Injuries ravaged the Washington Redskins on both sides of the ball in 2017, but the run game was hit as hard as anywhere.
Running backs and linemen went down and the team finished the season tied for 29th in the league with 3.6 rushing yards per carry. Coach Jay Gruden expects a healthy offensive line to be team’s strength this year, so the running backs will need to elevate their game as well. And it won’t just be those currently on the roster getting a chance.
“We have to have stability at running back,” Gruden said at the NFL combine last week. “We have to get Chris Thompson back healthy. And then, obviously, have to get some running backs in here that can play 16 games somehow.
“There are a lot of options. But whoever it is, we intend on giving them a great opportunity to compete for a lot of carries.”
An early-down back is the priority with Thompson, Kapri Bibbs and Byron Marshall providing depth in third-down roles. Rob Kelley ran for 704 yards with an average of 4.2 yards per carry as a rookie in 2016, but a sprained medial collateral ligament and sprained ankle placed him on injured reserve after seven games in 2017. Rookie Samaje Perine led the team with 603 yards after being selected in the fourth round out of Oklahoma, but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.
The team loves Thompson, but his slight 5-foot-8, 191-pound frame isn’t exactly built to grind out games.
Doug Williams, the team’s senior vice president of player personnel, raved about the quality and depth of running backs in this year’s draft. There are at least 10 backs that could go in the first three rounds. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is at the top of the class and is even in the conversation to be selected No. 1 overall. However, runners like Derrius Guice (LSU), Ronald Jones (Southern California), Sony Michel (Georgia), Rashaad Penny (San Diego State), Kerryon Johnson (Auburn) and Nick Chubb (Georgia) are all early-round prospects that could contribute quickly.
Gruden thinks the success of the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette with the Jaguars and the Saints’ Alvin Kamara may have reminded teams of the value in taking a back early after the trend had gone in the opposite direction in recent years.
“It’s never really been an undervalued position, it’s just there’s a lot of backs that people feel can do similar-type things,” Gruden said. “I think there’s just a heightened awareness that, hey, these guys can come in here and help right away. So, maybe, they’ll go a little bit higher now.”
The trade to bring quarterback Alex Smith to the Redskins isn’t yet official, but he’s agreed to a four-year extension worth up to $94 million. A healthy line should provide plenty of protection and gaping holes for backs to slip through. The Redskins need a back to take advantage and keep teams from solely focusing on the quarterback that threw for 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns for the Chiefs last season.
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