I know we're in a passing game world, but I find myself thinking lots about which of the Washington Redskins' young running backs has a leg up in the battle of the backups behind Matt Jones and Chris Thompson.
More than that, I wonder whether coach Jay Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan have a true disagreement on the race involving Keith Marshall, Mack Brown and Robert Kelley. Based on what they've said since the start of training camp, it's very possible.
We have more words from Gruden as he holds a press conference during every practice day and after games. McCloughan has only granted scattered interviews. Also, the topic of the third string running back isn't as ubiquitous as say Kirk Cousins' contract or the play of Josh Norman or the health of first round pick Josh Doctson. Best I can tell from transcripts provided by the Redskins, only twice has the issue of the backup runners come up in Richmond. Yet this is an important topic. Not just because running backs are cool, but largely because of the injury history with Jones and Thompson.
For the most part let's ignore what happened on the field in Thursday's preseason. Marshall (5 carries, -1 yard) faced Atlanta's main reserves for the most part while Kelley (7-40-1) and Brown (7-28) went against the deep backups. We're definitely ignoring the unofficial depth chart because Gruden said we should for now, but Marshall, a seventh round pick, did enter the game first. We can put aside pre-training camp work, during which Kelley probably shined brightest, but all received various levels of praise.
There is some nitpicking here on my part in terms of who said what and when and in what order, but this is what we have.
* Let's go back to July 27, the day before camp opens. Gruden was asked if the team could add a veteran running back:
“Yeah, could be. Some guys really looked pretty good in training camp. We have got Chris Thompson coming back, he looked good. Obviously Mack Brown we’ve had last year on the practice squad. Robert Kelley is the rookie free agent we picked up. Keith Marshall we’re excited about. We have some guys in the building we’re going to look at. And if it doesn't work out, we’re always looking. Every position, Scot [McCloughan] and the scouting staff have their eyeballs across the league and who is available. But hopefully we don’t need to go that route. But if we do, there are going to be good players we can talk about.”
All three mentioned with Marshall, the 2016 draft pick, last.
* Here's Gruden on August 7. This was the final question in his press conference and only one about the runners.
On how he evaluates the running backs in camp:
“Running backs, all you’re looking for – well, number one – you’re looking for how they pick it up mentally, their footwork and obviously the pass protection. We take very seriously our pass protection around here. But as far as running the football, we’re going to see that on game day. You know, some guys I’ve seen in shorts, running backs like, ‘Holy cow, this guy can’t be tackled,’ and then he gets into a game and then he gets into a game and he gets tackled and runs backwards the wrong way. So we’ll see how it works out. But I really am excited to watch these guys run. Robert Kelley has been very impressive. Mack Brown’s been hitting some holes extremely well. I’ve seen Chris [Thompson], and Matt [Jones] is exploding through there. So we have some interesting guys to choose from and it will be fun to watch.”
As you can see, he mentions four of top five running backs with Marshall, the guy who ran the fastest 40-time at the 2016 NFL Combine, as the lone omission.
* The next day -- and the same day the Redskins release that first unofficial depth chart -- McCloughan went on with a SiriusXM show visiting Redskins training camp that day. The Marshall plan came up.
* Here's Gruden following Thursday's game. Having already discussed the play of second-round pick Su'a Cravens and quarterback Nate Sudfeld, the coach was asked generally if any other rookies stood out
"I don't know. I'll have to watch the tape...Um [pause]. Not that I know of off the top of my head. I think they all came in and competed. I didn't see any glaring mistakes by any of them, which I'm happy about that. I thought there was a lot of good things. Keith Marshall had some tough runs, some tough looks. Robert had some good runs. He did good as a running back..."
Before walking off the podium came a question about the 6-foot-0, 228-pound Kelley (The audio was very low so I couldn't hear the specific question). "He smashes it up in there. He's a big physical back. He's definitely on our radar for sure," Gruden said.
With three more preseason games and weeks of practice time remaining, opportunity for any of three to emerge exists, not to mention for minds to change. Based on what they've said, it would appear Gruden leans Kelley while McCloughan favors the guy he drafted with Brown in the mix. Or none of this is true because when are such folks honest with their talent assessments in the media. Either way, this topic isn't going away. Now that we're in game mode, it's time to really listen to their words.
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