With training camp set to begin next month, Redskins.com previews the current state of the Redskins' roster, continuing today with the team's running backs.
The Washington Redskins will head to training camp this year with five returning running backs, headlined by expected starter Robert Kelley, along with one new face: fourth-round pick Samaje Perine.
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:After seeing Alfred Morris depart in free agency to the Dallas Cowboys last offseason, Matt Jones was penciled in to be the Redskins' starting running back for the 2016 season.
For Washington's first seven games, Jones was just that, as the Florida product carried the ball 99 times for 460 yards and three touchdowns.
But between injuries and struggles to keep the football secure, Jones was inactive for the final nine games of the season. That opened the door for little-known Robert Kelley to take over in the starting lineup.
While at Tulane, Kelley didn't exactly run wild, as he recorded 318 rush attempt for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns. Part of that was due to the Green Wave asking him to play a variety of roles including fullback.
Signed as a college free agent, Kelley quickly showed he was more than just a blocker. By the end of the preseason, Kelley had recorded nearly 200 rushing yards on 38 attempts. He would make the active roster as the team's third running back.
Kelley would play sparingly the first month of the season, but a 45-yard run against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6 turned heads.
Then in his first career start against the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks later, Kelley tallied 87 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Three weeks after his first start in a 42-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Kelley had a highlight performance, recording a season-high 137 rushing yards with three scores.
He finished his debut season with 168 carries for 704 yards and six touchdowns. He also became one of only four players in franchise history to record at least 150 carries in a season without fumbling, joining Pro Football Hall of Famer Cliff Battles, Jim Musick and Alfred Morris.
"As a free agent we didn't see a whole lot, he didn't get many carries at Tulane, quite honestly," recalled head coach Jay Gruden. "We got him in here – as we got a lot of the rookie free agents in here – we worked him out in the rookie OTAs, and we thought enough of him to keep him on the roster and bring him to training camp, and he did some great things in training camp. First of all, he picked up the offense extremely well. That's step one, you have got to be smart enough to play in the National Football League. I don't care how skilled you are – so that was step one.
"Then step two, how he runs – what's his vision like. Then step three is ball security, pass protection, and then run after contact, which you can't tell until you get him in the preseason games where you're going live. That's where we saw him really doing a good job after contact – getting those extra two, three, four yards."
Chris Thompson, meanwhile, solidified his role as Washington's third-down back. He finished the 2016 season with 705 yards from the line of scrimmage. He also scored five touchdowns including a game-winning 25-yard run against the Eagles in Week 14.
Late in the season, Mack Brown registered his first regular season action on offense, as he recorded eight carries for 82 yards – 61 of which came on a touchdown run – in a relief performance against the Chicago Bears.
Washington also has 2016 seventh-round pick Keith Marshall on the roster once again. Marshall missed all of his rookie season with an elbow injury, but when healthy he's one of the fastest players for the Redskins.
At the 2016 NFL Combine, Marshall ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.31 seconds) among all participants.
The newcomer to this group is Oklahoma's all-time leading rusher, Samaje Perine.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Perine finished his three seasons with the Sooners collecting 4,122 yards. In all three seasons, the 5-foot-11, 236 pounder recorded at least 1,050 rushing yards and 12 scores.
WHAT TO WATCH:
It was at training camp last year that Kelley was still buried deep on the depth chart before he began his steady climb up the ladder.
This year, he enters camp as Washington's No. 1 running back. Now the question is just how much will Kelley grow from Year One to Year Two.
On Saturday, April 29, 2017, the Washington Redskins selected running back Samaje Perine with the 114th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
"It's exciting to see how far he's come in a short period of time," Gruden said last month. "With that experience comes confidence and I think he's more confident with every rep that he takes, with every path, with every course that he takes at running back, with his protections, with his routes. You become more comfortable at the running back position when you're not thinking about, 'Right foot back, left foot stutter step, drop step,' all of that stuff. 'Am I aiming at the outside leg of the tackle, inside leg of the tight end? Where am I going?' Now it's just natural to him. He can be a runner and he's very gifted in that regard as far as finding holes and running through people."
Then Perine enters the picture, as some have wondered if the rookie will eventually be able to overtake Kelley in the starting lineup.
He worked mostly with the second-team offense during offseason workouts, but could see his workload expand while in Richmond.
Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh noted that the Redskins could ride the "hot hand" in games, opening the door for Perine to see more action.
Brown, Marshall and Jones, meanwhile, also remain in the thick of the competition for roster spots.
Brown noted that he added quite a bit of muscle mass to his frame this offseason while Jones will look to earn his way back into a position of playing time.