Redskins third-down back Chris Thompson in for increased role?

"There's nobody who's better as a third-down back" than Chris Thompson, Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When the Washington Redskins drafted Samaje Perine, running back Chris Thompson knew what it meant for him. Not much. Thompson’s role in the Redskins’ offense is secure and, in fact, might increase. That’s the feeling he’s received early in the offseason.

As the Redskins begin organized team activities, Thompson is the one running back who knows his role. Incumbent starter Rob Kelley will battle Perine, the rookie fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, for the starting job. Regardless of who wins that competition -- and they could well split time -- Thompson will remain the third-down back. And, perhaps, then some.

“I have a feeling I might get a little more this year,” said Thompson, who is playing on a one-year contract. “I just see how the workouts and everything are going, when we’re working together as a group. I’ve gotten somewhat of a feeling just through that.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll become Washington's lead running back. Thompson, at 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, has had durability issues in the past, and the Redskins don’t want to wear him out. But they also know he’ll produce. The quandary remains how to keep him fresh and productive.

That’s not to say there’s no room for more touches. Thompson’s 117 touches from scrimmage last season ranked 47th in the NFL. That’s an average of 7.3 per game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he averaged 6.03 yards every time he touched the ball (5.24 on the ground; 7.12 through the air). His combined yardage total of 705 ranked 37th, but only one back ahead of him -- New England's James White -- had fewer touches.

“Chris’ role is big,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “There’s nobody who’s better as a third-down back than Chris. He has a huge role on our team. Whether he does more on first or second down will be determined. I’m sure he will. He’s so valuable on third down, I have to keep him in that role for now.”

Thompson has improved each of the last two seasons. Not coincidentally, he’s been healthy each of the last two years. After missing 12 games his first season (followed by a year spent mostly on the practice squad), Thompson has missed only three games in the last two seasons. It makes a difference in the offseason as well, allowing him to work on his game rather than rehab.

“It helps me focus on little things I needed to work on, like my quickness, my route-running,” Thompson said, “I know my route-running is big for me to make it in this league. I worked on that a lot. That was my biggest focus now that I didn’t have to worry about healing. That was my main goal this whole offseason.”

If his route-running improves, it makes Thompson that much tougher to defend, which, of course, boosts the offense. After his first two years -- and after an injury-filled past in college -- he wondered if he’d ever reach this spot. He was hurt his last two years at Florida State and as a rookie.

“At that point you would think someone would get rid of you and try to move on,” Thompson said. “But they stuck with me and believed in me. I worked my butt off to get to where I am now. I figured out things along the way to keep myself healthy. It’s been working out. For me, it’s up from here.”