Switching positions isn’t an uncommon thing when going from high school to college. Some recruits might have played wide receiver for their high school, but they play defensive back in college. Another very common one is a great athlete who benefits his high school most as a quarterback, with the ball in his hands on every play, moving to either running back or wide receiver when they get to college. But position switching when making the jump from college to the pros is much less common—mainly because it’s much less effective.
It’s hard enough to go from being a collegiate athlete to an NFL one, even if you have been playing the same position for your entire life. The speed of the game and the competition level is such a leap that many of these guys are almost in over their heads their first year or two in the league as they just try to get their footing on their own baseline abilities. All of this to say when we see a player get drafted and the team immediately announces they’ll be playing a different position than the main one they played in college, it raises an eyebrow.
That was the case with Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson. Gibson was a hybrid player at Memphis who split time between running back and wide receiver. In his final season of work, Gibson caught 38 passes and carried the ball 33 times. He was a slot wide receiver as much as he was a running back, but a lot of draft analysts suggested he just be a wide receiver. So when Washington announced Gibson would be playing running back full time, we figured there was going to be quite the learning curve before we saw some production.
That wasn’t the case at all.
Gibson finished his rookie season with 10 games as a starter, 170 carries, 795 rushing yards, and 11 rushing touchdowns. All that while allowing his receiving skills to shine as well with 36 receptions off 44 targets for 247 receiving yards. Gibson’s 4.7 yards-per-carry average as a rookie was brilliant, as were his 11 scores on the ground—tied with Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor for the most of any rookie.
According to Pro Football Focus, of Gibson’s 405 total snaps in 2020, 369 came as a halfback with just 15 as a slot receiver and 21 as an outside receiver; numbers that really support Gibson’s transformation and solidification as a running back for a home position.
This offseason, Gibson told the media his goal is to be a 1000-yard rusher. Gibson’s 405 snap count ranked 35th of all running backs in the NFL and was just 37% of his team’s total offensive snaps—numbers that have plenty of room to grow. Gibson also only played in 14 games last season, missing two mid-season contests due to a toe injury. If you take his 56.8 yards-per-game average and add two of them to get a full season, he would have been less than 100 rushing yards shy of that 1,000-yard milestone as just a rookie.
One of the most encouraging parts of Gibson’s first season was how much better he got as the year went on. As he became more comfortable in the offense, he saw his yards-per-carry average go from 3.9 in the first five games to 5.1 in the final nine. Gibson also averaged 6.9 yards per catch last season, which is extremely impressive, given his average depth of target was -0.75, meaning he was catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage yet averaging almost seven yards after each catch. As for usage in the passing game, according to Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports, there have been eight instances where quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has given a running back at least 50 targets. He doesn’t check the ball down as much as Alex Smith did, but an uptick in targets could still be in the cards.
Whether you’re a fan of the Washington Football Team, play in fantasy football leagues, a draft analyst with prior praise for Gibson in the pre-draft process, or just a fan of good players getting better, year two is shaping up to be a true arrival season for Gibson as the lead back in Washington.