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Should the Redskins draft a starting running back?

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Should the Redskins draft a starting running back?

In less than a year, the Redskins completed a stunning turnaround, ascending from a laughingstock in 2014 to a division champion in 2015. But now comes the difficult part: taking that all-important next step and improving from a franchise that was fortunate to get into the playoffs to one that can do some damage once it gets there. And that work begins right now for Jay Gruden, Scot McCloughan and the players.

In the coming weeks, Redskins reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will examine the 25 biggest questions facing the Redskins as another offseason gets rolling.

No. 23

Should the Redskins draft a starting running back?

El-Bashir: As I wrote yesterday, fixing the ground attack needs to rank first, second and third on Jay Gruden’s to-do list this offseason. I also firmly believe that an infusion of new blood at the running back position is at the core of the solution.

What I’m a bit torn about, though, is how the Redskins should go about acquiring that top-tier talent.

Using an early draft pick is certainly one way. In fact, six of the NFL’s top-10 rushers in 2015 were first round picks, including the top four (Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Todd Gurley, Darren McFadden.) If that’s the route the Redskins want to pursue (and I don't suspect it is), would Ezekiel Elliott fit the bill if, as one recent mock draft suggested, the Ohio State star remains on the board at No. 21?     

Perhaps.

But I continue to lean toward addressing the Redskins’ many needs on defense—cornerback, linebacker and defensive line, to name a few—in the early rounds. And signing a veteran to mentor and pair up with second-year running back Matt Jones, who possesses a lot potential but struggled as a rookie with ball security, injuries and consistency.

If I’m constructing the Redskins' 2016 roster, I’d prefer additional experience/track record in the offensive backfield. And there could be some enticing options on the open market in a few weeks, with proven commodities like Matt Forte, Martin, Chris Ivory and Lamar Miller topping the list. (This all assumes Alfred Morris is not re-signed...which, after three years of declining stats, seems likely at this point.)

Yeah, I know Scot McCloughan is a build-through-the-draft type of general manager. And that's definitely a sound philosophy. But McCloughan has also shown that he’s not afraid to spend money to acquire a veteran at a position of immediate need. Just last year, he signed Chris Culliver, Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea and acquired Dashon Goldson via trade.

And, in my opinion, that seems to be the best option at running back.  

Tandler: 

Would a running back taken early in the draft be a good addition to the Redskins? Certainly. You could plug Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State in as the starter, have Matt Jones be his relief, and roll on from there.

The problem is that you could say the same thing about a defensive lineman or a cornerback or a safety. This team has a plethora of needs and they can’t buttonhole themselves into drafting a player at a particular position.

The draft is much more about future seasons than it is the coming season. Even first-round picks are not always instant starters. Of the 32 players taken in the first round last year, only 18, just over half, were their teams’ primary starters at their position. The player drafted No. 21 overall last year, the Redskins’ first-round spot in this draft, was offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. He played in only five games for the Bengals.

Only 13 second-round picks were primary starters. So going in with the idea of drafting a starting anything is a flawed plan to begin with.

They clearly need a running back assuming that Alfred Morris departs via free agency. If the right guy is available when they are on the clock, McCloughan should grab him. But if the best available player on the board (or very close to the best) isn’t a running back then they shouldn’t draft a running back. They can go to the post-draft free agent market and pick up someone like Pierre Thomas to compliment and/or compete with Matt Jones. And then go in next year and see if things will fall your way in the 2017 draft. 

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In talking 2018 NFL draft, Doug Williams actually explained Redskins' free agency

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In talking 2018 NFL draft, Doug Williams actually explained Redskins' free agency

The Redskins spent modestly in 2018 free agency, and plenty of fans thought the team should have shelled out much bigger bucks. Talking with sources around the Ashburn facility, a prevaling notion became clear that the Washington brass believed they had a strong team in 2017, but they lost their chance to compete because of injuries. 

Well, the secret is out. Doug Williams said as much on Tuesday. 

