INDIANAPOLIS -- Doug Williams was blunt about his thoughts on the Washington Redskins' running back position.
“We need to upgrade at running back, ain’t no doubt about it,” the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel said. “Nobody is gonna sit here and sugarcoat the fact that we had a good running game. We averaged about 1.4 yards per carry. To say we’re good with the running backs would not be fair to the team.”
It shouldn’t have been a secret before Williams spoke those words at the combine that Washington wanted to upgrade at the position. The Redskins have some parts that can work but no one who has proved capable of being the full-time starter. Chris Thompson was one of their most important offensive players last season, but he’s viewed as a third-down back. He’s also coming off an injury.
The numbers speak to the issue. Last season, Washington ranked 28th in rushing yards, 30th in yards per carry, 28th in yards per carry before contact and 20th in yards after first contact.
Injuries at running back and along the line certainly played a role. There was inconsistent blocking at tight end and receiver as well. In 2016, with a healthier group, the Redskins were 21st in rushing, ninth in yards per carry, 17th in yards before first contact and fifth in yards after first contact. In other words, it was better but inconsistent. And what they want is someone who, when the play is not blocked properly, can still create for himself. The Redskins had an NFL-low three carries that went for 20 or more yards (16 fewer than the No. 1 team, Philadelphia).
At the combine, after top-rated Saquon Barkley, the Redskins were impressed with LSU’s Derrius Guice during the interviews. He was considered a “personality.” They also liked how he competed last season, playing while hurt.
The Redskins realize it’s a deep running back draft class, so it’s not as if every name they like was discussed. But others to watch include San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, who ran a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage opened eyes when he ran the same time, forcing the Redskins to go back and watch more film on him. That sort of speed combined with his size (6-foot-2, 223 pounds) will make him intriguing, but he also was never the full-time guy at Arizona State. He’s likely a later-round pick.
The difficult part with drafting a running back will be knowing when to do so. At 13, it’s likely too high -- and there are likely more pressing areas to address there (defensive line, for example). The Redskins don’t pick again until 44th. In between those two picks, there could be a run on drafting backs. Suddenly, a player they felt might drop to them will be gone. However, in a deep class, there will be good backs available at 44.
They could also look for help in free agency. But the problem with that is the potential cost of a player, knowing there’s younger, cheaper and talented backs available in the draft. That’s why a guy like Isaiah Crowell might be bypassed. The Redskins have spoken highly of him in the past and like his explosiveness. But do you spend around $5 million per year on him if there are a handful of backs you like just as much in the draft?
Young running backs can make an impact early.
“With Ezekiel Elliott doing what he did in Dallas and [Leonard] Fournette doing what he did and [Alvin] Kamara, there’s a heightened awareness that, hey, these guys can come in and help right away,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
The Redskins do have options already on the roster, including 2017 fourth-round pick Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley, who was the starter until getting hurt. Gruden also mentioned Byron Marshall -- a back the Redskins liked for a while before signing him off Philadelphia’s practice squad -- and Kapri Bibbs. Those two offer depth or insurance behind Thompson.
“We have backs in-house that we feel good about,” Gruden said. “We might need to add another piece to come in and compete for that job. We have two or three backs that can be your third-down guy with Byron and obviously Chris. A first- and second-down banger, we have Samaje and Rob Kelley. Maybe another one to compete in that role on first and second down. Maybe an all-purpose guy would be nice. I don’t know. 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.”