Veteran Running Backs: Finding the Right Balance

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 13:  Clinton Portis #26 of the Washington Redskins runs the ball against the New York Giants on September 13, 2009 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Strapped with just two picks in the first three round of the NFL draft, and a free agent class that was very light on players worth a significant amount of money, the Redskins focused their 2010 resources on two main areas: the quarterback position and the offensive line.  Few would argue that something needed to be done about both areas of the offense, and the Redskins get participation points, certainly, for creativity in finding a way to acquire Trent Williams, Donovan McNabb, and Jamaal Brown in the same offseason.  These moves, while made with a varying degree of prudence, were all made with an ideal amount of aggression, and offer a very different prospectus for the 2010 season than you would have expected based on the results of the 2009 season.

Of course, when all of the resources you have for your offense are allocated to just two positions, that essentially means that you are skimping on others.  The Redskins have toyed with the idea of giving up more to receive Vincent Jackson — Hog Heaven has learned that a deal has been close for at least a week — but that the Redskins are (rightfully) reluctant to trade for Jackson unless they can move Albert Haynesworth in the deal.  Keep in mind that the Redskins aren’t actively trying to get rid of Haynesworth (if they were, he’d be gone), rather, they are trying to drive up his price in the market.  This takes time, and if I had to guess, I would say that Haynesworth is probably a Redskin on opening day, and Jackson is probably a Charger, although something could happen with that before his suspension concludes in Week 4.

So with resources allocated to changing the quarterback, upgrading the offensive line, and possibly adding a deep threat to the wide receiver position, the one place that the Redskins have notably gone the “very, very available” player route is the running back position.  Using resources elsewhere is no excuse for poor performance, and the Redskins will have to strike a balance that allows them to get productivity from three (four?) guys who were very unproductive in 2009.  This article will also touch on the obvious possibility that Brian Westbrook is a Redskin by the end of the month, as to consider him part of the mix until he officially takes his services elsewhere.

Clinton Portis

Portis will turn 29 on September 1st, and this will be his ninth NFL season.  It will almost certainly be his final year in Washington, save for a ridiculous statline such as 1,250 yards on 260 carries and 7 TDs, and a subsequent “early thirties” peak had by guys such as Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor, Thomas Jones, and Curtis Martin.  Portis isn’t a disimilar runner to any of those guys, but realistically, his 29 years is much closer to a 31 for a back who hasn’t been doing it since age 20 (Portis’ age in the 2002 preseason).

It would be wrong to suggest Clinton Portis is “done.”  Portis probably has multiple years left as a strong NFL runner, and potentially a very valuable one, but it’s important to note that Portis was last an “explosive” runner in 2006 at age 25.  Those days, as you may have guessed, aren’t coming back.  When Portis had his 1487 yard season in 2008, he did so on a 4.3 yard per carry average and only one run over 30 yards the entire year.  Portis is simply not a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball, he’s only a threat to score once he’s inside the seven yard line.

Portis is best used as the lead back in this offense, but he’s at his best when the team doesn’t use him so much in the early season.  Perhaps one of Jim Zorn’s biggest issues last season is that when the Redskins came out with a decent offensive plan — Jason Campbell was averaging more than 8.0 yards per attempt through the first two games in a passing friendly adaptation of the spread offense, but with the team unable to consistently generate points (26 points in two games), the Redskins spent the next four weeks going to strictly pro-style power formations, taking the game out of Campbell’s hands and handing it to the highly ineffective Portis.

Portis continues to chew through his many lives in Washington, though he’s likely down to his very last one.  Barring a comeback player of year type season, Portis is likely to leave the Redskins quietly (for a change) in the offseason, and finish the final two or three years of his career in the New England backfield.  Portis can still carry the ball 27 times a game at two or three different points in the season, but for most of the year, he’s a 10-12 carry player in this offense.  You are looking at roughly 200 carries from Portis, four touchdowns, about four yards per carry for 800-850 yards, another 150 in the air as a receiver, and most of that production during the fantasy playoffs.  For sure, he’s going to be a frustrating player to have on your fantasy roster all year, but historically, December is Portis’ best month, and the overall decline of his total yards isn’t going to change his dominance in that month.  You’re doing well for yourself if he’s the third running back on your roster.

Larry Johnson

It’s a lot less controversial to suggest that Larry Johnson is done as a valuable back, and while Portis might enjoy a late career rebound as a useful player, Johnson’s gains are likely to be purely academic.  The zone blocking scheme is going to do wonders for a yard per carry average that fell to a paltry 3.3 last year, as Johnson should do enough in the open field to bring that number back towards 4.0 (and will probably exceed it).

The problem with Johnson is that he’s almost certain to lead the team in “stuffs” at the line of scrimmage, even though Portis figures to carry the ball 50-60 more times than LJ will over the course of the season.  Johnson runs with better vision than Portis, but he also runs straight up and has so his whole career.  Johnson will probably have a run or three over 25 yards this year, including a touchdown scored from outside the five yard line, and that will make his yard per carry average look a lot more valuable than it really is.

