* With training camp just around the corner, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux takes a look at one burning question for each position group on Washington's roster. Next up: running back.
Will Antonio Gibson be able to live up to the lofty expectations?
Before he ever played a snap of professional football, Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson was compared to Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey.
Fair? No, probably not. Gibson was a third-round pick and a natural wide receiver. Getting compared to the NFL's best running back before ever playing an NFL snap aren't easy expectations to meet.
However, as a rookie, Gibson excelled. He finished with over 1,000 scrimmage yards in 14 games to go along with 11 rushing touchdowns. He could have produced even bigger numbers had a turf toe injury not slowed him down over the final month of the 2020 season.
Ironically or not, Gibson's 2020 campaign similarly mirrored McCaffrey's rookie season in 2017. McCaffrey finished with 197 touches and 1,086 scrimmage yards as a rookie, just 44 more yards than what Gibson totaled last year. The Washington runner also found the end zone four more times than McCaffrey did for Carolina in 2017.
In 2018, however, McCaffrey made that Year Two leap into one of the NFL's best backs, finishing with nearly 2,000 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns.
With Gibson entering Year Two after a promising rookie campaign, both he and head coach Ron Rivera expect the running back to make a similarly big leap.
Will he be able to do so? Let's take a look...
What Gibson benefited from heavily in 2020 was an opportunity. Although he had never played running back full-time before, his emergence in training camp allowed Rivera to cut veteran Adrian Peterson and make Gibson the starter ahead of Week One.
Elsewhere on offense, the team lacked truly dynamic options outside of wideout Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas. Those two, Gibson and running back J.D. McKissic were responsible for practically all of Washington's offensive production.
Let's be clear: Gibson made the most of his opportunity. But, he was also given a decent-sized workload from the start.
This offseason, Washington added veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is known for slinging the football downfield. The checkdown-heavy offense Washington had in 2020 will likely be by the wayside in 2021.
Washington also added versatile wide receiver Curtis Samuel in free agency and drafted speedster Dyami Brown in the third round. Both of those players should get multiple touches per game and could perhaps take away from Gibson's workload.
Yet, those additions shouldn't impact Gibson's role too, too much. After all, he's still the team's clear-cut RB1. He's already proven to be a natural runner and should be a lot better in other aspects with a year of professional football under his belt.
In 2021, where Washington wants to see Gibson make the biggest leap is in the passing game. This specific aspect of Gibson's game is where Washington would like to use him similarly to how Carolina deploys McCaffrey.
What makes McCaffrey so dangerous is that he's just as skilled catching the football as he is running between the tackles. He's nearly impossible to bring down in open space and has the speed and athleticism to evade even the most talented defenders. There's a reason he topped the 1,000-yard mark both rushing and receiving in 2019, his last full season healthy.
Being a former wide receiver, Gibson has the skill set to be an excellent pass-catching back. Yet last year, he didn't make much of an impact in the aerial attack. That belonged to McKissic, who hauled in a career-high 80 grabs.
What Washington does have to its advantage is offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who worked directly with the Panthers' offense and McCaffrey for two seasons in Carolina. Turner, who called four games as Carolina's offensive coordinator in 2019, knows how the Panthers were able to maximize McCaffrey's skill set. Now, it's up to him to do the same with Gibson in Washington.
Ultimately, saying Gibson will be the next McCaffrey is a bold statement. McCaffrey is the NFL's best and most versatile running back; there's a reason he's the consensus top fantasy football selection for a second year straight.
But, if Gibson can improve in multiple areas in Year Two the way McCaffrey did, he'll quickly become one of the NFL's better running backs. He has the talent to do so, now it's up to him and the coaching staff to find a way to put it all together.