With no preseason games or joint training camp practices this year, the only way to take stock of the team’s strengths and needs is to simulate live action — by practicing at game speed, with the same intensity and urgency.
So far, the competition in camp has seemed to solidify the hierarchy at some positions and quashed any doubt about who will start at others.
Only two camp practices remain that are open to reporters, and one of Washington’s most dynamic groups is still uncertain: the running backs.
Behind veteran Adrian Peterson is a collection of newcomers who boast speed, power and pass-catching ability — all traits valued in offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system. Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic were signed in free agency to provide depth and to help on situational downs, respectively. Antonio Gibson was drafted in the third round with the hope he can develop into a dual-threat back. And Bryce Love returned after a year on injured reserve to try to carve out a role with his skill set and experience in a similar system in college.
“I think the whole group can contribute, I really do,” Rivera said Friday. “If you watch the way Adrian Peterson has been handling himself, he’s a guy that sets the tone. He really does. Peyton’s showing his physicality up inside and his quickness outside on the edges. McKissic’s showing his versatility; that’s been really cool to watch. We’ve talked about Antonio — he brings so many different things to the table as well. And don’t fall asleep on Bryce.”
But how the position will look when the roster is trimmed to the initial 53-man group next weekend — the deadline is Saturday — could depend a lot on what happens in the next two days. Rivera typically kept three to four backs on his initial roster in Carolina, and how many he keeps this year will depend in part on the depth and health of other positions. Should he keep three, Peterson will certainly take one spot and Gibson another, leaving three guys to battle for one vacancy.
Rivera has maintained a rotation throughout camp to give each player ample time with the first and second teams and to keep Peterson fresh.
Over the past couple of camp practices, McKissic has flashed his versatility with inside runs and catches out of the backfield. Turner’s offense, his version of the Air Coryell system, has typically relied heavily on pass-catching backs. In 2018 and 2019, when Norv and Scott Turner led Carolina’s offense, the Panthers’ running backs averaged nine receiving targets per game, fifth-most in the league in that span. From 2007 to 2012 — when Norv Turner coached the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews in San Diego — the Chargers’ running backs averaged 9.6 receiving targets to rank second in the league.
“In certain situations, you’ll see more J.D. than the other backs,” Rivera said. “So, [Friday] was an opportunity to feature him and highlight him in some of those circumstances. He did handle them really well today. It’s his skill set. We’ve watched him; I’ve watched him from his Seattle and Detroit days. He’s a guy that really fits some of the things that Scott wants to do on the offensive side.”
Love, who backed up Carolina star Christian McCaffrey at Stanford, impressed early and has the versatility the offense needs. The concern is whether he can stay healthy.
“He’s shown that he can run the ball inside, he can run the ball outside, he can run it from the [shotgun], he can run it from the slot,” Rivera said earlier in camp. “It’s interesting because knowing his background — having played at Stanford, knowing Stanford uses its own read and gap scheme, which we do — a lot of things we do fit what he’s grown up in as a college player.”
On Sunday, the final pieces of the roster could fall into place as the team holds one of its final practices. Rivera declined to say what he had planned for the workout but indicated it will be a significant test as he figures out the roster.
On his checklist? Finding the team’s top 35 to 40 players. From there, it is deciding their rotational backups. And then it is a matter of filling in the remaining holes.
Special teams will weigh heavily, though evaluating that group without any real competition will be difficult. Versatility and consistency will be key, too. And where there’s uncertainty, veterans are likely to win out.
More than anything, though, Rivera wants to see which players separate themselves from the pack.
“We’ll see what happens in the next few days,” he said. “We’ve mapped out a couple things in practice for the next few days. You guys will see it tomorrow to try to give us an opportunity to determine who’s standing out and who’s separating.”
Alex Smith participates in 11-on-11 team drills
Alex Smith participated in 11-on-11 team drills Saturday, the first time he had done so since his right leg injury in 2018. The team practiced in shells, so there was no live contact, but Rivera described Smith’s progress as “a very big step.”
“It’s back to football — 11-on-11, bodies around you,” Rivera said. “Sure, we were in shells today, but just the fact that he was doing something with 11 guys on the field at the same time I think is a big step in the direction that we all want to head. We’ll see how things unfold, we’ll see how he does tomorrow, and we’ll go from there.”
The hope is Smith will participate in full team drills with pads and contact before the end of camp so he and the coaching staff can gauge his physical ability and his confidence in his leg.