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The Next Step For Antonio Gibson

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Antonio Gibson makes a reception during practice in Richmond, Virginia. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

There's only a modicum of pressure that comes with being mentioned in the same sentence as one of the most electrifying running backs in the league as a rookie.

That's what happened to Antonio Gibson last year, when Ron Rivera said the Memphis Tiger has a similar skillset to Christian McCaffrey. In fairness, though, Gibson more than handled those expectations to the tune of 1,042 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

And for what it's worth, his 2020 Football Outsiders DVOA of 18.8% was nearly four points higher than McCaffery's 14.9% in 2019 -- the last time McCaffrey played a full season.

Gibson has shown he can handle his business on the ground, but that's only part of what modern running backs like McCaffrey are asked to do these days. So what's next for Gibson? Learning how to be just as explosive as a receiver.

"You guys haven't watched enough to see," Rivera told reporters, "but when we've done our nickel periods, you see him getting a few more snaps with nickel groups. So, he's done a nice job putting himself in position."

Gibson has been focusing on the smaller details of his game. He got a lot of the fundamentals down last year, so now he wants to improve at being more aware of the situation he's in and using his tools to match it in the most efficient way possible.

For the plays where he gets to operate as a receiver, that means knowing what angles to take while running routes and how to use the extra time coming out of the backfield to set up a move. They're smaller nuances that most running backs have been doing for years that Gibson, who's only entering Year 2 as a full-time running back, is just now dipping his toes into.

The good news is that Rivera knows Gibson can handle it, given that he was one of Memphis' best pass-catchers in 2019 with 735 yards and eight touchdowns.

"You saw him line up as that wide receiver and beat linebackers and beat safeties and every now and then beat the nickel," Rivera said. "Some of the stuff that we do with him is working towards creating that mismatch that you look for, that opportunity for us to put him somewhere and say, 'Hey, we like what we got, let's go get it.'"

Based on the sample size he put on display against the Ravens in 2020 -- four receptions for 87 yards -- Gibson has shown he can hold his own at receiver on the professional level, too. Rivera and the coaches still don't want to overload him with information -- he's still learning the position, after all -- but he does want to make sure he understands everything about the receiver plays that are given to him.

"Situation and details of those routes," Gibson said on what he can do to improve, "make sure I'm there where I need to be so the quarterback can find me."

He doesn't have to look too hard for players to mold his pass-catching skillsets after, either, given that J.D. McKissic is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league. McKissic had the second-most receiving yards in his position last year -- only the Saints' Alvin Kamara was better -- with 589 yards. He was one of three Washington players to have 100 targets, and his catch rate of 72.7% was one of the best on the team.

So, needless to say, there's a lot Gibson can learn from shadowing him.

"I love watching his tape and I'm seeing how he reroutes people and how he gets control of people." Gibson said. "He does a good job with his routes and even running the ball."

Gibson's opportunities will only increase as he continues to find other ways of being useful to the offense. He can be used more on third downs, and the coaches can put him in different personnel packages to spread out the defense. It means that Gibson will be on the field more often, and if last year is any indication, there's nothing wrong with that.

"It'll open up the playbook a little bit more," Rivera said.

Follow @ZachSelbyWFT for more updates on the Washington Football Team

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