A look at the Redskins by position heading into the start of training camp:
The skinny: The Redskins have three running backs who used to be stars. Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker have combined for 11 1,000-yard seasons (one in the last two years combined). Portis is a season and a half removed from being a serious contender for offensive MVP. And in 2008, Johnson averaged 4.5 yards a carry in 12 games. But can any of them still do it over 16 games? Portis is supposedly in great shape and has “bought in” to Mike Shanahan; we’ve heard that before. Lots of things get said in the offseason. Johnson had a rough ending in Kansas City, but was a solid backup in Cincinnati. As for Parker? He has to be considered the third man in this race. Ryan Torain is an intriguing young player, but must prove he can stay healthy. Mike Sellers will be the fullback.
How they’re better: If Portis is in top shape and practices more, he could flourish in this offense. Portis’ ability to cutback fits well into Mike Shanahan’s scheme. Also, with the athletic tackles Washington now has, the cutback lanes should be cleared more often than in the past two years. And with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, teams can’t gear game plans to simply stop Portis. Johnson should be a quality backup, provided he stays out of trouble.
How they’re worse: They’re an aging group. Even if Portis does all that he’s asked, the reality is that he turns 29 on Sept. 1, has 2,176 career carries and is coming off a concussion that forced him to miss eight games. Running backs wear down around this age. Can he fight that off another year or two? Actually, the same is true for Johnson (30) and Parker (turns 30 on Nov. 11) as well. Johnson, for all the hype about him, has only rushed for more than 1,000 yards twice. The Redskins lack a change-of-pace back. Read: they don’t have a lot of speed. Yes, Parker used to be called Fast Willie. But he hasn’t had a run longer than 34 yards in the past three seasons. Plus, neither he nor Johnson have filled the third-down role in the past. Neither is considered a good blocker. That means Portis, barring a signing of Brian Westbrook, will have to fill that role as well and get his breaks on first and second down.
The verdict: Same, but with an asterisk. They have a higher ceiling, but there’s seriouc concerns with this group and it’s why I can’t say they’re better. Based on the names, this is an improved group. Based on the recent past, it’s impossible not to have doubts. Portis should be better if he answers all the questions; he’ll have a better scheme to complement what he does best – and the quarterback threat is a major bump, too. But that concussion cost him eight games. Will that be an issue at some point this year, too? Don’t know. If anything happens to Portis, the Redskins lack someone who can play on third downs; neither Johnson nor Parker are considered good pass protectors. Can they improve? Don’t know that answer either. Johnson, at this stage, likely is more suited to a backup role – a bruiser who can give Portis a breather – than someone who could carry the ball 20 times in a consistent full-time role. So Portis needs to stay healthy. Parker isn’t even a sure bet to make the roster. He’s more proven than Rock Cartwright, the No. 3 back last year; but is Torain? Hardly. Can he be better? Yes. But injuries have always been an issue. If healthy, he could be a big surprise. That's a big if. The potential is there for this unit; but there was no home run hitter last year and there isn’t one this year. You’ll have to cross your fingers with this group.