In a recent mock draft Wes Bunting of National Football Post had the Redskins picking running back Mark Ingram (after a small trade down to the 13 spot). And he makes clear in the introduction that these picks are not predictions but recommendations: "I’m again playing general manager of every team in the top 10 and will be selecting who I would pick for each organization come draft day." So Mr. Bunting thinks that upgrading the talent at running back is such a priority that it's the best use of the Redskins very valuable first round pick.
I agree that the Redskins need to upgrade their running game (ranked 24th by DVOA), but strongly disagree that they need to do this by upgrading their running backs.
First of all, I am on the record as thinking that Keiland Williams and Ryan Torain have the potential to be pretty good themselves. But that is, in a way, beside the point for a couple of different reasons.
For starters, if I'm wrong and Keiland and Torain actually aren't very good, there are still other positions on the offense that are substantially worse. And this is of course a gross generalization, but I am generally of the school that bad running backs running behind a good line will give you a better overall run game than good running backs behind a bad line. The Redskins offense will be improved much more by upgrading at both guard spots (which might then move Kory Lichtensteiger to center, improving that position as well) and probably fullback as well. These upgrades would probably be accomplished through a mix of free agency and lower round draft picks, keeping that first rounder available to address one (or more in the event of a trade) of the Redskins many other more pressing needs.
Think of it this way: if the Redskins upgraded at running back, the need to acquire new linemen would still be there, but with less resources to go around. After all, it would be quite a shame to squander such running talent behind inadequate blocking. But by upgrading the line, any need to improve at running back (which is already debatable) would be obviated. Given Shanahan's history, there probably will be at least one more running back competing for playing time in 2011. But that could just as well be a fifth round rookie, or a street free agent, or someone already on the roster like James Davis.
There would be considerable opportunity cost to spending that first round pick on what is widely regarded as the most fungible position in football and not on a position that would have greater long term impact. In fact given the Redskins many areas of need running back is about the only use of a first round pick that would upset me. I'm nervous about taking a quarterback that high, but if Shanahan sees a guy he like I would understand why he would pull the trigger. And while I prefer to upgrade wide receiver through free agency, I would still consider a receiver a more reasonable use of a first rounder than a running back. My hope is to see the Redskins use that pick to upgrade the front seven, preferably with a DE. But with myriad needs I could at least see the logic of using that pick differently. A running back, even one as talented as Ingram, is just about the only potential pick that would provoke a forehead-slapping moment of shock and disappointment.