Friday, July 17, 2009

Position Overview: Running Backs

Confidence Level: 7 out of 10
Let's start at the bottom of the depth chart, just for the hell of it. The Redskins brought in three interesting guys who were all part of a rather obvious attempt to add the proverbial Playmaker Out Of The Backfield. We've got two guys who are near identical (at least from the limited information available on such obscure players) and differ only on background.
Both Anthony Alridge and Dominique Dorsey are in the neighborhood of 5'9", 175 pounds, and crazy fast. Alridge was signed undrafted by the Broncos last year, but spent 2008 on IR with a foot injury. He was cut when Josh McDaniels started stockpiling running backs in the offseason, but apparently comes with the personal endorsement of Mike Shanahan, which I imagine goes along way with West Coast guys like Zorn. Dominique Dorsey, however, has several years of professional experience... in Canada. He apparently was quite the special teams star for the Toronto Argonauts, and they considered his jump to the NFL a huge loss, but it remains to be seen whether that says more about Dorsey or the CFL. Apparently, Snyder and Cerrato are hoping one of this pair turns into their very own Darren Sproles (5'6", 180 lbs). How either of these guys would fit into the offense isn't entirely clear, but I'm curious to see what Zorn does with them - or if they were foisted on him by the bigwigs and he only goes through the motions of giving them a shot in preseason.
The third POOTB is Eddie Williams - an H-back type drafted in the seventh round out of Idaho. Check out NFL Draft Countdown scouting report here - the key points are that he is a very good receiver out of the backfield, but not much of a lead blocker. On these grounds, I assume he's not a threat to Sellers. Hybrid TE/FB receiving types are always fun, and (if he makes the roster) he would spend most of his time motioning around and working match-ups on linebackers.
Of those three new guys, I assume only one is making the team. That leaves the three more traditional running backs:
Forgive me, but I'm going to go on awhile about Clinton Portis because I'm not sure everyone appreciates quite what we have here. Check out this YouTube highlight video. Notice how at the end of every run he is punishing a defender. It is absolutely true that these days he brings little breakaway ability, but he runs as hard if not harder than anyone in the NFL. He simply does not leave yards on the field, as Zorn himself has pointed out.
But my favorite part of his game is also the most overlooked: he is probably the most devastating pass-blocker at his position. Not only does he rarely miss blitz pick-ups, but rather than just getting in their way, Portis attacks blitzers with more ferocity than I've seen from any other back. His most famous from last year was this hit on Kiwanuka in the otherwise dismal opener, but every game was filled with hits like this or better. How can you not respect a player who celebrates after a block? In fact, he may take this enthusiasm for the most under-appreciated aspect of his job too far: I could swear there are times when he would be more useful as a dump-off receiver, but he hangs around the backfield looking for a pass-rusher to level. It's possible this is what Zorn instructs him to do, but it sure looks to me like he just plain enjoys blocking.
The only downside of this, of course, is the toll it takes on his prematurely aging body. Twenty-seven may not sound old, but he's already well over 2,000 carries in his career, and the relentless running style I praised above, along with all those blocks, means that Portis has sustained alot of violence. As much as I respect him for exposing himself to it (not to mention seeking it out), it is essential that Betts gets alot more carries than he did last year. I want to soak every last drop out of Portis over the next couple years, and probably the only way to keep him functional is in something closer to a true committee system. We know Betts can run adequately, if not spectacularly, and is a very good receiver. He also blocks almost as violently as Portis - possible due to Portis' example - but is slightly more prone to missing his pick-ups.
The other traditional running back in the mix is local product (he went to Georgetown Prep) Marcus Mason. He is something of a fan favorite after leading the NFL in preseason rushing yards last year, for whatever that's worth (answer: not much). He certainly seems to run with decisiveness, power, and vision, but so far we've only seen him do it against special teamers and other training camp fodder. I'm not saying he can't be an effective NFL rusher - maybe he can - but he hasn't proven it yet. However, he has one potentially fatal flaw that would make his rushing ability irrelevant: the next blitz Marcus Mason picks up will be his first. If he shows this preseason that he has significantly improved at this very important part of this job, then he certainly deserves a serious look. Otherwise, I'm just not eager to risk Jason Campbell's health on the basis of a few August highlights. And given that at least one of the three POOTBs is probably making the team, where exactly does he fit on the roster short of an injury to Portis or Betts? Also, he has admitted to having been a Cowboys fan growing up. So screw him.
The only man we're leaving out to this point is Mike Sellers. Now I love all 285 pounds of Mike Sellers as much as the next guy, but its time we accept that he is very old to be playing such a brutal position. He made some noises about wanting a new contract this offseason, but even Snyder knows better than to give extensions to 34 year old fullbacks. There's a good chance this is his last year on the team. Sellers is often a devastating lead blocker, and given the unpredictability of our line he could be key to they running game, be he has lately developed the tendency to whiff on some blocks as well. One thing I wish people would stop hoping for is more carries for Sellers. He has never shown himself to be a particularly effective short yardage runner - defenders simply take out his legs (remember the 2007 week 3 loss to the Giants?). He does, however, have very good hands that make him a nice receiving threat - either in goal line situations, or with the opportunity to turn it up field and flatten some 180 pound safety.
Next up: Wide Receivers

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