Can Mike Shanahan make something of the Redskins’ running game?
Shanahan consistently makes chicken soup out of lackluster ingredients. Historically, he has not dedicated many resources to his running backs and has cultivated great offensive line play from late-round draft picks who did not meet the size and bulk criteria that most teams desire. Instead, Shanahan covets smart, mobile linemen who will cut out a defensive lineman’s knees without a second thought.
The Redskins’ offensive line was a massive liability in 2009 but Washington -- which opens its preseason Friday night at home gainst Buffalo -- has aggressively revamped the front five. First-round pick Trent Williams is an extremely talented rookie but first-year offensive tackles often struggle. His skill set fits what Shanahan wants from his blockers, even though he doesn’t have a ton of experience at left tackle. I would still consider Williams an upgrade for 2010 and certainly a fine long-term prospect. On the right side, Washington added Jammal Brown via trade. His reputation might exceed his production and he is switching tackle spots from his time with the Saints. But as with Williams, Brown can’t be looked at as anything but an upgrade. Former Viking Artis Hicks, who is expected to start at right guard, is also a move in the right direction. While Washington might not have an elite offensive line, it should be good enough -- especially considering the coaching.
Donovan McNabb can move an offense and provides an upgrade over what Washington had. But without breaking down every wideout, I will generalize that position by saying that I am less than impressed. Tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis appear formidable as receivers but not as run blockers. The Redskins wisely will employ a ton of double-tight end sets. Overall, I don’t think most defenses are going to fear this passing game enough to create a lot of space for this stable of old runners.
Willie Parker looks finished. He no longer has the speed that made him famous and never was much help in short yardage or in the passing game. Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis are once-great running backs who are held together with duct tape and have very few explosive traits left. Neither break tackles nor inflict punishment like he once did. Johnson has never offered much as a receiver and Portis’ receiving skills have quickly faded. Either might perform well for a game or two, but I don’t trust them to hold up over a long stretch. Johnson could only muster a 3.3 yards per carry average behind an excellent run-blocking line in Cincinnati last year. Still, he looked to have more left in the tank than Portis. While Portis is only 29 years old, he entered the league at a young age and doesn’t have the big body to withstand the type of punishment he has endured. Concussions, ankle problems and other ailments have plagued Portis in recent years.
Ryan Torain or Keiland Williams could take Parker’s job. Torain runs hard, but he takes a ton of big hits and can’t stay healthy. But Williams has an intriguing size-speed ratio and could be an unheralded player who Shanahan quietly develops. Keep an eye on Williams this preseason.
No team in the league got fewer rushing yards from their running backs in 2009. That will improve, and I expect Shanahan will manufacture a decent run game. Just don’t expect massive improvement.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.