The Redskins ground game enters this season with plenty of questions. Can any of their runnings backs answer them?
The Washington Redskins running game opens the 2016 season long on questions and short on viable answers to them. Matt Jones headlines a largely untested group of running backs, which includes fourth-year player Chris Thompson and undrafted rookie Robert Kelley.
Kelley emerged as the victor in a three-way competition to serve as Jones’ understudy. His strong preseason helped him hold off a challenge from Mack Brown, a former college teammate of Jones. Keith Marshall, another rookie competing for playing time, was recently placed on injured reserve.
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The Washington Redskins running game opens the 2016 season long on questions and short on viable answers to them.
Kelley entered the fourth preseason game against Tampa Bay as the front-runner of the candidates. But Brown made a strong final impression, which featured an electrifying 60-yard touchdown run on his way to 149 yards on 19 carries.
This unfortunately didn’t spare him from roster cuts on Saturday. Brown became the odd-man out when the Redskins decided to keep three — instead of four — running backs, a decision they may end up regretting.
Jones is the starter, but he is coming off of a rookie year marked by marginal production, injuries, and ball security issues.
Thompson, who is the Redskins’ third-down back, has, like Jones, struggled to stay healthy. His slight build also makes him an ill fit for the road-grading runner spots occupied by Jones and Kelley.
While Kelley has shown promise, his only body of work has come against preseason competition. This limited sample size makes it difficult to project what he’ll do during the regular season. Indeed, Redskins fans are all too familiar with the pantheon of past preseason legends who vanished when the games started to matter.
The team may, of course, add a fourth running back at any time. They could bring Brown back, if he is available. Or they could add a veteran to a position group that averages 2.33 years of NFL service.
For one, Kelley’s measurables are comparable to Jones’. Kelley is 6’2” and 228 pounds and is the downhill runner that General Manager Scot McCloughan covets.
What sets Kelley apart from Jones, though, is that he is the straight-line, low-pad runner than Jones is not. Although Jones is the starter for now, that will matter little if his rookie year issues resurface in his sophomore season.
The Redskins are counting on this trio to improve on a rushing attack that ranked 29th in yards per attempt in 2015. The team planned to use the running game as the focal point of its offense last season. But its failure to produce on first and second downs put the offense in countless unfavorable downs and distances.
When the Redskins switched to a pass-centric offense, the team’s prolific passing attack proved instrumental in capturing the division crown. In order to sustain this high-octane production in 2016, the ground game cannot sputter like it did last year.
An effective running game will ease the burden on Kirk Cousins in carrying the laboring oar for the offense. It will also assist in setting up play-action passes, which provide more time for Cousins to throw downfield. Further, a frequently spotty defense will benefit by spending more time on the bench rather than giving up yards.
It’s uncertain, however, if the running game can do its part this year. Its only personnel change was a Kelley-for-Alfred Morris swap. And it also remains to be seen if another year for Jones and Thompson will benefit either of them.
These questions will set the narrative that will follow this unit in 2016. Redskins fans will be hoping someone will provide answers to them.