* With the 2020 season in the books and free agency less than one month away, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Ryan Homler grade the Washington Football Team's position groups before the 2021 signing period begins. Next up: Running back.
Running backs on current roster: Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic, Bryce Love, Javon Leake (Reserve), Jonathan Williams (Reserve)
Running backs hitting free agency: None
You ever go into a test expecting to not do well, and so the idea of just getting out with a C feels good and anything better is a pleasant surprise? That's sort of what happened with the Washington Football Team's running back situation in 2020.
At the beginning of the season, it was unclear what direction the offense was going with its running backs and who was going to be the main man in the backfield. Antonio Gibson was a draft pick with promise but it was hard to see him getting the bulk of the work right away. The release of Adrian Peterson only made things more complicated. It seemed like Washington was destined for the running back by committee approach.
Early on, that was exactly the case. Peyton Barber scored two touchdowns in the season opener, Gibson found the end zone the next game, but in the initial weeks of the season, there was no clear answer at running back. It was fine to have multiple heads back there but an offense is always better when roles are solidified and consistent. That, however, didn't seem like Washington's approach in 2020.
Then, Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic emerged.
For Gibson, his breakout began in Week 7 against the Dallas Cowboys. He was given 20 carries -- the first time he reached that margin all season -- and turned it into 128 yards and a touchdown on a day in which the weather made the run game crucial. There was the first sign that Gibson had the ability to be a workhorse running back that could use his legs to produce. Coming out of college, it was his receiving skills that were enticing.
Gibson would continue to shine in the coming weeks, especially when he was given a large volume of carries. His 115-yard, three-touchdown performance on Thanksgiving was his coming-out party that showed Washington had found its future running back.
His 2020 campaign would conclude with 795 yards and 11 touchdowns, a strong showing for a rookie.
As for McKissic, the journeyman running back asserted himself as the perfect pass-catching option out of the backfield. Beginning in Week 4, McKissic would compile nine games over the rest of the season with at least five catches. While his 395 rushing yards were productive, it was the 80 receptions for 589 yards that stood out.
In an offense that didn't really ever have a quarterback that could stretch the field consistently, McKissic became a crucial piece. He was there for check-downs and key third-down conversions when Washington needed them. He now has a clear-cut role with the team that should continue in 2021.
Washington may have entered the season unsure of what would transpire at running back, but the organization has to be pleasantly surprised with what it got out of it.
Trade/Free Agency Options
When looking at the depth chart for running back, it's important to focus on Gibson and McKissic. Besides them, none of the other names listed at the top may be part of the equation come next season. Some could be on the practice squad, and maybe there's a scenario where Bryce Love gets one more chance to show his worth, but Gibson and McKissic are the only two with defined spots in the offense.
Does Washington need more than that? Probably. Not an every-down back, but someone that can pitch in on the offense and provide depth and relief for the others. McKissic is the pass-catcher and Gibson has that in his game as well, so Washington would most likely be better suited to find someone who can pick up yards on the ground and act as a change-of-pace bruiser option for Gibson.
Trading for a running back is unlikely, so free agency would be the better option. A veteran like Mark Ingram could be an option, although he's not what he used to be, he could thrive in a complementary role. His attitude and energy would also be a welcomed addition.
Or, Washington could go for a younger option that could potentially take a slightly larger workload and have a higher upside. Mike Davis -- who performed admirably in place of Christian McCaffrey --, as well as Leonard Fournette or James Conner, could be attractive options.
However, the price would need to be reasonable or cheap. Washington has plenty of other areas to improve that are more pressing.
Pre-Free Agency RB Grade
As of now, Washington has two solid options at running back and each one compliments the other. For Gibson, who has just one year under his belt, there is potential for him to emerge as a star. That's why currently, the group receives a B+ grade.
As far as the offense goes, running back is a lot more complete than other spots. Gibson is a No. 1 that can work in the run and pass game and should only blossom as he gets more experience under his belt. McKissic is a perfect pass option that thrives in a third-down and distance role. That's a great 1-2 punch.
All Washington could really use is one more name to add that provides consistency. If that comes, the group could be looking at an A grade by the time training camp begins.