Thursday's preseason finale highlighted the issue. Rob Kelley, on the bubble, ran well and displayed quickness. Kapri Bibbs caught the ball and blocked well. Samaje Perine ran well at times -- but also fumbled.
The fumble might not be a crushing problem if not for the fact that only a quick whistle saved him from another in the opener. That’s two miscues in only 15 carries. He had two fumbles in 175 carries last season, though there were also mishandled exchanges that get credited to the quarterback. But Perine, a former fourth-round pick, has looked quicker and would be attractive to other teams. After the Redskins drafted now-injured Derrius Guice in the second round, they received calls about possible trades, according to a league source.
“He didn’t get many carries this preseason,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of Perine. “He put the ball on the ground twice. That is an issue for me. This definitely has to be cleaned up.”
It adds up to some tough decisions coming Saturday.
“It’s very tight, and it’s going to depend on how many we keep and which type we’re going to keep,” Gruden said. “It’s going to come down to first-, second-down backs versus third-down backs. We will have major discussion about that.”
Multiple people in the organization have said they’ll keep only four running backs. Anything can change, but that’s been the consistent number mentioned during the last couple of weeks. Typically, only three are active on game day. There was a definite split in the organization last week over which players to keep, as you’d expect given the fact that all of the running backs showed reasons why they should be kept -- or could be cut.
Here are the factors to be weighed:
Peterson’s age: He’s 33 and coming off an up-and-down season punctuated by an injury. He’s already accomplished things few backs in history could match, but what does that mean for this season? Can he stay durable? He doesn’t have to rush for 1,400 yards, but he does need to be available. If there’s concern about that aspect, they could opt to keep two backups for him in Kelley and Perine. That way if Peterson gets hurt, they’re not scrambling for another backup who can handle first- and second-down duties. The Redskins can’t overuse Peterson, which means they need a good backup they can trust.
The benefit for Kelley in this scenario: Perine has been dealing with an ankle injury that has given him some problems even after his return earlier in the week. It’s not serious, but it could give the Redskins pause to simply have him as Peterson’s main backup. Based on Friday, Kelley had the stronger night anyway. The coaches talked all summer about his losing weight and looking quicker yet maintaining power. He displayed that against the Ravens’ backups with 11 carries for 49 yards.
“I believe I’ll make this team. I am confident, but I have a little nervousness with it,” Kelley said. “I wanted to prove to everyone that I can play, but it never gets easier.”
Thompson’s health: Thompson did not play in the preseason as he recovers from a broken fibula suffered last November. He also tore a ligament and screws were inserted. Thompson struggled early in camp with some lingering pain but said last week that he believes he can handle his usual load. Gruden said he has looked “fantastic.” That could lessen the desire to automatically have a backup for him on the 53-man roster. Bibbs or Byron Marshall, who missed the last two preseason games with a knee injury, would fill that role.
Other backs: The Redskins won’t be the only team cutting running backs this weekend, so there will be plenty available on the open market (it's where they'll get a fullback if they want one). There would definitely be interest by Washington in some of them, depending on the fit, of course. It also means that if the Redskins cut Bibbs or Marshall, there is no guarantee they’d be signed immediately. They could try to place one of them on the practice squad (both have eligibility as one of the two veteran exemptions). Marshall was working ahead of Bibbs until getting hurt. If his injury will sideline him a couple more weeks, it would make him easier to place on the practice squad.
"It’s not about one game," Bibbs said. "It’s all about everything I’ve done.”
Both were available last year as well, with Marshall on Philadelphia’s practice squad and Bibbs at home. Keep that in mind: The Redskins can like a guy but also feel confident they can get someone comparable if needed. That’s how they ended up with both players in the first place. The same could be said of Kelley and Perine, too. While all have shown reasons why they warrant a roster spot, none have shown that they’re irreplaceable. The key for most running backs: the offensive line. The Redskins need their line to remain healthy to have a better run game than they did in 2017.
In the end, the Redskins need to weigh one factor: Which ones are the best?