- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints solved their running game woes with rookie backs in recent years. The Washington Redskins are looking at doing the same this year.

“We need to upgrade running back. Ain’t no doubt about it,” Redskins executive Doug Williams told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “Nobody is going to sit here and sugarcoat the fact that we had a [bad] running game.”

Williams isn’t lying. The Redskins averaged a fifth-worst 90.5 rushing yards per game, but those numbers get worse when focusing solely on the team’s running backs.

Redskins backs in 2017 averaged just 77.8 yards per game — and only 3.6 yards per carry.

Injuries, without a doubt, were a drag on those numbers, as the offensive line was banged up all season and a platoon of seven running backs recorded at least one carry.

But it’s also obvious the Redskins could use an infusion of talent at the position, whether that comes from free agency or the draft.

Landing a free agent running back, Williams said, isn’t sought after like it used to be. And the 2018 draft, Williams and other analysts say, is loaded with promising ballcarriers.

In Indianapolis, teams and evaluators favorably compared this year’s crop to the star backs in the 2017 draft.

“[Running back has] never really been an undervalued position,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s just there’s a lot of backs that a lot of people feel like can do similar-type things. With Zeke Elliot doing what he did at Dallas … I think there’s just a heightened awareness on, ‘Hey, these guys can come in and help right away,’ so maybe they’ll go a little higher now.”

Despite a trend that has more top backs going in higher rounds, there are still plenty of NFL teams committed to using midround picks on running backs because they feel like the position is easier to come by.

The Redskins took the midround approach last year — using a fourth-round pick on Samaje Perine. Perine, though, didn’t have the standout campaign of some of the other rookie ball carriers from his class.

The Oklahoma product led the Redskins in rushing yards with 604, but averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. He often discussed the need to be more patient on his runs.

It’s too soon to say if the Redskins are “giving up” on Perine, but there are questions whether he can be an effective, every-down back.

For this year’s class, Williams said, “there’s more than enough running backs to go around.”

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, an athletic freak of nature, was the talk of the combine, and he’ll be long gone before the Redskins pick at 13. Elsewhere, LSU’s Deurrice Guice, USC’s Ronald Jones and Georgia duo Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are considered a tier below.

Michel, in particular, has drawn comparisons to the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, last season’s NFL Rookie of the Year. They are nearly identical in height (5-foot-10) and ran similar 40-yard dashes (Michel’s 4.54 to Kamara’s 4.56).

“I consider myself a professional on many levels,” Michel said. “Walking in and willing to learn from guys that were there before me, and try to carry that wave.”

The Redskins have an explosive playmaker, akin to the Kamara-type, in Chris Thompson. He was the team’s best offensive player last season, and the offense plummeted after he broke his leg in November.

Thompson is expected to return by training camp, but his injury history needs to be factored in when planning for the future. The Redskins prefer limiting his role to help keep him healthy.

Gruden said he wasn’t sure what type of back the Redskins were looking for. He mentioned they had to be durable. Besides Thompson, previous starter Rob Kelley was limited to seven games with injuries.

Gruden also mentioned adding either an “all-purpose guy” or another banger like Kelley and Perine.

“There’s a lot of options, but whoever it is, we intend on giving them a great opportunity to compete for a lot of carries,” Gruden said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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