Over the next few weeks, JP Finlay and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2016, break down the current personnel situation and evaluate the unit's outlook for 2017. We’re starting things off with a look at the running backs.
2016 starters: Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson (3rd down)
Backups: Matt Jones, Mack Brown, Keith Marshall (IR)
Free agents: Thompson, restricted
Rewind: Kelley took over as the starter for Jones after seven games. He started off well, averaging 107 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry over his first three games as the starter. His production slowed considerably in the last six games, with an average of 47 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. Still, it was a very good, totally unexpected season for an undrafted rookie
On the other hand, Jones had a very disappointing season compared to the expectations that he carried into 2016. After Alfred Morris left via free agency Jones was anointed The Man. There was no serious competition for the starting running back job throughout the offseason and training camp. Things started off pretty well as he was starting to figure out where to run. Through the first six games, Jones averaged 4.9 yards per carry and he was on pace to gain over 1,100 yards on the season.
But then came the game in Detroit. Late in the first quarter the Redskins had a first and goal at the seven. Jones took a handoff up the middle and after gaining five yards he was fighting for a couple more. The ball came out and the Lions recovered in the end zone. Jones carried five more times the rest of the game and he was inactive the remaining nine games of the season. We’ll examine that a bit more in the “fast forward” section.
For the first time in his career, Thompson remained healthy and played all 16 games. The third-year player posted over 700 yards from scrimmage split almost equally between rushing (356) and receiving (349). He did well pass blocking and he scored a clutch touchdown late in the game against the Eagles, a 20-yard run around left end to put the Redskins ahead in the last two minutes.
Brown was promoted from the practice squad after Jones was deactivated. His season highlight was a 61-yard touchdown run in Week 16 to run up the score against the Bears. There was some fan buzz about Marshall because of his speed but the health problems that plagued him at Georgia continued in the NFL.
Fast forward: In an age of running back by committee the Redskins took a different approach. Jones had nearly all the carries in the seven games he started and Kelley had the lion’s share of the work in the last nine games. Thompson got some work here and there but he had more than four rushing attempts in a game just four times.
It was just such change from Jones being the unquestioned starter for the offseason and for the first seven weeks of the regular season to Kelley being the unquestioned starter with Jones on the sideline in street clothes that it raises questions for 2017.
Is Kelley good enough to be the running back for the team that the Redskins aspire to be, one good enough to advance deep into the playoffs? His early performance would indicate that he is but he didn’t exactly have a strong finish.
More Redskins: Free agency to-do list
What do they do with Jones? He was a third-round pick just two years ago. You would think that would give him some security at least through 2017. But it appeared that there was something beyond just a key lost fumble that had him on the inactive list for the final nine games. Did he fail to respond to coaching? Was there another attitude-related issue that instantly pushed him from being the unquestioned starter to being a forgotten man?
Eventually we will find out but not until free agency in the draft. If the Redskins go after even a mid-level free agent halfback or a mid-round running back in the draft that player isn’t going to replace Kelley or take Thompson’s third-down role. It would mean that Jones could start thinking about life after the Redskins.
Thompson is almost certain to return. He could come back on the restricted free agent tender or maybe the Redskins will sign him to a relatively modest two-year deal
The wild card is Marshall. It took Thompson a few years to learn how to keep his body ready to play. Marshall may not have that long but if he stays on the field his speed will get him a look.