots run a basic duo concept, designed to generate double-teams up front. Lewis’s job is to read the designated defender, in this case safety Keanu Neal (No. 22 in the picture), and make his cut based on how that defender reacts to the play.
As Lewis approaches the line of scrimmage, he reads Neal working outside and cuts back inside. Lewis makes the most of his small frame, bursting through a tight hole while running through an attempted arm tackle from a defensive tackle. Lewis then shows his desire to finish every run. He approaches the deep safety in the open field and drops his shoulder, running over the safety while other defenders work back to help make the tackle.
Lewis’s vision, burst and strength are all big components of his game. Despite being a smaller back, he has plenty of power to run regularly between the tackles. That being said, he also has some lateral quickness to make sharp jump cuts and find a hole in the defense.
Here, Lewis is looking to run up the middle in the “A gap” between his center and right guard.
Lewis initially fakes a step to the left before taking the handoff up the middle. As he reaches the line of scrimmage, the Jaguars’ run defense has all the gaps inside filled. Lewis presses his run as close to the line of scrimmage as possible with the intent of drawing the linebackers inside. He then makes a sharp lateral cut to his right. As he works to the edge, a defender spots his run and takes away the edge. Lewis makes another sharp cut back inside, breaking an arm tackle and picking up five yards before being tackled.
Lewis would offer the Redskins a legitimate threat as a runner, capable of carrying a heavier workload than he has seen with the Patriots, while also being a solid receiver. He could make a very good partner with Thompson as a one-two punch in the Redskins’ backfield. The Patriots will likely want him back, but with other running backs already on their roster and a number of free agents to re-sign, Lewis could become available.
Under-the-radar target: Isaiah Crowell, Browns
Crowell entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2014 but quickly worked his way into the starting back role in Cleveland. At 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, Crowell is a bigger back but not quite the size of Kelley and Perine. He managed 853 yards at 4.1 yards per carry and two touchdowns this season, but the Browns often trailed in games and were reluctant to run the ball, leaving Crowell to average just 13 carries per game. He’s a powerful back with some quickness to elude defenders will maintaining his tracks.
Here, the Browns run a counter trey, with two blockers pulling from their spot to lead the way for Crowell.
The pulling guard is tasked with kicking out the edge defender, in this case Green Bay’s Clay Matthews. Matthews works around the guard, but Crowell makes a nice subtle adjustment to his track to avoid Matthews and then get back on his original path. With the linebackers on the second level kicked out, Crowell is able to turn the corner and burst down the middle of the field for a nice gain.
When Crowell is at his best, he also shows good patience with his runs.
This time, the Browns look to run inside to the left.
As Crowell reaches the line of scrimmage, he has to adjust his path to account for the center being driven back by the nose tackle. Then, he’s faced with a pile of bodies that many backs would just slam into and take what they can get. But Crowell displays patience, waiting for the play to develop before finding an opening to his right and bursting into the secondary.
Crowell would give the Redskins a similar type of back to Kelley and Perine whom they could trust running inside while still allowing Thompson to see plenty of playing time in his third-down role. Redskins Coach Jay Gruden was impressed with Crowell after he ran for 120 yards and a touchdown against Washington in 2016, calling him “an excellent back” and “a heck of a running back” on separate occasions before and after the game.
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