The Washington Redskins wanted to upgrade at running back, so they selected Derrius Guice in the NFL draft. What they don’t want to do is change Chris Thompson’s role, so Guice’s arrival shouldn't have much of an impact on that.
As the Redskins conduct spring workouts, the question isn’t whether Thompson will play a key role for Washington but rather what sort of production will they need from him. A lot of that depends on how many games tight end Jordan Reed plays.
Thompson’s performance last season means defenses must pay closer attention to him. After all, he caught 39 passes for 510 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games before fracturing his fibula. But if the rest of the Redskins’ passing-game weapons come through, then Thompson will have more help -- and that could lessen his overall production.
In six games with Reed last season, Thompson was targeted 21 times and caught 18 passes with two touchdowns. With Reed not on the field, Thompson was targeted 31 times with 21 receptions and two touchdowns. The good news for Washington: His yards per catch didn’t change much (13.11 with Reed, 13.06 without).
With Guice, Thompson will mostly be used as a runner, which means Thompson’s third-down role won’t change. It could help Thompson if Guice takes some burden off him.
“Chris will be in there a lot, so I think the rotation that we will come up with will be quite beneficial to all the backs,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said after the draft. “Keep them fresh, keep them healthy and then use their skill set accordingly.”
The good news for Thompson is that he should be healthy for this season. He said on The Team 980 last week that doctors told him his bone had healed. Now it’s just continuing his rehab and getting ready for training camp.
“Chris Thompson is by far the guy that we need to be healthy to make this a great corps of running backs,” Redskins vice president of player personnel Doug Williams said before the draft.
The other good news for Thompson: He’ll have more weapons around him. When the 2017 season began, he had Reed and Terrelle Pryor, who was coming off a 1,000-yard season. The offensive line was considered solid and slot receiver Jamison Crowder had two strong seasons on his resume.
But by the time Thompson left via injury in Week 10, the offense was minus Reed and Pryor; the offensive line was in pieces because of injuries and Crowder was in the middle of an inconsistent year. The Redskins became too reliant on Thompson. There wasn’t a speed target to help clear areas for him, the way there could be this season with receiver Paul Richardson.
In an ideal world for Washington, the Redskins could, say, align Richardson wide to the right and send him on a deep route, perhaps drawing two defenders to the middle. That could open up a lane underneath for Thompson one-on-one; if he wins, it’s a big gain. If receiver Josh Doctson develops, it gives defenses another player to worry about -- and puts fewer eyes on Thompson. If Reed stays healthy -- always a big if -- that helps even more.
By the end of Thompson's 2017 season, linebackers paid closer attention to him. The better his teammates perform, the more Thompson will be placed in one-on-one situations. It was clear last season he had improved his route-running in those situations, exploding more out of his breaks.
The other question relates to how he works with quarterback Alex Smith. For Smith, when he’s had good targets at running back, he’s taken advantage, from Jamaal Charles to Kareem Hunt. Last season, Smith attempted 106 passes to running backs and Hunt caught 51 passes. The Chiefs also used receiver Tyreek Hill in the backfield at times. Thompson’s ability to line up in various formations and positions -- and his improved route-running -- will make him an attractive target for Smith.
Thompson's talent warrants a certain number of touches per game. That shouldn’t diminish, though in some games it will -- and that could represent good news for Washington. Less production could mean others are healthy and producing.
“They’ve been able to see this past year before my injuries the things I’m able to do as well,” Thompson said on The Team 980.
Yes, they have. Whether or not his production increases, his importance won't change.