2011 Washington Redskins: Should the Redskins Draft a New Running Back?
Saying that the Redskins have a lot of holes to fill in the draft and through free agency is sort of like saying "water is wet" or "the sun is hot"; it's blatantly obvious, and almost redundant. The Redskins will have to be extremely careful as they enter the season, and if they want to get better as a football team, every draft choice, every free agent signing, every move they make is going be extremely crucial.
However, one of the more surprising holes that analyst seem to think needs filling is that of running back. The Redskins parted ways with veteran back Clinton Portis shortly before the NFL lockout occurred, which, surprisingly, sent a bunch of red flags amongst analyst.
The Redskins (in keeping with the "even when they win, they lose" mentality that surrounds this team) made a move to get younger and better their football team, not to mention free up salary cap room. But instead of being somewhat praised for a step in the right direction, the Redskins were instead criticized, and now, running back has been added to the (somewhat exaggerated) list of the 'Skins offseason needs.
But is it?
It might be hard for people to believe, but the Redskins played a lot of the season with Portis. While he's always been a great (sometimes even underrated) running back, he has been hurt for a large portion of the last two seasons. And the Redskins have a stable of younger, healthier options already on their roster.
So do the Redskins need to draft a new franchise running back? Is there one available in the draft that fits the Redskins scheme?
It's time to look at an honestly evaluate the running back position for the Washington Redskins, and what it needs to do to improve.
Current Starter: Ryan Torain
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Last offseason, Mike Shanahan bought in Ryan Torain, a former fifth round draft pick out of Arizona State, to be amongst the guys competing to be in the Redskins backfield. Torain seemed poised to have a promising career in Denver in 2008, but an injury sidetracked his rookie year. A head coaching change and another injury didn't help matters, and Torain spent 2009 out of football.
Torain performed very well in preseason, but was ultimately put on the practice squad when the Redskins decided to put Larry Johnson on their opening day roster. Johnson was released after two games, and Torain came to life in the week three game against the Rams, and solidified himself in the minds of Redskins fans when he bowled over an Eagles defender to score his first touchdown in the burgundy and gold.
A powerful, downhill runner, Torain might not be the fastest running back, but he doesn't have to be. He can run over you, he can catch out of the backfield if need be, and his blocking got better as the season went on. He's the perfect back for Shanahan's system, and is excellent in getting yards after contact. Had Torain played in all sixteen games, he would've topped out at the season with between 1,100 and 1,300 yards---and that's with the Redskins 30th in the league in rushing attempts. He finished the season with 742 yards, had three games with over one hundred yards rushing, averaged 4.5 yards per carry, 4 rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns.
The biggest problem with Torain, unfortunately, is still health related. Though this year, his injury was somewhat minor in compared to his time in Denver, a nagging hamstring injury kept him out for the better part of a month. Perhaps part of the problem was that he tried to push himself back on the field; the problems with the hamstring occured mainly while Torain was warming up for games.
Still, if there's a running back on the roster that earned the opportunity to start, it's Torain. No one seems to believe the talented running back is the answer for the Redskins, but with improved offensive line play, he will likely be a big time contributor.
In my mind, there is a number one running back in Washington, and it's Ryan Torain.
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Keiland Williams was in unheralded, undrafted free agent running back coming out of LSU, who never started a game in college when he was added to the Redskins roster during training camp. Williams also performed well during preseason, but people were somewhat shocked when Williams made the opening day roster and Ryan Torain did not.
Williams mainly performed spot duty for the first four weeks of the season, performing mainly in third down situations and in passing situations. But, the release or Larry Johnson and the injury to Clinton Portis elevated him to the number two back on the roster.
Williams gets knocked a lot by Redskins fans for some reason, but he actually was one of the more consistent players on a sputtering offense. Though he only managed 261 yards rushing, he still averaged four yards per carry, and only got better at running as the season went on. He was most valuable in pass protection, as he became the best blocking running back on the football team when Portis went down, and became a great receiving threat out of the backfield, snagging 39 passes for 309 yards, averaging eight yards per catch and scoring two touchdowns, adding to his three touchdowns rushing.
Williams performed well in bad situations; twice in the season, Williams was the only healthy back on the roster, and he performed well in his starts.
Williams is a solid number two back right now who can spell Torain, and who can start if he's not healthy. There might be some better options, but as far as all around backs, Williams can do a little bit of everything, and should get better next season, given the opportunity.
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James Davis arrived in the DMV to a lot of fanfare, but didn't finish the season as strong as everyone hoped.
