Washington’s stable of running backs has a little of everything. There are the pure runners, like Adrian Peterson and Peyton Barber. There are pass-catching backs like J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson. Derrius Guice is a hybrid, the versatile ball carrier who can explode through the line or zag around defenders after catching a screen pass.
Then, there’s Bryce Love — the great unknown.
After missing his entire season while recovering from an ACL injury he sustained in college, Love is now healthy. The 23-year-old passed his physical last week, giving Washington another intriguing option in a crowded competition. At Stanford, Love was one of the nation’s best runners — finishing as a Heisman runner up in 2017, a year in which he ran for 2,118 yards on 263 carries.
Love’s potential as a pro, however, remains a question.
Finding the answer will likely depend on just how much he has recovered from the 2018 knee injury that sent him sliding down draft boards before Washington nabbed him in the fourth round.
“We’ll get a chance to see him move around and see where he is,” coach Ron Rivera said last week. “He’s a guy that’s got a good skillset. He’s a threat in terms of running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s a guy that we want to watch and see how he fits. … We’re very excited about watching a young player with his ability.”
By now, Christian McCaffrey has become an overused point of comparison when discussing running backs on Washington’s roster. McKissic and third-rounder Antonio Gibson have each been touted as McCaffrey-like by coaches, even though their production, pro or otherwise, hasn’t come close to matching the Carolina Panthers’ All-Pro.
But in some ways, Love might be the closest parallel — especially since the two overlapped at Stanford, with Love serving as McCaffrey’s backup for two years. After McCaffrey turned pro and was drafted eighth overall in 2017, Love stepped in as Stanford’s starting back and had more rushing yards than McCaffrey did in any of his three seasons.
The biggest difference? Love wasn’t used in the passing game to the extent that McCaffrey was. Love, for instance, caught only six passes for 33 yards during his breakout year in 2017 and 20 passes for 99 yards in 2019. In college, McCaffrey racked up 1,206 receiving yards in three seasons, whereas Love had just 465 in four years.
Still, running backs coach Randy Jordan said he thinks Love can be a threat in Washington’s passing attack.
“He has some of the same tools as his Stanford teammate, McCaffrey,” Jordan said. “A guy that can line up outside, catch the ball, have some flexibility. He is a tweener where he can run between the tackles and he can attack the edges with his speed.”
Jordan, who is only one of three coaches from Jay Gruden’s staff to return under Rivera, knows Love well. He recruited him in college, when Jordan was an assistant at the University of North Carolina.
As Love looks to regain his form, Jordan said the key for the 23-year-old will be to rebuild his confidence. Love will have to trust his leg when making cuts and be fine with getting tackled, he said.
Before Washington’s season-opener next month against the Philadelphia Eagles, Rivera and his coaches will have to determine the running back rotation and will likely trim the position. Washington has seven backs on its roster, but in Carolina, Rivera typically carried only four running backs when narrowing down to 53 players.
This year, there’s an additional challenge for coaches because the NFL canceled the preseason due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“That is the thing with not having any preseason games, it hurts him as a player because he has not played,” Jordan said of Love. “All the practices that we have lined up, we will get a clean evaluation of him. We are excited to have him back.”
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