While you never want to read too much into a preseason game, it was concerning to see just how bad the Redskins top three projected running backs (Matt Jones, Chris Thompson and Keith Marshall) played in the first half versus the Falcons. The running woes weren’t entirely their fault, but the performance was a reminder of how bad their rushing attack was last season. In 2015 the Redskins were 14th in the NFL in carries, but were just 20th in the league in rushing yards due to a paltry 3.7 yards per carry average. Alfred Morris was allowed to leave this offseason, and while he was coming off his worst year, his 3.7 ypc average was better than Matt Jones’ 3.4 ypc. The Redskins only notable running back addition this offseason was the drafting of Keith Marshall in the 7th round. This leaves the Redskins with a unproven and unheralded group of young running backs to try to improve a rushing attack to help balance this offense. It was a plan that seemed risky from the start of the offseason and after a poor preseason week 1 showing it’s a pretty scary proposition of going into the regular season with this group of backs.
While Scott McCloughan has done a great job reshaping this roster and helping to turn the Redskins into a contender, the lack of running game options is a bit of a head scratcher. Matt Jones did show some flashes last season of being a potential feature back, they were pretty few and far between overall. He received 10 or more carries in 8 of his 13 games, but was for the most part wildly ineffective. He managed a ypc average of 4 yards or more in only 3 of the 13 games, including only 2 of the 8 where he received double digit carries. In fact he had 7 games were he didn’t even crack a 3.0 ypc average, more than double what we’d define as his ‘good games’. On top of the rushing ineffectiveness, Jones also had 5 fumbles in just 144 carries which is just a terrible rate and an issue to watch for this season. While it’s possible it was just a bad rookie year and Jones can develop and put it all together going forward, this was definitely a situation where you would have wanted a solid back-up running back or at least a young back with upside for competition. Instead the Redskins have Chris Thompson, Keith Marshall and a bunch of college free agents.
Thompson is not a bad back to have on the roster, but his role is not that of a true “back-up running back”. Thompson is a 3rd down back, who couldn’t handle a role of replacing Jones if he were to falter or go down with injury. Thompson is not a back you can hope to give 10-20 carries a game to. He doesn’t even make a good running back by committee option as you really want to limit his carries to 2-5 a game and that is probably a stretch. Keith Marshall was an intriguing 7th round pick as he was highly touted coming into college and had the makings of being a star before an ACL injury set him back. He flashed at the combine with a 4.3+ 40 time and that made him an upside play. He wasn’t though a prospect that you really thought would come in and compete for a number two role as a rookie or any sort of option to challenge Jones this season. Behind them the Redskins have college free agents Mack Brown and Robert Kelly. Kelly did have a nice run or two vs the Falcons, but that was late in the game versus their 4th string defense. He might have a little upside, but again not a guy you’d want as your only back-up feature back option.
That is where Joique Bell comes in as the perfect free agent pick-up, for the Redskins and someone they should turn to sooner rather than later. While veteran Pierre Thomas is also available and he was with the Redskins last year he’s not as complete of a back as Bell. Thomas is basically a better and more experienced version of Chris Thompson as a limited carry/3rd down back option. He can handle more work than Thompson more in the 7-10 carries a game range, but if Jones were to falter or go down with injury the best Thomas can do is be part of a committee approach. Thomas is a good receiver out of the backfield and he would help add depth to this unit, but Bell is the better all-around option.
Bell unlike any back currently on the Redskins roster behind Jones or even Pierre Thomas could handle a feature back role for the Redskins if they need that. He’s not been a highly effective starting running back, but he’s had some nice games in his career and is capable of 15-20 carries if you need him to. At the very least in a committee approach he can handle the grind it out, between the tackles running. Bell is also a pretty solid short yardage/goalline back. Last year Kirk Cousins was the Redskins rushing TD leader with 5, or one more than Alfred Morris and Matt Jones combined for. With Bell on the roster the Redskins would have a legitimate option in those situations for defenses to prepare for. Despite being a bigger more physical back, Bell is still a pretty good pass catcher. He has 161 receptions for 1,640 yards over the last four seasons despite never being a fulltime player. Even when he was the rushing leader he gave up 3rd down chances to guys like Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick. Despite that he still proved to be a solid pass catcher and could definitely help the Redskins in that area as a nice dump-off option.
Bell is not going to suddenly turn the Redskins into a top 10 or top 15 rushing attack, but he offers a lot of value as a situational runner, insurance policy and solid pass catcher. Even if the Redskins are 100% right in their faith that Matt Jones can be the feature back, there is still the question of the depth chart behind him if he misses time due to injuries. Jones missed 3 games last season, and he wasn’t even the starter. In fact only 12 backs (or 1/3 of the league) were able to play in 15 or 16 games as main/starting backs (a bit of a gray area some back-ups who assumed starting roles played in 16 games like Darren McFadden and DeAngelo Williams, but I didn’t count them because they weren’t relied upon for 15 or more weeks). There is a very real possibility that Jones misses multiple weeks and the Redskins lack any sort of option to replace him. Adding Bell would fix that and give the Redskins somewhat respectable depth going into the season, while at the same time not giving up on the hope that Jones is the long term answer.