With a new general manager in charge, new faces throughout the lineup as well as new assistant coaches bringing new ideas to the table, the Redskins are a team in transition. Between now and the start of training camp, CSNWashington.com reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will examine the top questions facing Jay Gruden and Co. as they prepare for the season.
Who will the third down back be?
When Roy Helu Jr. signed with the Raiders as a free agent in March, the Redskins lost the running back who had played most of the third-down snaps for the past two years. The team struggled on third down last year, converting just 31.5 percent of their chances, 30th in the NFL. That wasn’t all Helu’s fault, of course, but perhaps in the process of making a change they can also make an upgrade and find someone who can help improve that dismal conversion rate.
Tandler: In 2014 Helu caught 17 passes for 157 yards on third down but only six of those receptions led to first downs. Can the Redskins find someone who has a better conversion rate? They have two contenders and a dark horse who will try.
The long shot is Trey Williams, a rookie free agent scatback who turned some heads with his speed and moves at Texas A&M. He would have to blow up in camp and in preseason games to have a chance to make it.
Chris Thompson got a brief audition as the third down back late last season. We need more evidence to determine if he can catch and pass protect well enough to get the job Week 1. On the plus side, Thompson has plenty of speed; the down side is that he spends a lot of time in the injured list.
At 6-2, 231 rookie Matt Jones does not have the prototypical size for the job. But he is not the plodder you might expect to see with a back his size. “He does have good change of direction – he’s shown that out in space – and good hands,” said Jay Gruden during minicamp.
If Thompson stays healthy he is definitely a threat to get the job but I’m putting my hypothetical money on Jones. I think that Jay Gruden and company think that they might have quite an unusual weapon in the rookie and they will give him a shot to see what he can do.
El-Bashir: After getting a good look at Jones in OTAs and minicamp, I’m now expecting the Florida product to end up as a direct replacement for Helu, meaning he’ll occasionally spell Morris and fill the role of third down running back.
GM Scot McCloughan didn’t spend a third round pick on Jones for him to simply serve as a backup this season. Based on his workload this spring, I suspect McCloughan, Gruden and Co. have big plans for Jones, and I think we’ll see it revealed soon enough.
Jones, obviously, has a lot to learn and he still must refine his game. But he’s arrived with a solid foundation. He’s a willing and able blocker. He possesses impressive quickness and agility for a player of his size. And, just as important, he’s got natural pass catching hands.
“He’s shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, which is important,” Gruden said earlier this offseason. “He handles any blitzing linebacker, that’s for sure, which is also very good. …Matt has got a lot of ability [and] a lot more versatility than I think what we first thought, really, because he didn’t catch a lot of balls at Florida. It wasn’t his fault; he just wasn’t asked to. We have high hopes for him both on first down and third down.”
What that all remains for Thompson, Redd and Williams remains to be seen. Last season, Gruden kept Morris, Helu, Redd and fullback Darrel Young at the final cutdown. The year before that, the Redskins’ previous staff kept Morris, Helu, Evan Royster, Thompson and Young.
If I had to take a crack at it now, I’d go with Morris, Jones, Thompson and Young making the 53. But I also don’t think you can rule out Redd, though he figures to be a tight competition with Thompson.
Previously on Redskins preseason Q&A: