Redskins Roster Review: Running Backs

Jack AndersonSenior Analyst IJune 14, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 28:  Clinton Portis #26 of the Washington Redskins carries the ball during the game against of the San Fransisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 28, 2008 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Since 1996, the Washington Redskins have been blessed with a bevy of talented running backs. Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, and Clinton Portis have all set various franchise records. Each raised the bar for the Redskins’ single season rushing record.

Portis is the current RB for the Redskins. He already holds franchise records for most rushing yards in a single season and most 100-yard games in a season. He ranks second on the franchise all-time rushing list and rushing attempts list.

There is no question Portis is second only to John Riggins amongst the backs the Redskins have had in their franchise history. However, coming into the 2009 season, Portis has plenty to accomplish.

Despite the productive years Portis has given the team, he has yet to advance past the divisional round in post-season play. To top it off, he has struggled to stay healthy and is in danger of burning out in the next few seasons.

Portis will turn 28 in September, so according to the usual running back shelf life, he has about a year or two of solid production left. However, Portis is a feature back like none other, and his massive amount of carries prove it.

Here’s a list of Portis’ carries per season:

2004: 343

2005: 352

2006: 127 (missed time due to an injury)

2007: 325

2008: 342

That’s a total of 1,490 carries over five seasons for an average of 298 per season. Throw in his 162 catches over the past five seasons and Portis essentially makes up half of the offensive production over that time.

What’s impressive is that Portis is still good enough to produce, even though he is the only consistent offensive weapon the ‘Skins have.

He routinely faces eight defenders in the box, but that doesn’t stop him from racking up plenty of 100-yard performances.

How long can Portis’ impressive seasons continue with all the wear and tear he undergoes every season?

That will be a key question entering this 2009 season for the Redskins. Success depends on Portis playing up to par.

If the Redskins can muster some semblance of a downfield passing game, Portis, if healthy, will see less men in the box and more big gains.

No one expects the Redskins to become the ‘99 Rams. And they don’t have to be with a healthy Portis and a solid passing game.

They proved it during the first few weeks last season. Portis is capable of taking over when Jason Campbell commands even a little respect.

This year the offense appears to be past the growing stages. Players have expressed more confidence and the comfort level in the west coast offense has definitely gone up a notch.

Hopefully, this will translate to the ‘Skins balancing out their offense and adding that all-important second dimension.

Portis isn’t a liability whatsoever. He blocks well, catches passes out of the backfield, and can run between the tackles with the best of them. He isn’t a home run threat anymore, but he can still move the chains.

Of course it would be ideal to have a speedster behind him. The Redskins are in desperate need of a guy who can rip off huge runs of 40 yards or more.

They haven’t had one in years, but this year they might have found one (more on him later).

Ladell Betts is the backup, but he has been disappointing following his big 2006 campaign in which he ran for 1,100 yards in Portis’ absence. He signed a big contract extension after that year and has been non-existent since.

Granted, Portis receives the bulk of the workload, but the money poured into Betts means he needs to improve his production.

Betts has rushed for just 541 yards since 2006 and has averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. He isn’t the blocker Portis is, and he has had a penchant for fumbling.

Betts really isn’t worth the money he’s being paid and the ‘Skins might have a cheaper, and perhaps more talented, alternative in Marcus Mason.

Mason rolled through last year’s pre-season, but his inability on special teams kept him from making the final roster in 2008.

This year, Mason has been working on improving on special teams and a strong pre-season might land him on the roster. There has been no talk of replacing Betts, but Mason would be the wiser choice between the two.

Mason is shifty and has incredible patience. He has great vision and always seems to hit the right holes and the right time. He isn’t a speed demon, but he runs effectively.

Rock Cartwright saw little time at running back last year and he will be fighting for a roster spot this season. Cartwright has a downhill running style that isn’t suited for the stretch runs Zorn uses often.

He is strictly a between the tackles runner and Zorn had such little faith in him that he brought in Shaun Alexander when Betts was banged up last year.

Cartwright works extremely hard and yet he will remain a Redskin solely by contributing on special teams. He covers punts and returns kickoffs, but his impact on the ground game will be as small as last year’s.

Lastly, the Redskins picked up Anthony Alridge off of waivers several months ago.

Alridge ran a 4.22 in his pro day workout in 2008 and was picked up by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent. He was placed on injured reserve and waived following the season.

Mike Shanahan advised Vinny Cerrato to sign him reportedly calling him the fastest player he’d ever seen with the ball in his hands. So Alridge might be the explosive force the ‘Skins need.

Imagine running the draw on a third and long and seeing a big 80-yard score. How about snagging a a little swing pass into the fat and seeing a glitzy 75-yard scamper?

Washington hasn’t had someone who could turn the tide like that since Brian Mitchell. Alridge might turn out to be the ‘Skins ace in the hole.

Overall Grade: B+

The Redskins have a strong starting option in Portis, but behind him they need to get things sorted out.

Mason will save cap space and do a better job supporting Portis than Betts. However, I expect to see Betts hold the No. 2 spot. And that would be a major mistake.

Alridge is an exciting prospect who could turn out to be a key component to the ‘Skins ground game. It’s not a feature back league anymore so it never hurts to have two or three guys who can contribute.

So Portis receives an A- while the confusion behind him lowers it to a solid B+. Hopefully a couple correct decisions in training camp bring up the grade.


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