Saturday, July 31, 2010

Redskins position preview: Running backs

Confidence Level: 5 out of 10

We continue to go in depth into each position group and to flesh out the reasoning behind my admittedly hopeless guess at the final makeup of the Redskins 53-man roster:

Running backs (5 kept)
Tailbacks: Larry Johnson, Clinton Portis, Ryan Torain, Keiland Williams
Fullbacks: Mike Sellers
Cuts: Willie Parker, Darrell Young, Dennis Morris

I have never been among Clinton Portis’ detractors. In 2009, of course, Portis did not perform up to his usual level. Some fans accused him of not running hard, but I am unconvinced that the problem was a lack of effort. This is mainly because consistent effort (on game days at least) has always been Portis’ most noticeable quality. Think back to the first half of 2008 when the running game was clicking (largely behind the outstanding blocking of Chris Samuels and Pete Kendall). In my opinion, there was no one in the NFL who ran harder. He was not breaking big runs, but he was punishing a defender at the end of every play.

In the first half of ‘09 the run blocking was beyond awful. In particular Casey Rabach, Stephon Heyer, and Chris Cooley were regularly ending up in the backfield and preventing plays from even developing. He had no chance to have any forward momentum going by the time he reached the line of scrimmage. I think that, along with nagging injuries, is what many people saw as “not finishing runs.” I am reasonably confident that with some decent blocking in front of him we will once again see the Clinton Portis we know and love – a guy who will fight for every yard available to him. It’s been a long time since Portis was a guy who could turn a three yard run into a big gain. But if there were yards to be had, he wasn’t going to leave any of them on the field.

And of course Portis’ finest quality is the pride he takes in his pass blocking. Portis rarely fails to recognize a blitz, and when he blocks someone he’s not just trying to slow him down – he’s looking to put a guy on the ground. In ’09 a somewhat mysterious decision to take him out on third down situations meant there were few crushing blocks on pass rushers, which was always a large part of what made Portis one of my favorite players to watch. That made me sad.  But given that there are likely to be breakdowns in pass protection again this year (though not nearly so frequently) Portis should have a chance to show off this talent once more.

I expect Larry Johnson will split carries more or less evenly with Portis. Johnson isn’t very elusive but he runs hard, and so if the run blocking goes somewhat smoothly he should be solidly productive well. He is also a well-rounded back, having a reputation as a solid blocker and useful receiver. As you probably know by now, I like well-rounded football players. After getting off to a miserable start with Kansas City, later on he ran solidly for the Bengals behind a pretty good line. So I think that’s what we can expect from him – another back who is reliable enough to take what the offensive line gives to him, but nothing more.

I am fairly confident that Portis and Johnson will provide some consistent production, though little excitement. If we see the expected improvement in the offensive line, they are well equipped to take advantage of it. But given their age and physical style of play, it is a near certainty that one or both will miss games through the course of the season. Since depth is clearly paramount at tailback, I felt obligated to pick four guys for the final roster. Willie Parker built a career off of speed, and that speed is gone. He is being chosen by almost everyone to be cut, and while I hate to just go along with the crowd I can’t bring myself to disagree. I really see no reason why he would still be a useful player, and it’s pretty obvious it would make sense to round out the bottom of the depth chart with youth.

The only options are Ryan Torain and rookie Keiland Williams. Torain clearly is on Shanahan’s good side as he has signed him for the second time – so if Portis or Johnson goes down Torain could be the next to be given a chance. Williams is apparently pretty raw, but Shanahan is notoriously optimistic in his ability to coach up unpolished players to get the most out of their talent, so the fact that he is the only viable breakaway threat on the roster means he has a reasonable chance of sticking.

Fullback is shaping up to be pretty interesting, and not too much should be read into the fact that I set up a hypothetical 53 man roster with only Sellers making the team. I had enough other positions where I was worried about depth that I figured a second fullback would be a luxury, but if another FB doesn’t make the 53 man roster I think it’s a near certainty there will at least be one on the practice squad.

Sellers took a lot of heat from fans last year, and as is often the case in this sort of situation it was merited to a degree but also badly overblown. He suffered from the same poor offensive line play (and Cooley) as Portis did, and had to spend a fair amount of time in the backfield dodging the flying bodies of his blockers. In fact that specifically is what happened in the notorious safety given up against Carolina. Here is my comment from the game review:

“With 3 yards of cushion, there’s no way a safety should occur on a running play. Stephon Heyer gets way too high and Julius Peppers blows him off the line and penetrates to the end zone. Color commentator Brian Billick rips Mike Sellers on this play (on his note cards due to the Portis-Sellers spat from earlier in the week), saying the fullback’s responsibility on a goal line play is to punch a hole through the line rather than move laterally to try to get to the corner. But my read is that Sellers was never able to get forward momentum because Stephon Heyer was getting thrown backward into his face. If Sellers hadn’t dodged him and tried to get to the outside, I think Portis would have been flattened under Heyer’s and Sellers’ bodies and Peppers wouldn’t have even needed to tackle him.”
But despite my efforts to defend him from irrational rage,  his play clearly did drop off last year. Even when he was given a chance to execute his assignments there were just too many missed blocks. And his extreme age is catching up to him – at times he just couldn’t make it out to his target on time. Even if he is still capable of playing effectively – and with better linemen in front of him I believe he is – you don’t go into a season with a 36 year old fullback without trying to find a succession plan.

That’s why Dennis Morris was drafted. Within a few minutes of Morris being drafted (after the collective fan outrage brought on by his initial listing as a tight end had died down), this YouTube video started making the rounds. Watch it. It’s mandatory. I am the last person on earth to get overly excited by a college highlight video – level of competition, college systems that highlight a few athletically gifted players, etc. - but I will admit this one hooked me immediately. If you like blocking – and I love strong blocking to an almost disturbing degree– you will have a hard time not getting excited. You will see him dominating on the line of scrimmage as well as getting downfield and picking off linebackers and safeties. More than anything, he finishes blocks.  Even after he's beaten a guy he keeps driving him until he's completely out of the play.  You only need to watch the first three minutes, because that’s where all the great blocks are. After that it’s just him catching touchdown passes and stuff, which of course is the boring part.

There is one more option – converted linebacker Darrell Young is spending some time at both fullback and tailback. He is a longshot to make the team, but if Morris isn’t ready for the NFL then there’s no reason to rule out Young as Sellers’ backup, even if it’s from the practice squad.

Up next: Wide receivers

Previous position previews: Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs, Offensive line

No comments:

Post a Comment