The Running Back Situation: These Colors Don’t Run (At Least Not Well Enough)

NFL Washington Commanders

If you’re among those who felt the running game had room for improvement last season stop reading now.  It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

For better or for worse Scot McCloughan and Jay Gruden have all but etched in stone Matt Jones as the primary back for the upcoming season. Jones averaged eleven attempts per game last season behind primary back Alfred Morris, averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per attempt. He also fumbled the ball five times on 144 carries, for an average of one fumble every 28 carries. It’s clear the Redskins are expecting major improvement in these two critical statistical areas. The 2015 league average of 4.1 yards per rushing attempt will be a goal for Jones. He could potentially see twice as many rushing attempts per game as the primary back and will absolutely need to secure the football. Jones has the full faith and confidence of the team and the coaching staff but he will only have it to a point.

Behind Jones is where the situation becomes precarious. As of this writing the primary backup is third down slash change of pace back Chris Thompson who averaged 6.2 yards per attempt last season in limited action. Thompson has never exceeded 35 rushing attempts in a season at the NFL level. Thompson is also a Shanahan era holdover. 2016 7th round draft selection Keith Marshall is very much the same type of back, with more pure speed. It’s reasonable to think only one of these two will be on the active roster. If it’s Marshall, Thompson’s days in D.C. are numbered.

Last season’s third (and sometimes second) option was mid-season acquisition Pierre Thomas. In the four games he played Thomas averaged 4.7 yards per attempt on a total of 11 attempts. He also caught 9 receptions for 84 yards. By all accounts he is a team player and an asset to the locker room. Thomas is currently a free agent. He remains an option as of this writing.

Mack Brown was signed as a free agent from the Houston Texans. Brown has a career total of 30 rushing attempts for 81 yards and 2 receptions for 16 yards. It is reasonable to assume Brown will not survive the final roster cuts. Not only does he have extremely limited experience but the roster now has three players of the (six feet if we’re being generous) and (215lbs. if we’re being generous) type of back. Brown would seem to be the odd man out.

7th round draft selection Keith Marshall combines NFL size at 5’11” and 220lbs. with rare speed. Marshall, as many know, suffered a major ACL injury his sophomore season and missed nearly one and one-half seasons recovering. Going into the 2016 NFL combine there were questions about a loss of raw speed, one of Marshall’s most valuable assets. He put those to rest with 40 yard times of 4.31 and 4.33, the 4.31 being the second fastest time ever recorded at the combine. Marshall obviously has the raw speed to be the change of pace back but he lacks the collegiate receiving numbers to be utilized effectively in that capacity. He will have to demonstrate an ability to be effective as a receiver to be given an opportunity in that role. It is conceivable Marshall spends the season on the practice squad although any demonstration of the ability he showed in college will put him at risk of being signed by another team. It’s hard to say where Marshall fits as of now but make no mistake, he fits somewhere.

Rob Kelley was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane. Kelley had a bit of a legal issue in August 2014 where he was charged with assault and battery of another student over a bicycle. Those charges were dropped. As a result, however, Kelley did not play as a senior. At 6’0″ and 220lbs. (notice a pattern here?) Kelley has prototypical size. He averaged 4.1 yards per attempt for his collegiate career and also caught 80 receptions for 694 yards. Kelley also averaged 20.4 yards per attempt on kickoff returns, making him a possibility in that capacity.

Silas Redd is suspended (again) for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. His days in D.C. are done.

It would be impossible to fathom the Redskins being entirely comfortable with the running back situation. Ostensibly they will give the verbal and visual cues to the media which indicate they have no qualms about the situation but that simply cannot be the case. The team lost Alfred Morris (by choice) and the only other change made to the rushing game from last season will be the return of a presumably healthy Korey Lichtensteiger at center.  That is a net loss by most accounts.  When a team drafts not one but two running backs, whose average NFL careers last less than four years, it isn’t for the future. Backs have the shortest shelf life of any NFL position.

Because the team will not carry a fullback it is possible they will use the extra roster position to carry an extra back but it is more likely they will carry an extra receiver. Scot McCloughan is also not known for doing the expected. While personnel will undoubtedly be a joint decision between McCloughan and Gruden and possibly Sean McVay, Randy Jordan, and even Bill Callahan, ultimately “Scotty Mac” is making the decisions. He isn’t likely to cast aside his own draft selections and dismiss his own judgment for players brought in by another coach. Conventional wisdom might suggest Jones, Thompson, Marshall and Thomas making the final roster but, again, McCloughan is anything but conventional. With that in mind, expect to see Jones, Marshall, Kelley, and either Chris Thompson or Pierre Thomas (but not both) on the 2016 Redskins roster.

Also anticipate a shift to a power blocking scheme.  With Matt Jones as the primary back there will be little to nothing in the way of cutback running.  Everything will be downhill.  On the positive side, every back on the roster will be looking to prove something.  They’re young and hungry and looking to earn and keep NFL jobs.  On the negative side, if Jones is either injured or ineffective there will be virtually no rushing game, placing even more pressure on Kirk Cousins and the passing offense than last season.

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