The Redskins have long had a problem with RB usage patterns, namely, that they had such a stud runner in Portis who could take the ball inside or outside that neither Gibbs nor Saunders nor Zorn could draw up plays for the backup running backs because if it was a critical play, Portis had to be in there.  Theoretically, that’s still a problem for this team: there will not be a snap where it makes more sense for Johnson to take it over Portis.  However, the difference is that the Shanahans do a much better job of really rotating their running backs in there to get Johnson his touches, even when there’s no reason to get Johnson any touches.  That’s good from a “saving Portis’ legs” perspective, and it’s good from the perspective of Johnson’s fantasy owners — 8 to 9 carries a game even when Portis is perfectly healthy, a few more when he isn’t.

The biggest false myth for your fantasy draft is that Larry Johnson is going to be the Redskins’ goal line back.  He will not be.  The goal line back in the Shanahan offense is more dependent on what play he’s running, which might call for the hard-running/slashing style of Willie Parker, or it might call for the slashing/receiving skill set of a Brian Westbrook or Ryan Torain.  But when the goal is pure power and leg drive from inside the three yardline, Clinton Portis is still the workhorse of the group.  Johnson is the least likely Redskins back to carry on the goal line because, as mentioned above, Portis is better at it in every way.  That, and Johnson went touchdown-less in a 16 game season in 2009.

He’ll score between once and three times this season, but it won’t be when expected, one might come through the air, and he’s good for only about 600 rushing yards spread pretty evenly over the season, but likely declining near the playoffs.  That’s a very fringe use of a fantasy football roster spot.  Johnson’s career will come to a close after his year or two with the Redskins.

Willie Parker

It’s hard to defend the Willie Parker signing.  From an X’s and O’s perspective, his running style offers a small change of pace over Portis, and in an offense that prides itself on deception, Parker has some value.  But if you had any dreams of a quick third down back here, Parker has been a dreadful receiver over the last two Steelers seasons.  Combined, he has nine catches on eighteen targets (that’s TWO seasons), which is probably what his receiving season here would look like if he made the team.

In addition, Parker’s breakaway speed is history.  He still has great functional short area speed to use in the flats, but again, he’s a terrible receiver out of the backfield.  If Parker makes the team, he’s probably going to spend most of the season as an inactive scratch from the team in favor of a different third running back, be it Keiland Williams, Brian Westbrook, Ryan Torain, or Mike Sellers.

If you really understand what it is like to go through a Shanahan training camp, you’d understand just how far Willie Parker’s back is against the wall here.  If the team signs Brian Westbrook, he might just get Parker’s roster spot straight up.  When you look at a highly touted college player such as Keiland Williams, and the fact that Mike Shanahan has never been shy about starting rookie runners who he thought had earned their playing time, Parker becomes just a placeholder on that roster spot.  But then you consider that even if Parker plays well in camp, he doesn’t even have the contractual security to force Larry Johnson off the roster, as Johnson got guaranteed millions in his three year contract, and Parker just got a salary that becomes fully guaranteed if he makes the roster for Week 1 (which makes him even less likely to make it).

If Parker makes it, you can pencil him in for 70 carries, split by a week or two as the feature back, and about eight other weeks where he’s active and gets about four or five carries in the game.  He’s going to average about 3.6 yards per carry for a 250 yard season.  I’m not projecting him to find the endzone this year.

Brian Westbrook

If Westbrook is signed by the Redskins before training camp, he becomes the second most valuable back on the roster from a fantasy perspective, and probably the number one guy from a football perspective.  Carry-wise, Parker’s estimate of 70 is probably accurate for him, and you can bump that up by 20 or 25 if you’re going to project him for 14 or more active games, which might be foolish given his injury history.

Westbrook would be a good bet to lead the team in yards per carry, as he’s yet to drop under 4.0 for his career.  He’s a 4.5 YPC back in this offense, which would project him for between 350 and 500 rushing yards depending on which end of the “Brian Westbrook health spectrum” your faith falls in.  He could score one or two times on the ground from distance, but he could also emerge as a valuable receiver in the red zone where Donovan McNabb absolutely loves him.  In a full season, that might be another 8 total TDs, but in a half season as a third running back, that’s closer to 3 or 4.  Still, 6 total TDs from a guy who is 100% available in late July is pretty much a steal, and touchdown scoring is going to be Westbrook’s primary use in the twilight of his career.

Keiland Williams

Some talent evaluators believe that Williams might be the best pro prospect to come from the LSU backfield in quite some time.  Teammate Trindon Holliday was drafted in the 6th round for his world-class speed, and this backfield featured Charles Scott, but when you look at the Redskins draft, you can’t help but notice that two of the players that they selected are Louisiana based athletes who simply weren’t rated highly on any boards: LB Perry Riley (LSU), and TE Dennis Morris (Louisiana Tech).  Williams’ spot on the roster would be strange otherwise, but clearly, the Redskins signed him thinking that they came away with the best player in the offensive backfield of the Tigers.

Whether Williams is good enough to make the team remains to be seen, but unless Brian Westbrook signs soon, Williams is probably the odds on favorite to be the Redskins’ third running back this year.  And in Shanahan-land, that means an injury away from being a no. 1 RB in the NFL. Clearly, the guy is smart enough to notice a good situation when he sees it, and I’d probably take 2 to 1 odds this night that Keiland Williams is the next 1,000 yard runner for the Redskins.

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