How Will Washington Use Antonio Gibson?

Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever really looked at everything that can come with a Swiss army knife?

Large blade, small blade, nail file, wood saw, fish scaler, scissors, electrician's blade, spatula, bit driver, pliers, LED light, USB stick, magnifying glass, screwdriver, can opener—and that’s just the bigger tools to choose from.

So when you hear someone compare a player or prospect’s versatility to that of a Swiss army knife, now you understand everything that goes into it. That happened to be the comp vice president of player personnel for Washington’s pro football team, Kyle Smith, chose to use when describing his team’s third-round pick Antonio Gibson.

"He's a Swiss army knife," Smith said. "You can use this guy in a lot of different ways, so it opens up a lot of options for our offense."

That’s quite the compliment, but as much as I may want to say we should cool it on just how versatile a player can be when using that comp, Gibson’s resume from his time at Memphis has about everything you’d want.

In 2019, the 6-foot, 228-pound offensive weapon recorded 735 receiving yards off 38 catches for 19.3 yards per catch. He also gained 369 yards on the ground off just 33 carries for an average of more than 11 yards per carry. He also gained 645 yards on special teams as a kick and punt returner.

Such high yards-per-touch averages, no matter what he was doing, is what had his new head coach Ron Rivera praising his possibilities in the offense. 

"[Defenses] have to honor him wherever he's aligned," Rivera said. "It is going to open up things for his teammates, whether they be wide receivers, tight ends or other running backs. This is a guy that is really, as Kyle said, a little bit of a Swiss army knife.
“He's shown some position flexibility playing in the slot, then he shows position flexibility playing in the backfield," Rivera said. "[Memphis] ran some wildcat with him behind the center taking direct snaps. This is a very versatile, young football player that we really think is going to be a guy that can get on the field for us early and contribute."

This is Rivera’s first season in Washington after nine seasons in Carolina. With an MVP at quarterback and a Super Bowl run during that time, Rivera has seen that talent can come in all shapes and sizes, and can be utilized in all sorts of ways, too.

One of the best examples of that is also one of his most recent offensive weapons, running back Christian McCaffrey. 

McCaffrey recorded 1,387 rushing yards, which ranked second in the NFL, and also had 1,005 receiving yards. He had 116 catches and became the first running back in league history to have two 100-catch seasons. In doing so, McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history to amass at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, joining Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999).

You can use similar synonyms of the word versatility to describe both Gibson and McCaffrey, but McCaffrey as a bar is quite lofty, given the exclusivity of his success for as versatile as he is. But that’s exactly what Gibson is shooting for.

"[McCaffrey's] exactly like what I want to do,” Gibson said. “I want to be in the backfield, but also I want to play in the receiving game. I feel like he's tremendous doing that, and that's what I want to bring to the team: my ability to catch effectively and make plays happen and also be able to run and be able to protect the quarterback—just an all-around team player and an all-around back."

Gibson, for as versatile as he might be, likely won’t be doing as much work out of the backfield as McCaffrey does. Washington is hopeful that running backs Derrius Guice, Adrian Peterson, and Bryce Love can be a recipe for exactly what they’re looking for. Gibson can be used with that group, but the team’s depth chart is more lacking at receiver.

Terry McLaurin had a fantastic rookie season and should be the team’s top target-getter for 2020. But after him, there isn’t much solidified, even at WR2. The team has Kelvin Harmon and Trey Quinn, but neither youngster has seen more than 50 targets in a single season. They also signed Cody Latimer this offseason, but his career high in receiving yards in a season is just 300.

The offense is going to need a true WR2 player. That doesn’t mean it has to be a full-time player that always plays on the outside opposite McLaurin, but it does mean there is another player on the roster who can be a good return on investment for something north of 70 targets.

There is a chance Gibson can be that guy, even if that is out of the slot or as a flanker player as a primary role. 

With the way Washington’s roster is set up, though Gibson will see some work out of the backfield, expect most of it to come with McLaurin deeper down the field.