Ladell Betts was drafted five spots behind Clinton Portis in the 2002 NFL Draft, but that doesn't mean Betts is settling in as his backup. The 5-10, 222-pound Betts continues to push Portis for playing time, even during Organized Team Activity practices.
Portis, who by all accounts enters the 2005 season as the starter at running back, knows Betts is strong competition.
"I have always thought Ladell runs hard," Portis said. "I said that at the beginning of last season. I'd say that he needs to be on the field more, but that would mean I'd be standing on the sidelines."
When Portis was sidelined with an injury in the Redskins' season finale last season, head coach Joe Gibbs and the offensive coaches got their first extended look at Betts in game action. Betts responded with a 118-yard rushing performance in the Redskins' 21-18 win over the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings.
Betts seemed to get stronger in the second half of the Vikings game. After rushing for 39 yards in the first half, Betts ran for 79 yards in the second half, including carries of 27 and 13 yards in the fourth quarter. The 27-yarder tied his career-long.
The performance changed Gibbs' initial impressions of Betts.
"When we started out [last season], in my eyes I had pictured Ladell as more of a third-down back," Gibbs said. "But he's a perfect example of what happens during the course of the season. He played great on special teams and then you see him running the football, and I said, 'Hey, this guy can run inside and outside, and he's a real good athlete.'
"That's an example of what happens when you get to know guys over a period of time."
When Betts entered the NFL as the Redskins' second-round draft pick (56th overall) out of Iowa in 2002, he envisioned himself as a starting-caliber tailback. In 2003, he was expected to share the bulk of carries with Trung Canidate, but injuries--including a fractured forearm--limited him to just 255 yards on 77 carries.
The Redskins acquired Portis before the 2004 season. The 5-11, 205-pound Portis rushed for 1,315 yards in his first season in Washington. As a backup, Betts ended up recording career highs in attempts (90) and rushing yards (371).
In three NFL seasons, Betts has logged 232 carries for 933 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He has also caught 42 passes for 429 yards.
In their time together in Washington, Portis and Betts have developed a healthy respect for each other.
"I like to think my abilities are just as good as anyone else," Betts said. "That's how you want it. If you're second- or third-string, you don't want there to be that much of a drop-off. If the first-stringer gets comfortable, then you're not giving your best effort. You always want to push somebody. We're friends off the field, but at the same time, we're competing on the field."
During OTA practices this month, Betts is becoming more comfortable in Gibbs' offensive system while fine-tuning specific parts of his game.
"There are a few new wrinkles [in the offense] here and there, but for me, it's a matter of polishing up on some things," Betts said. "I want to make sure my pass protection skills are shored up so that there's no concern there. Other than that, I want to build on what I did last year: run hard and when my number's called, be ready to go."
Betts' number could be called more often next season. Portis carried the ball 343 times last year-- fifth most in the league and fourth most in team history--and coaches could seek to lessen his workload so that he's fresh late in the season.
Further, their respective running styles would appear to complement each other well. While Betts isn't the prototypical big running back, he has more of a bulldozing style compared to Portis's quick burst.
Said Portis: "I think it's great that coaches can use us both. Ladell runs hard, plays hard and practices hard. All he needs is an opportunity. When there's a guy giving effort like that, you have to stay on your Ps and Qs."