This article was first published in May 2020 to give readers a feel for what they could look forward to from the team’s third-round draft pick, Antonio Gibson. Now that he has posted 100 or more scrimmage yards in 3 of the past 5 games and roasted the Cowboys on Thanksgiving with three rushing touchdowns, it seemed like a good opportunity reprint the article to remind ourselves that we weren’t 100% sure what we had gotten when Gibson was selected by Washington in April’s draft.
This year, the Running Backs installment of [the Ranking the NFC East] series includes a film breakdown of the Redskins’ 3rd round pick, Antonio Gibson, from the Memphis Tigers, with analysis from our very own Andrew York. We thought it might be fun to get a look at the kind of analysis that Andrew has put together on players from across the NFC East by releasing this early look at new Redskins running back/offensive weapon, Antonio Gibson.
Andrew is a self-taught film analyst with a pretty impressive resume. He has a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics and has spent several years doing research with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and now does R&D work as a US government contractor. He is now using that analytical brain to help analyze some of the top players in the NFC East, with today’s target being part of the Redskins’ newest draft class. The ‘Skins front office calls him a running back; Antonio Gibson himself says he just calls himself a “weapon”.
Let’s see if we can see why in the film room - Andrew’s Analysis.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Redskins
Antonio Gibson is an amazing athlete who flew under a lot of people’s radar. According to his own account, he missed out on attending a top college football program due to poor grades in high school that made him ineligible for a scholarship. This forced him to go the JUCO route, spending two years at East Central Community College in Mississippi before finally moving on to Memphis for his final two years.
Trained as a WR and still very raw in his technique, Gibson didn’t see the field much his junior year before exploding on the scene his senior year. It was in his senior year that his coaches finally realized he may have been miscast as a pure WR and started giving him snaps at RB as well. Because of his newness to the program and inexperience at RB, Gibson was still relegated to a timeshare role, but was electric with the opportunities he did get.
At Memphis in his senior year, Gibson averaged an amazing 11.2 yards per carry, 19.3 yards per reception, and 28.0 yards per kick return! Those gaudy numbers make him a huge big play threat whether being used as a RB, WR, or returner. Gibson also blew away the Combine, measuring 6’0”, weighing 228 pounds, running the 40 yard dash in 4.39 seconds, and with a 35” vertical and 118” broad jump.
I should also mention before getting into the film breakdown that Memphis seemed to have some poor offensive line play, so keep that in mind when you read my observations and watch the clips. Gibson rarely had a clean backfield or wide open holes to run through and his QB was constantly under pressure, which resulted in some errant passes and improvisation from Gibson. Gibson’s catch rate would probably be higher if he’d been thrown more catchable balls and his YPC may have been higher (though that’s hard to imagine) if he’d had better blocking.
Gibson is really impressive in his college film; every single game I saw included highlight-reel plays. It’s very difficult making a player comparison because he isn’t quite like any player I’ve seen. The best description I can come up with is that he has Percy Harvin’s playstyle in Saquon Barkley’s body.
Catching the ball
Antonio Gibson is actually a pretty good WR, with great ball-tracking ability, reliable hands, ability to adjust to the ball, ability to plan his routes to find soft spots in zones, and good use of fakes and misdirection to get open.
He has really good hands as a receiver, catching away from his body and catching everything thrown near him. I don’t remember seeing any concentration drops or easy misses, the only balls he didn’t catch were uncatchable for the most part.
His main limitation as a WR is he has a very limited route tree, almost exclusively running fades, crossing routes, and out routes in college. However, the routes he runs he runs pretty well.
He’s a true mismatch for opposing DBs in the slot — tall enough to highpoint the ball over top of short slot defenders, and fast enough to simply run past bigger, slower DBs. He is surprisingly not very physical as a WR and I’d like to see him use his hands and size to push DBs around more.
He is a pretty good and willing blocker as a WR, though he needs to work on sustaining his blocks, and I’d like to see him block more DBs to the ground, which he’s certainly strong enough to do — he just doesn’t seem to have that aggressive, physical mindset where he wants to dominate people on the field.
Memphis vs SMU, All Gibson Plays | CFB 2019 on YouTube
[4:37] Here Gibson lines up in the slot on the strong side (right side) of the QB. He does a good job faking outside and forcing the CB to flip his hips away, then breaking inside between the LB and the CB before running past the LB.
However, what he does is actually a little more subtle than that. He seems to intentionally choose the timing of his fake to coincide with when he’s passing out of the LB’s field of vision, so the LB also thinks he’s breaking outside (this is most visible on the replay from behind). This causes the LB to cheat in that direction and leaves Gibson completely open once he breaks in the opposite direction.
Gibson also does a great job choosing the depth of his route so that he’s about equally distant from the two deep safeties as he is from the LB inside. The ball is thrown a bit behind Gibson, and he does a great job adjusting to the ball in the air and reaching back to snag it out of the air.