"Coming out of Richmond last year, I liked this football team. I think we’ve got a tough football team, a smart football team. Some things you can’t control," Williams said Tuesday in a pre-draft media session. "We were very competitive up to a certain point, and when you have the injuries that we have, at a certain point, that competitive edge, you lose it because your best players are not playing."

Williams' words were true, and telling. 

First the true part:

  • In Washington's first five games of 2017, the team went 3-2. The Redskins only lost to eventual the Super Bowl champs Philadelphia and AFC West champs Kansas City. Washington only gave up more than 100 yards rushing once in those first five games, before rookie Jonathan Allen got hurt and the defense began to look much different. After Week 5, the Redskins only held one team under 100 yards rushing and finished the year dead last in rush defense.

Now the telling part:

  • The Redskins signed free agent WR Paul Richardson, and kept free agent LB Zach Brown. Beyond that, the team added inexpensive veterans in OLB Pernell McPhee and CB Orlando Scandrick. No splash moves, and recurring speculation that Washington was not offering top dollar to free agents. Bruce Allen acknowledged as much during NFL League Meetings when he explained that his team identified exactly how much they would offer free agents, their own and otherwise, and wouldn't go beyond that dollar figure. 

That means the focus of the offseason, at this point, is about this weekend's NFL Draft.

That also means the focus of the offseason, at this point, is not about Johnathan Hankins or any other free agent. 

"We’re going to deal with the draft now, and the second wave of free agents, if it’s somebody out there we feel like can help the Redskins,that’s what we’re going to do," Williams said. 

Throughout the offseason, Redskins fans wanted more action from their front office. It didn't happen, and Williams' basically explained why on Tuesday. The brass likes their team, and by default, expects better health and luck in 2018. 

When Williams talks about drafting the best player available, it's not just the typical NFL front office tripe. Right or wrong, the Redskins believe they have a team ready to compete in 2018, and any rookies that come in will only supplement that position.

"At the end of the day, I like this football team we’ve got. Like, last year when I walked out of camp, I thought we had a pretty good football team and I still feel the same way today," Williams said.

"At the end of the day, you get the best football player, and if that best football player is the guy that you want to plug and play, that’s all right. But if that’s the best football player that’s going to help your team overall, I think that’s the route you have to go."

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Doug Williams says Redskins will listen to draft trade offers but a trade up is unlikely

Doug Williams says Redskins will listen to draft trade offers but a trade up is unlikely

The Redskins aren’t in the quarterback business, so it’s highly unlikely that they will look to trade up in the first round of the draft on Thursday. But their phones will be open for business to move down. 

Speaking at the team’s pre-draft press conference, Doug Williams didn’t rule out trading up from the team’s first-round spot at 13thoverall but he doesn’t think it’s likely. 

“The chances of trading up might be a little slimmer than trading down,” he said. 

Williams said that the phones in the room will be ringing and that they will listen to any offers. But usually the team that wants to move up initiates the call and because the Redskins are set at one particular position they probably won’t pick up the phone. 

“If we were in the quarterback business, which is what this league is about, if we were in the heavy quarterback business we’d talk about moving up,” he said. “At this time, we can sit back and see what comes up if we stay at 13.”

The Redskins are set at quarterback after they traded their third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller for veteran Alex Smith to replace the departed Kirk Cousins. Williams thinks that the Redskins already got good value from the pick. 

“When I think about Alex Smith, I say we got the best third-round pick in the draft,” he said. “I don't care what nobody says. You can't get a better third-round pick.”

Because they think they got a good player, albeit an older one, with that pick, the Redskins are not necessarily looking to make a deal to move back and recoup that pick on draft day. 

Williams emphasized that in order to move back, you have to have a team that wants to trade up. Often that is easier said than done. 

“They don’t just call you to ask you, they have to get a player that they want,” said Williams. “At that particular time, they’re afraid that somebody else might pick him. They might call you to ask you if you want to move back . . . If we move back, that’s because somebody called us to see if we want to move back.”

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Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.