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Is Matt Jones ready to assume the Redskins' No. 1 running back job?

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Is Matt Jones ready to assume the Redskins' No. 1 running back job?

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. 11

Is Matt Jones ready to assume the Redskins' No. 1 running back job? 

Tandler: Last year rookie running back Matt Jones played like, well, a rookie. He had some moments like a 78-yard touchdown rumble with a screen pass against the Saints where he looked like he could be a very valuable player if not a star. At other times, like when he didn’t protect the ball and fumbled into the end zone against the Giants, he looked like a player who needed a lot of work.

It added up to Jones gaining 490 on 144 carries and three touchdowns on the ground and another 304 yards on 19 pass receptions. He fumbled four times and lost all of them and he missed one game with a knee injury and the last two regular season games and the playoff game with a hip pointer.

With Alfred Morris likely to depart as a free agent the role of “lead dog” running back will be vacant. The Redskins will need to look at Jones’ mixed bag and figure out if he can take the next step in 2016.

It’s going to come down to how much faith they have in Jones’ desire to do the little things that a professional has to do to stay on the field and refine his craft. He took a step in the right direction later in the season when he started coming in to Redskins Park on off days to physically recover from the pounding on game days.

But it takes more than that. He had 38 runs that went for either no gain or a loss of yardage last year. Blocking was the problem on many of those runs but at other times it was a matter of Jones not reading the play correctly. Getting that down requires a lot of work, both on and off of the field. He has the size and speed to be a very good No. 1 back if he puts in the time.

El-Bashir: Matt Jones showed off his immense talent as a rookie, but it came in fits and starts. In fact, I’m not sure anyone on the Redskins’ roster was as inconsistent from week to week as Jones. But that’s often the life of an NFL rookie, and I suspect the Florida product will be a more consistent player in 2016 as the game slows down for him.

But I’ve got a couple of concerns as it relates to today’s question: Jones’ fumbles and his health.

Let’s start with the fumbles. As I pointed out in my rookie review last month, Jones put the ball on the ground five times and ended up losing it four times. (Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin was the only running back to lose more fumbles with five.) Jones’ ball security, though, did improve in the second half of the season. In fact, he lost only one fumble in his final six games after losing three in his first seven.

Jones’ ability to stay healthy was a problem, too. He missed three regular season games and the playoff game with toe and hip injuries. As I’ve said before, blaming injuries on a player isn’t fair. But the NFL isn't fair, either. In this game, availability is almost as important as ability. And Jones was unavailable too often last season. He did tell me on locker clear out day that he learned late in the year about the importance of spending time in the training room, even when you’re not suffering from a specific injury.

It seems Jones recognizes his flaws and is taking steps toward correcting them. But is that enough to hand him the keys to one of the game’s most important positions? I suspect this is one of the tougher decisions facing GM Scot McCloughan this offseason.  

If it were my call, I’d give Jones the opportunity to be the No. 1. But I’d also have a solid backup plan in place—just case it doesn’t work out. 

25 Questions series

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Zach Brown says Redskins defense will 'have it out' for Terrelle Pryor during joint practices

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Zach Brown says Redskins defense will 'have it out' for Terrelle Pryor during joint practices

Terrelle Pryor made a number of highlight reel catches last year during training camp, and it appears the Redskins defense didn't like it. 

Washington's marquee free agent signing last season, Pryor came into Richmond with sky-high expectations. Throughout the training sessions last August, Pryor put on one-handed displays at the Jugs machine and often made big catches in team drills. It's also important to remember there was never any live tackling during these drills, leaving defenders at a distinct disadvantage. 

Zach Brown remembers the scene quite well, and thinks it will look very different this summer when Pryor comes to Richmond as a member of the New York Jets. 

"That’s going to be something right there. The boys are gonna have it out for him. We can put hands on him now," Brown said on Inside the Locker Room on the Team 980 (full audio here).

Brown explained that Redskins coach Jay Gruden would not allow the defense to hit Pryor last year, even when the wideout did some showboating. 

"Jay ain't here to protect you anymore," Brown said.

The Redskins linebacker explained that he tried to explain to Pryor that the one-handed catches from training camp would not translate in the NFC East, where players get hit hard. It doesn't seem like Pryor listened, as he finished the season with only 240 receiving yards on 20 catches in nine games. 

"The boys were already hot for what he was doing last year," Brown said. He added, "Try to one-hand something while you’re with the Jets, you’re gonna catch a forearm."

One incident that supports Brown's comments came when Bashaud Breeland got thrown off the practice field last training camp. Breeland got mad that he wasn't allowed to get physical with Pryor at the line of scrimmage, and the scene blew up. Breeland eventually got sent off the field after arguing with coaches. 

The Jets visit the Redskins for three days of practices beginning August 12th. The two teams then square off in the second preseason game on August 16th. 

Brown will get his chance at Pryor, assuming the wideout plays. Pryor finished the 2018 season on the injured reserve, but is expected to be fine once training camp begins in New York. 

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Need to Know: The Redskins' best players who are 25 or younger

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Need to Know: The Redskins' best players who are 25 or younger

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, June 17, 39 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The best Redskins players 25 or younger

Here is a look at the best Redskins players who have played at least one season and will be 25 or younger as of Week 1 this year. 

WR Jamison Crowder, 25 as of Week 1—Crowder hit the ground running in his first year, with 59 receptions, a team rookie record, and gaining 604 yards. He has been very dependable in his three years, averaging 64 catches, 747 yards, and four receiving touchdowns per year. 

OLB Preston Smith, 25—Since he came into the league, no player but Smith has at least 20.5 sacks, three or more interceptions, and four or more forced fumbles. His sack numbers tend to be up and down from week to week, but Jay Gruden has said more than once that Smith is very consistent in getting pressure on the quarterback even if he doesn’t always get home for the sack. 

DL Matt Ioannidis, 24—A year ago it was thought that he would face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. Now goes into the season as a starter and key contributor. The 2016 fifth-round pick got much stronger between his first and second seasons and he took well to the coaching of new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Only a broken hand that cost him two games and had him playing with an awkward cast for a few more kept him from threatening to make double-digit sacks. 

DL Jonathan Allen, 23—The Redskins were just starting to get a hint of what Allen could do early in the season. Pro Football Focus credited him with a total of three sacks in the Redskins third and fourth games. But in their fifth game, he suffered a foot injury that ended his season. Allen was a full go for the offseason program and there is no reason to think that he won’t pick back up right where he left off. 

S Montae Nicholson, 22—Like Allen, Nicholson’s rookie season was shortened due to injuries. He took advantage of the absence of anticipated starter Su’a Cravens and made an impact from the beginning. While the 2017 fourth-round pick and free-agent pickup D.J. Swearinger were in the lineup the decade-long struggles the Redskins have had at the safety position were suddenly gone. 

Best of the rest: WR Josh Doctson (25), C Chase Roullier (25)

It should be noted that DL Daron Payne turned 21 in May and RB Derrius Guice will the 21 later this month so they could be joining this list soon. Assuming those two start, the Redskins will have nine quality starters aged 25 or younger this year. 

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  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline  

Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder was born on this date in 1993. 

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 39
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 53
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 76

The Redskins last played a game 166 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 84 days. 

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