With week 1 of preseason in the books it is time to breakdown how some of the Redskins position battles are shaping up. Today I will look at the running back battle, breaking down how many they will keep and looking at who should get those roster spots. I talked about the position in my 53 man roster prediction, but will go into further depth here.
The NFL standard is keeping 3 running backs and a fullback, but there are plenty of teams who will opt to keep a 4th running back if the situation warrants it. For me the Redskins have a situation that suggests the need for an extra running back. For one thing the Redskins are and should continue to be a run focused team. They have a young QB, behind a questionable offensive line, that is breaking in new receivers while learning a new offense. On the other hand the Redskins rushing attack is proven to be one of the better ones in the league behind Alfred Morris (even with the questions along the line). While Morris has proven himself to be a feature running back capable of being a workhorse, he’s not yet shown himself to be a complete 3 down back. Because of that you need a capable number 2 back who can be utilized on 3rd downs. That is where Roy Helu Jr. comes in, and that means you need to have guys capable of filling in for either role in case of injury.
Injuries are of course a concern for many positions in the NFL, but running backs are known for having a very high injury rate. In each of the last 5 years (probably longer) the Redskins have had at least one back end their season early with a serious injury. In some cases like last year it was a back-up like Chris Thompson, but in other seasons the Redskins have seen their starter or projected starter go down for the year. In addition to serious long term injuries, the Redskins (like every other team) has seen their share of injuries that knock players out for 2 or more weeks as well. Many times these injuries compound on one another and before you know it your 3rd or 4th running back is suddenly your starter. Look at 2011 when the Redskins went into the season figuring that Ryan Torain (coming off a “breakout” 2010), Tim Hightower (who had never missed a game before this season), and 4th round rookie Roy Helu Jr., would be more than enough to handle the RB load. Torain was injured to start the year and didn’t play, Tim Hightower tore his ACL in the 6th game of the season, and Helu was injured for the last couple games of the year. The Redskins injury concerns were so bad that they had to pick up not just 1, but 2 backs during the season. First they tried former Cowboy Tashard Choice, then when he didn’t show much they brought up Evan Royster from their practice squad. Royster was needed to start the final two games of the year, and he even got injured in the final game. Had the Redskins gone to the playoffs that year they didn’t have a healthy back on their roster.
Though that seems like an extreme example, we see teams every year deal with those types of situations. The Indianapolis Colts last year had 4 running backs end the year on injured reserve last season, including their top two backs (Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw) entering the season. That left the Colts in a mad scramble of picking multiple guys up off the street and trading for Trent Richardson.
The Redskins can definitely justify keeping four backs on their roster this season and that should be the target for the Redskins when they break camp.
Number 1 Back: Alfred Morris– Obviously no surprise here, Morris is clearly the feature back and should be in line for 275-300+ carries again this season.
Number 2 Back: Roy Helu Jr.- Another one who is not a surprise as he’s firmly in his role as the back-up feature back and the current 3rd down back. Helu Jr. is the best all-around back on this roster as he is a pretty good receiver and blocker, and can be used to run both outside and between the tackles. No one can really challenge him for his spot this year, though it’s important to remember that he’ll be a free agent next year and the Redskins might not want to invest with him, given Morris’s contract is coming due as well.
Number 3 Back: Evan Royster- Now Chris Thompson is listed ahead of him on the depth chart and came in before him in the 1st preseason game, but Thompson is also injured right now (more on that below), pushing Royster up. Royster is by no means a good running back prospect, or someone who could develop into a top talent, but he does have a few things going for him. Royster might lack speed and agility, but he’s got good vision and runs with some power (at least more than the guys lower on the depth chart), two things highly valued in a zone scheme. Royster is also more versatile in what he can do, while not great in any area, Royster has shown that he can fill in at fullback, as a 3rd down back or even a feature back. The other guys on the Skins depth chart are more limited right now. Finally, Royster has worked at doing more on special teams and can fill in for a variety of roles on special teams. Other backs may just be able to return kicks/punts, which is nice if they are the top guy, but offers little value if they aren’t that good at it. Due to all of these reasons I see Royster once again earning himself a roster spot.
Number 4 Back: Silas Redd- Though Redd was undrafted, I think he’s shown himself a bit more so far than fellow rookie Lache Seastrunk. Seastrunk has more potential and big play ability, but Redd is probably the more complete back right now. He shows some big play potential of his own, but can also get some tougher yards than you would probably get from Seastrunk. The biggest thing going against Redd is the fact that Seastrunk was drafted higher so there is more invested in him and that he has the higher ceiling. Redd will probably have a tougher time making the team and is probably more likely to end up on the practice squad.
Number 5 Back: Lache Seastrunk– Seastrunk looked explosive in his first preseason game, but he also showed he’s got a lot of room to grow as well. Though he had the team’s best two runs of the night, he also struggled on a number of runs as well. Seastrunk wasn’t able to really make guys miss or break tackles in the backfield, meaning that if he didn’t see daylight from the start the play was likely going to end up as a negative gain or very short yardage. He’s not a guy that you can really look at as a feature back option right now, because he’s not a guy who yet knows how to really run in the zone scheme and being patient setting up blocks. Seastrunk is also not a guy who has really been a feature in the passing game as either a receiver or a blocker, making him a poor candidate for 3rd down duties. Despite that he’s very likely to make the team, given his draft position, potential and possibility of return work on special teams. Seastrunk though is exactly why it’s tough to only keep 3 running backs. If Morris or Helu were to go down for any sort of extended time, he’s not going to offer much as a replacement.
Number 6 Back: Chris Thompson- Thompson started out camp on a positive streak and it looked like he was in line for a roster spot. In fact he was the first back in after Morris and Helu were done in the opening preseason game, and while his performance was mixed, there was some promise. Unfortunately Thompson came up with an injury from the game and it is expected to sideline him for at least a week. Given that he’s had his previous 3 seasons (going back to college), cut short due to injury, it’s a real concern to see that even in limited work he can’t stay healthy. The other thing that is limiting Thompson’s chances is that Seastrunk brings a similar skill set of big play ability and return game potential. Unless Thompson clearly earns the job, it could be tough to justify keeping him if you are already going to keep Seastrunk. Right now Thompson has to get healthy and really separate himself from the group to lock up a roster spot.