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What to make of Samaje Perine, Chris Thompson in light of Rob Kelley injury

Rob Kelley is unlikely to play on Sunday, so it’s time to figure out his replacements

NFL: Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Washington wrapped up their practice week earlier today, and they announced that running back Rob Kelley is doubtful for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. Doubtful players are viewed as having a 25 percent chance of playing, and generally do not end up playing.

Since Kelley is unlikely to play, I thought it would be helpful to learn more about running backs Samaje Perine and Chris Thompson. Washington drafted Perine as a long-term option, but he has struggled out of the gate. He leads the team in rushing attempts, but Thompson leads in yards per carry, while also leading the team in receptions and yards.

I took a few minutes to chat 49ers-Washington with Hogs Haven writer Bill-in-Bangkok, and he offered some insight into Perine and Thompson heading into this weekend.

I was one of the many Washington fans who predicted, after the draft, that Samaje Perine would take over the role of lead back by mid-season.

I was wrong. Barring long term injury to Rob Kelley, it ain’t happening.

It looks like Perine gets a start this week as Jay Gruden says Kelley’s injury is likely to keep him out. That means that Perine will be the lead back against the 49ers, but unless he shows dramatic improvement, and against SF's strong run defense that seems unlikely, I expect Kelley to retake the starter role as soon as he's healthy.

Perine may still turn out to be a great NFL running back, but early on he has looked uncomfortable running when Cousins has been under center; he runs better when Washington is lined up in shotgun formation. The difference is significant. The sample size is small this early in his career, but in Week 3 against the Raiders for example, he gained just 20 yards on 10 carries with Cousins under center (2.0 YPC) and rushed for 29 yards on nine rushes out of the shotgun (3.2 YPC). None of those numbers are eye-popping, and it’s clear that the rookie has a lot of learning to do before he is a viable NFL starting running back.

That learning curve extends to an area that many college running backs struggle with – pass protection. Washington doesn’t want to put the health of our $24 million quarterback into the hands of a rookie who may misread a blocking assignment on a blitz or a stunt.

Chris Thompson has grabbed the attention of NFL fans who didn’t know who he was before this season – especially those with their eyes on fantasy as well as ‘real’ football – but nothing has changed in the way Washington uses him; he has simply had more success this season.

Thompson is not, and likely never will be, the lead back in DC. He comes in when it’s second & long, or third down. CT is really part of the Washington passing game, and through four games has 20 rushes and 14 receptions. His runs are typically draws, counters and outside zone, usually with pulling lineman out in front of him to pave the way. CT is a small back with an extensive injury history, so Jay Gruden, who has stated several times that Thompson can’t hold up to a lot of hits, is very careful to limit his snaps. He has no effect whatsoever on Samaje Perine’s playing time.

Perine is competing for the lead back role in Washington, which means playing on first down, then staying on the field as long as the offense stays ‘on schedule.’ That job belongs to Rob Kelley at the moment.

So far this season, Rob Kelley has looked like the better back. Perine has lacked patience and explosion, and -- after fumbling once in the pre-season, and losing a fumble in the Raiders game -- he was unable to handle a pitch from Cousins on an outside run against the Chiefs, dropping the ball, and losing yards in a critical situation.

Washington just cut former third-round pick Matt Jones, who was a strong runner, but who couldn’t hang onto the ball. Perine isn’t going to get much playing time if he puts another ball on the ground. In fact, the muffed lateral against the Chiefs may have already been one mistake too many.

Washington has a fourth running back, Mack Brown, who is usually inactive on game days, but who is a talented second year undrafted player. In the opinion of some fans (I’m one of them), Mack Brown has looked like the best player of the three (Kelley, Perine, Brown). Perine’s fourth round draft status will keep him ahead of Mack Brown for a while, but Gruden showed with Matt Jones that draft status won’t protect a player forever. That’s why undrafted Rob Kelley is our lead back now.

Perine needs to learn how to run effectively when he’s not in the shotgun, he needs to develop patience and not run up the back of his offensive linemen, he needs to develop his pass protection, and show that he can be trusted not to put the ball on the ground. In short, he has a lot to prove before he is anything other than Washington’s backup running back.