Davis was the "Thunder" part of the Thunder and Lightning running back combination at Clemson, where he split carries with current Bills running back C.J Spiller. A sixth round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2009, Davis made an impression on Browns fans in the preseason, but never saw significant playing time for the Browns.
Davis was released from the Browns on October 25th, 2010 and was signed to the Redskins practice squad two days later. Davis was bought up to the roster in week 12 versus the Vikings, and showed a big time spark in the week 13 loss to the New York Giants, where he rushed for 40 yards on 9 carries and had three receptions for 41 yards. Still, when Torain was able to come back the following week, Davis was pushed further down the depth chart.
A blown blitz pick up was thought to be the reason Davis was inactive for the rest of the season following the week 14 loss to the Bucs, but it wasn't something as insidious as that. A slew of injuries on the defensive side of the ball meant the Redskins had to sign guys off the street. The 'Skins went with two backs being active for the rest of the season, meaning Davis was left on the sideline for the rest of the season.
Davis will be given an honest shot to compete for a roster spot, and he should be. He showed some real spark and a speed that the current Redskins backfield is lacking. His body type and running style is reminiscent of Clinton Portis, and I have seen him lay out some pretty solid blocks in his limited playing time.
With some luck, Davis could become the Redskins ' Arian Foster; a back who comes out of nowhere to be a big time contributor on the football team.
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Here's a wild card; Andre Brown.
Brown was drafted by the New York Giants in the 4th round of the 2009 draft. In his rookie season, he played well in the preseason, but an injury left him on injured reserve. He again performed well in the 2010 preseason for the Giants, but was waived by the Giants on September 4th, 2010.
He was claimed off waivers by the Broncos, but he was soon released again, and claimed off waivers by the Colts. He was then waived by the Colts and went to the Panthers for a game, before being waived yet again and landing with the Redskins.
Brown didn't amass any stats, but he also has the potential to contribute to the Redskins running game. Another one cut back, he has the speed and ability to be a player in the league, despite the fact that he only played spot duty for the better part of the season.
I will make you a guarantee now; there will be a battle between James Davis and Andre Brown to see who gets a spot on the opening day roster. If not, I'll eat Josh McCain's hat. Not my hat, because my hat is nice.
The Wild Card: Brandon Banks
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Nope, I'm not joking. Third down, change of pace backs, have become all the rage in the NFL. Who has been a bigger change of pace than kick returner and wide receiver Brandon Banks? No one, that's who.
Before Banks shut down his Twitter account, he did make comments that he tried to persuade coaches to let him play running back. We saw him take snaps in the Wildcat as well. Clearly, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has been looking for ways to get one of the Redskins' most explosive offensive weapons involved in the game more often than on kick and punt returns.
Think of the Redskins using Banks like the Minnesota Vikings have been using Percy Harvin for the last couple seasons; having Banks line up in the backfield, or having him line up at receiver, only to join the quarterback in the backfield out of the shotgun. Before you think he's too small, take into account that countless teammates and coaches have remarked that Banks is one of the toughest players on the field. Who else remembers him catching a McNabb pass on a crucial third down, going up, catching the ball across the middle, getting smashed, and popping right up?
Yeah, Banks is tough. He can handle it.
Banks could be that match-up nightmare the Redskins are looking for, and is another guy from within the team the Redskins could put on the field who could contribute.
Noteable Free Agents: John Kuhn
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Mike Sellers has been a consistent player and is a stand up guy, but the Redskins need to start seeking out a replacement at the fullback position, and who knows if that will ever be current backup fullback Darrel Young.
Meanwhile, John Kuhn is a very intriguing free agent option. He's still (relatively) young, comes from a system similar to the one the Redskins run, is a hard runner, can catch the ball and can perform spot duty in the event someone is injured.
That, and the Packers haven't exactly extended a welcoming hand to the fullback. They couldn't get a deal done before the CBA expired, and the Packers placed their lowest tender on the running back; an original pick tender.
The problem with that tender? Well...John Kuhn was undrafted.
That's right; a team can essentially acquire John Kuhn for no picks at all, if he doesn't become an unrestricted free agent once the lockout is over.
If Kuhn can be had (for the right price), the Redskins would add a solid blocker, a goal line threat and would upgrade a position of uncertainty that it seems no one talks about. (Fullbacks get no love.)
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Like most of the running backs in this years' free agency class, whether or not Hightower becomes a unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent will either fall to what happens in the new CBA, or what rules the NFL operates under in the event that the players are able to get an injunction put on the league. That said, Hightower is an intriguing option who has been on a team that made it to a Super Bowl.
