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Antonio Gibson might as well be running with a blindfold over his eyes.
Considering that he's on track for 1,134 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns, it's an impressive testament to Gibson's raw materials as an NFL player. And there's no doubt that Gibson is raw.
It would be more accurate than one may realize to say that the first-year running back out of Memphis is a first-year running back. Although he technically played running back at Memphis and other stops prior, most teams used Gibson as an athlete—a gadget player whose role was dependent on how easily an offense could leverage his 4.3-speed, his size and strength, his open-field running, and his excellent hand-eye coordination.
I graded Gibson separately as a running back and a receiver for the 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I shared a little bit of my pre-draft thoughts on Gibson as a potential receiver to non-subscribers, here.
Based on his college tape, Gibson fit best with a gap-heavy run scheme that limited his diagnostic choices before hitting a hole so the offense could maximize his elite athletic traits. Washington runs a lot of gap plays, so the initial fit made sense in April, especially with Adrian Peterson and Peyton Barber in the fold as veterans that Gibson could observe in practice and pick their brains in meetings.
By summer's end, Washington jettisoned Peterson and opted for Gibson as the starter. After watching a few weeks of the regular season, I saw a back who identified tight creases and could often stay alive long enough to access them as alternatives to what the defense initially stopped.
I also saw a lot of yards left on the field. Nearly two months later, I revisited Gibson's tape and it's consistent with what I initially saw: The rookie is getting by on limited knowledge as the foundation for expressing superior athletic skill.
When you watch the video below, you'll not only see why he's on pace for 1,134 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns but how 1-2 offseasons of work to address footwork patterns and instill a downhill attitude could transform him into a back with a ceiling of 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
As I say in the video, it's far from a guarantee that Gibson will address every outstanding issue but based on what I show below, it's understandable that the opportunities for massive improvement are readily available to him.
David Johnson arrived in the NFL as a raw running back and developed into a competent all-around starter who could run the prevalent schemes designed to work inside. He had a mentor in Chris Johnson to help him. This is something that was substantiated by Dr. Jen Welter an assistant coach with the Cardinals during Johnson's rookie season. Walter, a former running back who actually played in a pro league with men, validated during a conversation with her at the Reese's Senior Bowl that David learned a lot from Chris about zone running schemes as well as refined his understanding of gap running.
We can be certain that Gibson will earn the quality of tutelage in Washington that David got from Chris in Arizona, but there are a ton of resources available to NFL players when it comes to footwork development. And this is the main issue with Gibson.
Gibson needs to develop coordination between what his eyes see, his brain processes, and his feet execute with the same ease and facility that he has with his hands when catching the football. His feet are inefficient in several ways: He takes too many steps, covers too much space with his steps at the wrong times, and he isn't consistently executing the type of steps necessary to access the opportunities he recognizes.
And based on what I've seen Gibson recognizes more opportunities than he can exploit. This is why I believe there's a high ceiling for his game within the next 2-3 seasons if he gets the right type of training and works consistently at the lessons he must learn.
He's an athlete in a feature back's body who has many skills of a developmental NFL flanker. If new team president Jason Wright performs as well as those I trust believe he can, Washington just might get out of its own way and that can lead to much better results than we've seen during Daniel Snyder's reign of terror.
It will mean Gibson has a shot at surrounding talent that can help him elevate his game to elite fantasy production over the next 3-5 seasons if he works on his flaws. And his flaws aren't as big as Kenyan Drake, a raw athlete from Alabama who earned 883 yards from scrimmage and 4 touchdowns during his second year with the Dolphins and it wasn't until his third year in Miami that Drake showed greater nuance as a runner.
Gibson is on track for a better rookie year than any season Drake has had during his five-year career.
2020 And Beyond
Here's a look at Gibson's schedule, the results thus far, and what to expect during the stretch run (the higher the ranking the stingier the defense):
Antonio Gibson's Production Per Game Relative to His Teammates
|Opponent||Rk vs RBs||Avg/G vs RBs*||Gibson's Pts||Pct. of Depth Chart|
*RBs points per game are the running back depth charts of offenses that faced these opponents.
While clear that Gibson is the lead back, Washington opts for heavier doses of J.D. McKissics in games the team has lost. Every game where Gibson has earned less than 50 percent of the depth chart's fantasy points are losses.
His touch counts remain steady. He's only had three games (L.A., Dallas, and Detroit) where his workload has exceeded 15 touches and he only dropped below 10 touches against the Giants in Week 9.
Against the stingiest teams, Gibson has earned between 10 and 15 fantasy points. His versatility and athletic potential for big plays due to his speed and yards after contact prowess make him a relatively consistent option despite lacking a great workload.
Cincinnati, Dallas, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, have enough issues on both sides of the ball for Gibson to remain a strong bet for 10-15 points and a projected average would be closer to 16-20 when factoring his success in the red zone.
While Seattle and Carolina have generous defenses, their offenses are good enough to take Washington out of its offensive gameplan which makes projecting Gibson's value more volatile for these weeks.
Pittsburgh is clearly a difficult matchup.
Considering that Gibson averages 14.6 points per game in PPR leagues—18th among running backs and, 14th if you only count backs with at least 6 games played—he remains a good bet for fantasy RB2 value and RB1 upside for the good matchups, RB3 value with RB2 upside during the two volatile weeks, and still a potential flex-play against the Steelers.
Not bad for a blindfolded running back.
Long-term, Gibson should learn enough footwork patterns to set up creases, cutbacks, and bounce-outs with greater efficiency than has as a rookie. He's often 2-3 steps behind where he could be with his movements and he's salvaging positive gains during some of these plays due to his burst, power, and speed. Once he learns how to make up those 2-3 steps with a clearer understanding of the position, he should increase his rate of big-play runs, which gives him the potential to double his average yardage outputs on a per-game basis.
It's not that Gibson will double his per-carry average as much as he'll earn more touches based on the team's increased confidence to use him in situations where he's not on the field as well as generating 1-3 big plays per game that inflate his per-carry average. Alvin Kamara is on track for 2,016 yards from scrimmage and 19.5 touchdowns. While I expect a regression for Kamara in scoring with Jameis Winston under center, this type of production is within Gibson's ceiling of potential if removes the blindfold.