Jul 26, 2018; Richmond, VA, USA; Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice (29) carries the ball during drills on day one of Redskins training camp at Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Cent. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Thursday night, Washington Redskins fans all over the country will sit down in front of their televisions to watch their team take on the New England Patriots in their first competitive football game since December 31, 2017.
While there’s a lot to be excited about, the team will enter the contest with an abundance of question marks over an offense that has been infiltrated with new faces, yet one question will be more familiar than the others. That question is, who will start at the running back position alongside newly-acquired quarterback Alex Smith and the dynamic, dual-threat back, Chris Thompson.
The words ‘Redskins running back competition’ triggers a certain déjà vu at this point. The organization hasn’t realistically been sold on a starter since Alfred Morris and the team has had players battle it out every training camp since his departure. This has led to uncertainty and inconsistency at the position and the rushing attack has struggled as a result.
According to the newly-developed team grades that are a part of Premium Stats 2.0, the Redskins have struggled to find consistency on the ground since Jay Gruden took over as the team’s head coach. From 2014 to 2016, the team accumulated rushing grades of 65.3, 53.7 and 66.4, which respectively ranked 21st, 32nd and 12th among rushing units in the NFL. The Redskins then followed that up with yet another sub-par season on the ground last year and ended the 2017 campaign with a rushing grade of just 58.1, the second-lowest mark in the league.
The grades aren’t the only metric that can back up Washington’s underwhelming backfield performance. If we take out trick plays, quarterback kneel-downs and quarterback scrambles, the Redskins rushing attack ranks 20th in total rushing yards (7,524), 17th in yards after contact (4,541), 25th in missed tackles forced (239), 25th in first-down conversions (309), 25th in yards per carry (4.03), 12th in yards after contact per carry (2.43) and 31st in carries per fumble (69.1).
Heading into his fifth year in charge, Gruden simply needs to find a starting-caliber running back that can provide the balance to his passing attack and help take the pressure off Smith during his first year in Washington. So, as we head into the preseason, all eyes will be on the competition between third-year back Rob Kelley, second-year back Samaje Perine and rookie running back Derrius Guice, as the three battle it out in training camp.
After being signed as an undrafted free agent in back 2016, Kelley burst onto the scene during in his rookie year in Washington. He made his first NFL start in place of Matt Jones in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals, where he rushed 21 times for 87 yards and one touchdown, forcing five missed tackles in the process. His performance was good enough for a promotion to the starting role, and he never looked back.
Kelley ended his rookie season with run grade of 64.4, which ranked eighth among the 23 rookies with at least 10 attempts. Throughout the campaign, he established himself as one of the most elusive players at the position, averaging an impressive 2.84 yards after contact per carry, which ranked 15th out of 53 backs with at least 80 carries. What made Kelley stand out, was his ability to make defenders miss with apparent ease and throughout his rookie campaign, Kelley forced 36 missed tackles on 168 rushing attempts, which was the third-most among first-year running backs. Even more impressively, Kelley was only one missed tackle behind Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot, who had 154 more rushing attempts next to his name. Kelley ended an impressive debut season with an elusive rating (the PFF metric that distils the success and impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down) of 61.5, which ranked eighth among the 68 running backs with at least 50 carries.
Unfortunately for Kelley, he couldn’t quite emulate this same success…