This play shows Gibson’s natural feel for finding the soft spot in zones as well as his great body control and hands catching ability — the skill of being able to adjust to the ball and bring it down.
[5:10] Gibson starts out in the slot towards the bottom of the screen. He does an excellent job selling that he’s running an out route, even looking back for the ball once he reaches the sideline (more visible in the replay after the play). This baits the CB into breaking down on the play and lets Gibson sneak by him before turning on the jets and getting separation. Gibson then does a great job running down the sideline and tracking the ball over his shoulder to catch the long TD.
This play showcases Gibson’s ability to be a big play threat in the receiving game, using his speed as well as some savvy in his route to get open, then showing great ball-tracking and hands-catching ability at the end to reel in a long pass.
I should mention that Gibson was a really good kick returner in college, averaging 28 yards per return. His good hands and ball tracking ability make him a safe bet to secure the ball, and his speed, vision, and skill following blockers and choosing running lanes make him a dangerous returner. I’m not sure teams will want to risk him in such a role in the NFL, but it’s good to know he’s capable.
[8:30] Not only is Gibson a capable WR and RB, he’s a really good kick returner. He does a great job early in this return of following his blockers, finding a crease and hitting it, and going off to the races for a long return TD. This play showcases not just his speed, but also his vision and ability to utilize his blocks.
Running the ball
As a RB, Gibson has all the traits of an elite RB, but is still very new to the position and rather raw. However, RB is perhaps the most instinctive position in football, you either have the traits or you don’t, and he definitely has the traits.
He has good vision finding the hole and running between the tackles, even though I think he needs a bit of work choosing his angles between the tackles.
He has amazing contact balance and leg strength, staying upright despite contact and running through tackles, sometimes dragging multiple defenders with him only to break free due to relentless effort and leg power.
He has a natural feel for space and does a good job following blockers and choosing safe lanes in space.
He is also very elusive, with a quick side-step he uses to dodge tackles and a knack for anticipating tackles and suddenly stopping to let the tackler fly past him.
Gibson’s contact balance, power, and elusiveness allowed him to post an absurd 48% broken tackle rate on rushes and 45% broken tackle rate on receptions. To put that into perspective, a 25% broken tackle rate is considered elite. After he breaks tackles, Gibson has the acceleration and top end speed to turn on the jets and leave defenders in the dust.
Gibson also takes care of the ball, not recording a single fumble in college.
The one major weakness Gibson has as a RB is inexperience in pass protection. That being said, he acquitted himself well on the small handful of pass protection plays I did see, so I think this is a skill he will develop quickly.
He also runs a bit too upright and will need to get lower in the NFL.
[11:48] This is the first rushing play of Gibson in this series. He takes the handoff and does a good job following what should be his lead blocker, but the blocker does a poor job and a defender immediately has him wrapped up. Gibson doesn’t go down though, instead churning his legs and dragging the tackler with him and staying upright despite being tackled by a second player, who manages to jar the first tackler free.
Gibson shows amazing contact balance by staying upright through the second tackle, running free of it, and head faking then sidestepping a third tackler. After that, Gibson turns on the jets and outruns the defense down the sideline to get the long TD.
Memphis vs Cincinnati, All Gibson Plays | CFB 2019 on YouTube
[5:37] Gibson is rushing again on this play. Despite some poor blocking that allows a DL to come rushing into the backfield, Gibson quickly finds the hole and runs through it. A poor second level block gives a LB the opportunity to tackle him, but Gibson runs through the tackle while barely breaking stride, runs through a second tackle several yards later, and despite being surrounded by a sea of defenders manages to power forward for about 5 more yards gain before going down.
This play shows Gibson’s good vision and decisiveness hitting the hole as well as his power and contact balance in being able to run through tackles while staying upright and fighting for extra yards.
Swiss Army Knife
[3:03] I think this play is a taste of what’s to come in the NFL for Gibson. Gibson lines up in the backfield as a RB. However, when the ball is snapped, he races downfield without a defender to cover him and stays inside the DB that rushes down.
Gibson is essentially uncovered downfield for several crucial seconds, but unfortunately the QB is being pressured during this time and can’t throw. By the time the QB is able to throw, the two deep safeties have crashed down to cover the play.
Although this play didn’t work out due to pressure, it shows how Gibson’s versatility can lead to matchup nightmares and confusion for opposing defenses.
In summary, Antonio Gibson is a major big play threat whether used as a WR, RB, or returner. His athletic ability is off the charts and he has very good instincts, though he is a bit inexperienced and raw.
I don’t say this lightly, but I think his ceiling is Saquon Barkley, with more upside as a WR. He’s not quite the athlete Saquon is (slightly less explosive and doesn’t have Saquon’s upper-body strength), but he’s the closest I’ve seen in recent years. His height/weight/speed are more comparable to Saquon than any other RB in the NFL and he flashes a lot of the same elite traits on the field. He’s not there yet though and still needs more development, which is kind of scary when you consider what he did to opponents last year at Memphis.