The Washington Redskins enter their spring practice sessions with lots of confidence in their passing game -- and more than a few questions about the running game. A lot of that stems from inexperience, and that leads to another question: Can Matt Jones be The Guy?
As the Redskins begin their organized team activity workouts Tuesday, Jones will be a focal point as he takes over the role of lead back with Alfred Morris now in Dallas. Jones, at least, played quite a bit as a rookie with 144 carries and 19 receptions. But he now must prove he can be productive -- and stay healthy -- over 16 games as the lead back.
But he’s not alone among the running back questions. There’s some intrigue at the position, but there is also a lot more questions than answers at this point.
Here’s a quick look at running back entering OTAs:
Matt Jones: The starter. The Redskins keep saying he can be their full-time guy, but to prove it on Sundays he will have to run better than he did as a rookie last season. His ball security must be improved, too. But Jones must get better in areas such as yards after contact (he ranked 45th last season at 1.44). That can improve if he runs with a lower pad level through the line, something he worked on last season -- indeed, in the second half of the year he averaged 1.68 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Overall, he averaged just 3.09 yards on his last 70 carries. Jones learned lessons from Morris last season in terms of taking care of his body that, if applied, will help. I think Jones was caught at times last season between what he used to be in college and what he needs to be in the NFL. If he figures that out, he has the talent to be what they need. Also, they will be more of a passing team anyway, which could help create better fronts for him to run against.
Chris Thompson: He served as Washington’s third-down back and continues to learn on the field, in terms of running routes -- in both speed and depth. Thompson did an excellent job in protection. I still don’t think we’ve seen all that he can do, but he has to stay healthy. Thompson averaged 6.9 yards per reception last season -- 31st among backs with at least 30 receptions. He’s capable of more. Thompson understands his game and where, and how, he must improve -- not all players do.
Mack Brown: You will hear his name mentioned on occasion as in, "Don’t forget about him." He was Jones’ backup at Florida and was signed a few days before training camp last summer. Brown ran well enough last season to earn a spot on the practice squad.
Keith Marshall: The Redskins drafted Marshall in the seventh round last month, but like Brown he was never more than a backup in college. Granted, he was running alongside some terrific talent at Georgia including Todd Gurley (now with the Rams) and Nick Chubb (expected to be one of the best backs in college this season). Marshall ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds, which excited the Redskins. Being a good back takes more than speed, but he also has good size at 5-foot-11, 219 pounds. If the Redskins can spread the field with multiple weapons in the passing game, it can create better creases for all the backs. Someone with Marshall’s speed, if he can make the first line miss, could really benefit.
Others: The Redskins also have Joe Kerridge (fullback), Kelsey Young and Rob Kelley -- all three were signed this spring as undrafted free agents. Maybe one of them comes through, but to count on that is obviously difficult.
Free agent running backs: The two biggest names still available are Pierre Thomas and Arian Foster. The Redskins do not have any interest in Foster, who is 29 and coming off an Achilles’ injury, at this time. But they remain interested in Thomas, who played the final four games with them last season. In that time, Thomas rushed 11 times for 52 yards and caught nine passes for 84. His veteran savvy made a difference -- one suggestion to Thompson, for example, resulted in him being more patient on a play that ended with him scoring. Last offseason, Thomas' asking price was too high as he preferred to wait until the season to gauge the best opportunity. It appears that same strategy is in place.