Washington Commanders envision Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson Jr. leading rugged backfield

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders didn't enter the 2022 draft with a need for another top running back. Rather, they had a desire. They wanted another style to complement starter Antonio Gibson. They wanted more insurance and they wanted another way to win games.

So they dipped into a familiar past, sort of.

In 2008, the Carolina Panthers did not have a need for another running back. But two years after picking DeAngelo Williams in the first round, they selected Jonathan Stewart with the 13th overall pick. Carolina's general manager at the time, Marty Hurney, is the Commanders' executive vice president of player personnel.

Williams and Stewart were productive for the Panthers, one of seven duos in NFL history to each rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season (2009).

Now Washington is hoping third-round running back Brian Robinson Jr. provides a similar boost. He doesn't need to surpass 1,000 yards to help. He just needs to add a little more power and short-yardage success -- and help keep Gibson fresher over 17 games.

Gibson isn't worried about why the team drafted Robinson.

"That's coach's decision, it's not up to me," he said. "They felt they needed help in the running back room and we'll compete and do what's best for our team."

Washington also has veteran third-down back J.D. McKissic, who has 123 receptions over the past two seasons. That's why Rivera said he feels "damn good" about his backfield.

"We have a trifecta of guys you feel real good about in terms of mixing it up," he said.

Gibson's improvement

After playing receiver in college, Gibson (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) has steadily progressed as a running back, rushing for 1,037 yards last season -- sixth most in the NFL. The 2020 third-round pick showed more patience as last season unfolded, setting up blockers better and knowing when to cut up or bounce wide. It culminated in a 146-yard game in the season finale against the New York Giants.

And he has spent this offseason trying to enhance his game. He trained with Kerry Bennett at his facility in Katy, Texas, where Gibson focused on ball security, staying low through the hole and nutrition.

Gibson fumbled six times and lost four last season after fumbling twice as a rookie. A painful shin injury likely contributed to the issue -- he said last season that he had a stress fracture that hurt almost every time he was hit.

To address his fumbling, Gibson ran plays with Bennett carrying a three-pound ball (about two pounds heavier than a regulation ball). With the added weight, Gibson could better feel when the ball wasn't tight against his body. Bennett also challenged Gibson by placing a series of five-foot hurdles made of PVC pipes that he had to run under while cutting.

"He's not as compact [at 6-2], so we focused on making him not such a big target," Bennett said.

Off the field, they worked with a chef to lower Gibson's body fat from 18% to 12%.

"Slimming down, muscling up," Gibson said. "Just to get some of my speed back. I wanted to get quicker. I feel looser in the hips. I feel explosive."

For good measure, Gibson worked on his route running in case his role in the passing game expands. He had 42 catches last season.

Double Trouble sequel?

Robinson (6-1, 225), who showed at Alabama that he could catch and pass protect, could be an ideal sidekick for Gibson. And the rookie knows why Washington drafted him.

"I choose to be physical, wear defenses down," he said. "I can be elusive. ... But more than anything I try to be downhill and put my size and my force on."

If he's able to do that, Washington could re-create the Panthers' Williams-Stewart pairing. Their glory days occurred before Rivera arrived as Carolina's coach in 2011 -- they earned the nickname Double Trouble in 2008 when they combined for 2,519 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns -- but he still felt the impact. Williams rushed for 836 yards and Stewart 761 in their first season with Rivera.

"It was one of the most unselfish things I've ever seen," Rivera said. "If one guy was rolling they'd say go ahead and keep it going. They were so supportive."

Though Williams was gone by the time Carolina reached the Super Bowl in 2015, Stewart wasn't. He rushed for 989 yards that season.

The NFL has changed since then. In 2008, 16 players rushed for more than 1,000 yards -- nine more than this past season, even with teams playing a 17th game. Only two backs carried the ball 300 times or more last season compared to five in 2008. It's not as if teams run the ball a lot less -- last year teams averaged only one fewer carry per game compared to that season. But more teams are using multiple backs to split the workload and incorporate more sub packages.

That's why Washington wanted Robinson. And it's why Gibson's touches should remain high (he ranked fourth in the NFL with 300 last season), though his usage could vary weekly.

Rivera said the Commanders can now match what they need with the style of back they have.

"If the game's going to get physical and you have to really grind it out, you want to mix in with somebody else," Rivera said. "They may not get 20 carries, but just to change up the physicality.

"Then you've got a little bit of a slasher with Antonio's style. ... I've been fortunate that I've had a couple of combinations of really good running backs. Then you throw J.D. into the mix and you're really going to get a change up."