- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Washington Redskins have five games to figure out who’s who at tailback.

Is Trung Canidate the player who plowed into holes that weren’t there and failed to shed first tacklers? Or is he the back who bowled over Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas on Sunday and averaged more than 5 yards a carry in the second half?

What about Ladell Betts? Is he the guy who generated less than 2.3 yards a rush in consecutive losses to Philadelphia, Buffalo and Dallas? Or the one who dominated the opening win over the Jets?

Unlike the defensive line, an unquestioned priority for the Redskins this offseason, the position of running back could evolve several ways as Washington plays out the string in 2003 and looks ahead to 2004.

If Canidate or Betts emerge, the club might not stress running back in the draft and free agency. If not, Washington might spend a high pick in the draft on a back or use the pick as trade bait for someone like Cincinnati’s Corey Dillon or as compensation for San Francisco restricted free agent Kevan Barlow. Or the Redskins could grab someone from a currently shallow pool of scheduled unrestricted free agents.

In any case, Washington’s final five games will be, as much as anything, an audition for its running backs.

“We’re going to do everything we can to win the games, but someone still does need to step forward, take over the position and go with it,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said yesterday.

Being scrutinized are Canidate and Betts and to a lesser extent rookie Sultan McCullough and fullback Rock Cartwright. McCullough still is nursing a hand injury and can’t jump to a commanding position for 2004, while Cartwright has been Washington’s most effective runner at times but is too awkwardly sized (5-foot-7, 223 pounds) to be a feature back.

Even Cartwright, who is expected to return this week after missing the Dolphins game with a sprained ankle, acknowledged he has little or no shot at the long-term role.

“I probably won’t get a look, but I won’t be disappointed if that’s the way it goes,” Cartwright said.

Canidate, meanwhile, probably has been too ineffective to be relied on next year, though he did flash some potential in Sunday’s loss. After struggling badly the two previous games, Canidate showed his sprained ankle might have been a factor in those efforts by running hard at Miami.

“The offensive line was giving me something to work with a little bit more,” Canidate said. “The better they do, the better I do. They were solid.”

Adding speed on offense was the thinking behind Washington’s trade for Canidate. But Canidate’s longest run is 23 yards, and he rarely has broken tackles to take advantage of his speed. Also, he has been a liability in blitz protection.

Betts is a better bet to secure Washington’s tailback position. The former second-round pick has more prototypical size (222 pounds) than Canidate (205 pounds), and when he runs well he looks like former Redskin Stephen Davis.

Of course, that’s when he runs. Betts has missed the past four games with a fractured forearm, and even before the injury his play was spotty. Only twice this year has Betts averaged more than 3.2 yards — in the opener against the Jets and two weeks later against the New York Giants.

Betts is expected to return for the stretch run. Washington officials remain eager to see what he can do when he’s healthy.

“We haven’t seen enough of him this year,” Jackson said. “There have been some games where he has played very well, and then there were some games where he didn’t play as well. We need to get a good long look at him.”

Generally speaking, though, the ever-acquisitive Redskins figure to scan the running back market pretty closely. And because the free agent pool is suspect, the best option could come from the draft. Plus, running back often is considered the easiest position for a rookie to play well immediately.

Leading the pack of NFL prospects are Oregon State’s Steven Jackson (6-3, 233) and Virginia Tech’s Kevin Jones (6-0, 209). Also mentioned as potential early picks are Florida State’s Greg Jones (6-1, 248), Auburn’s Carnell Williams (5-11, 204), Tulane’s Mewelde Moore (6-1, 210), Northern Illinois’ Michael Turner (6-1, 228) and Michigan’s Chris Perry (6-1, 220).

Of course, projections for players will change substantially during all-star games and the NFL Scouting Combine. Also, Jackson, Kevin Jones and Williams are juniors who must decide to enter the draft.

The crop of unrestricted free agents is weak but could grow with cap-related cuts. Dallas’ Troy Hambrick is the most productive scheduled UFA (644 yards), while Philadelphia’s Duce Staley (608 combined rushing and receiving yards) still appears to have something left. Potential cuts include questionable vets like the Jets’ Curtis Martin (802 yards) and Tennessee’s Eddie George (674 yards).

Among possible trades, the gem might be Dillon, a three-time Pro Bowl back who has fallen behind Rudi Johnson in Cincinnati. Only three other rushers in NFL history (Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Martin) have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in their first six seasons. However, Dillon also has a well-known reputation for petulance.

Barlow is an up-and-coming option, having been effective in three seasons behind 49ers starter Garrison Hearst. This year Barlow is averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Although San Francisco could put the first-round tender on the former third-round pick, Washington showed a willingness to sign such a player this year when it pried Laveranues Coles from the Jets.

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