Hightower's role in the Arizona Cardinals' offense seems to have diminished, as the team has tried to lean more on Beanie Wells, and potentially LaRod Stephens-Howling. That leaves Hightower a running back who has a lot of talent who will be hungry to prove himself on a new football team.
If there is something the Redskins backfield is missing, it's speed, and Hightower seems to have a lot of it in the reserves. He can catch out of the backfield and block, and is another one cut, hit the hole and go kind of running back. He's also still very young. He's only 24 and has plenty of gas left in the tank.
It seems Mike Shanahan's training camp M.O is competition, and a competition at running back between Torain, Williams and Hightower would not only be fun to watch, but also potentially give the Redskins a great backfield rotation when it's all said and done.
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That's right—the Redskins may have released him, but there's still a pretty decent chance that CP ends up back in D.C.
Portis was released after he refused to renegotiate the terms of his contract, but the Redskins have let it be known that there are going to allow their veteran players to test the free agent waters. One has to wonder how many football teams want Portis; though he probably does have a few more years in him, he has been injury prone. If his asking price is too high, or a team can't be found for him, Portis may come back to the 'Skins at a lower deal.
Portis actually looked pretty good at times this season, and he still ranks amongst the absolute best blocking running backs in the NFL today. It wouldn't be surprising to see him catch on with a team like the Texans, but if not, the 'Skins could potentially resign him, for the right price.
Potential Draft Prospects: Jacquizz Rodgers
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Don't be fooled by his size; Jacquizz Rodgers is one hell of a running back, and he's still likely to be available in the later rounds.
As I mentioned before, the Redskins may have power in the backfield right now, but they don't have a whole lot of speed. Ideally, they could find a gamebreaking running back who has the potential to break a big one, like a Jammal Charles, that would add another dimension to their offense.
Not only is Quizz fast, though, he's tough. Those that try to take advantage of his size beware; Rodgers is fully capable of running through you on the way to the end zone. And did I mention he's also thrown a couple touchdowns?
Generally, it's been my position that if the Redskins manage to get their third and fourth round picks back, they probably shouldn't use them on a running back unless they have a chance at a sure thing at that spot. That being said, if Rodgers was lingering there, taking him would be an automatic upgrade at the position.
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Derrick Locke is another smaller back, but he would also add the speed the Redskins need, as well as being a solid change of pace guy on third down. He rushed for 887 yards and ten touchdowns in his senior season at the University of Kentucky and impressed at the Senior Bowl.
He's a one cut back perfect for Shanahan's system that also can block some, has the kind of break away speed that the backfield needs and he can also return kicks. There are a lot of guys who fit that third down back sort of role, but Locke seems to be one of the better prospects. He missed some games due to injury, but he's been a solid starter throughout the rest of his career.
Locke has solid potential to be a playmaker in the NFL, and he's another mid-to-late round prospect that can provide value and add depth.
Going once again with speed, Da'Rel Scott set the combine on fire when he ran the fastest forty time. If he's not taken by the Oakland Raiders at some point, Scott could be another late round draft pick who could potentially contribute to the team.
Scott rushed for 708 yards and five touchdowns at in his senior year at the University of Maryland and his breakaway speed in game looks every bit like his breakaway speed in the combine. He's a one cut back who can explode through a hole and create a big play in a hurry.
The knock on him is his inconsistent hands, which means he'd have some trouble catch the ball on passing downs, and his blocking may be suspect. That said, Scott would at least provide depth and at best could be a big time contributor.
Analysis: Running Back Not a Big Hole, but Another One Couldn't Hurt
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The reports that the Redskins NEED a running back are greatly exaggerated. When you're a team like the Redskins, sometimes, the best thing you can do is build from within, and with few draft picks (at the moment), running back is probably the position with the most depth aside from tight end. Mike Shanahan knows running backs (aside from Maurice Clarett, as Brooding Burgundy has pointed out to me many times), and knows how to find value amongst running backs.
That said, thinking the Redskins will escape free agency and the draft without bringing in some running backs is silly. Shanahan will likely open all the positions for competition, and let the cards fall where they may. Coach Shanahan will pay special attention to the position, but in no way is it such a huge need that the Redskins need to panic about it.
Rest assured, the Redskins have many, many holes, but running back maybe one of the positions the Redskins don't have to worry about in this years draft.
Join me next time when the I evaluate the Redskins receiving core.