Very Early Redskins Roster Preview: Running Back

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There are about 90 players on the roster of the Washington Redskins right now, but the team will have to trim down to a final roster of 53 before the start of the 2016 season. Here is an early look at what that roster might look like, position by position. We begin today with running back. Starters in bold.

Previous in this series: Quarterback

POSITION: Running back

ON THE ROSTER: Mack Brown, Joe Kerridge, Matt Jones, Robert Kelley, Keith Marshall, Chris Thompson

LIKELY TO MAKE THE ROSTER: Matt Jones, Keith Marshall, Pierre Thomas, Chris Thompson

ANALYSIS: Matt Jones is seemingly the starter, despite averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry and rushing for less than 500 yards in his 2015 rookie season. GM Scot McCloughan drafted Jones in the third round and is obviously a fan and thinks the kid can carry the load in 2016. Head coach Jay Gruden has acknowledged the team is taking a “risk” by relying on Jones and he’s not kidding. In 13 games played last season, Jones averaged less than three yards a carry seven times. Only three times did he average more than 3.5 yards per carry. Those are pretty dismal numbers. Jones didn’t break many tackles, averaging only 1.44 yards after contact. While he is an effective receiver out of the backfield [16 yards per catch], the Skins didn’t use him often enough in that role and he caught only 19 passes. The Skins had trouble blocking for the run last season — Alfred Morris’ stats were not much better than Jones’ — but Washington definitely needs more from its running game in 2016. Too often last season the passing game had to bail out the rest of the offense and that better not happen regularly this coming season.

Chris Thompson had his healthiest and best season yet, playing in 13 games, more than twice as many as his first two seasons combined. Thompson rushed 35 times and caught 35 passes, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and 6.9 yards per reception. He also scored two touchdowns in the passing game. Thompson has good hands, is nifty and very quick and has developed into a solid blocker. He could pick up a bit of the slack this season, but only a bit. Thompson is 5’8″ and under 200 pounds and with his injury history in college and the NFL, it’s clear he isn’t built to run a lot between the tackles. Thompson’s plays from scrimmage must be carefully limited, but he’s still effective as a third down back and occasional runner.

It isn’t clear what Keith Marshall the Skins drafted with their second pick in the seventh round. Is he the Keith Marshall who was more highly recruited by Georgia than Todd Gurley and who ran a 4.31 in the 40 at the NFL Combine earlier this year? Or is it the Keith Marshall who saw his college career ruined by knee injuries? Before this injuries, 12 percent of his runs in 2012 go for 15-plus yards, a remarkable number. The speed Marshall displayed at the Combine should put questions about the health of his knee to rest, but we don’t know if he was just unlucky at Georgia or if he’s injury-prone [like Chris Thompson]. It’s pretty clear NFL teams didn’t trust Marshall’s knee even after what he did at the Combine, since he lasted until late in the seventh round. It would be foolish for the Skins to rely on Marshall to make a major contribution in 2016 — or maybe ever — but I have a hunch the kid can play more than NFL scouts think and I believe he will make the team this season.

I’m going out on a limb and projecting the Skins will bring back Pierre Thomas in 2016. Thomas played in four games for Washington last season and was effective in limited action, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and 9.3 yards per reception. Thomas is a 31-year-old running back who hasn’t been a major part of an offense since 2013, with the New Orleans Saints. However, he demonstrated he can still be a pretty good spot player and without him this is a very young and inexperienced group of running backs. Marshall is a rookie, Jones has played in only 13 games and Thompson has played in only 19 games. None of them has ever been The Man. Having Thomas around to help the coaches develop these players, would be a solid addition to the team.