Head coach Ron Rivera said after Adrian Peterson's release Sept. 4 that the decision was more about what the other running backs could do as opposed to what Peterson could not.
When it comes to J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson, what they can do is a little bit of everything. Both have shown they are capable of being the runner and pass-catcher offensive coordinator Scott Turner wants from the position.
"When we're both in the game, [defenses have] got to understand that these running backs...they can run routes as well," McKissic told reporters Aug. 29. "[We] can do the same thing that some of the receivers can do in the league. They would have to play base or nickel or have to put a nickel on us and we can run it right at them."
McKissic and Gibson have carved out roles for themselves in an offense that revolves around versatility. As the unit moves in a new direction to start the 2020 season, the duo will be integral to implementing that philosophy.
"J.D. and Gibson...are going to come out the backfield and make plays," Steven Sims Jr. said Aug. 18. "They'll line up in the slot, get some screens, run a couple routes and things like that. It's definitely going to give defenses a lot of different looks."
McKissic sees the similarities between Gibson's skillset and his own. He amassed 3,207 yards from scrimmage in four seasons at Arkansas State compared to Gibson's 2,323 yards at East Central Community College and Memphis.
The difference between them is that Gibson was more heavily used as a runner in college. McKissic rushed for 379 yards and two touchdowns with the Red Wolves, while Gibson finished his college career with 618 rushing yards and six scores. That extra experience has paid off for the former Tiger, McKissic said.
"With me, I was a receiver my whole life," he said. "Antonio played some [running back] at Memphis, so he kind of got a better idea about protections than I did coming out. I think he's doing a great job with it, too."
McKissic has become a model for Gibson to follow as he gets more acclimated to playing in the NFL. Gibson said he has learned a lot just from watching McKissic in practice, even if the fifth-year veteran doesn't know it.
"I'm always watching him because he's that type of player that I want to be," Gibson said. "I feel like he's a little bit quicker than me, and I'm a little bit bigger, taller. That's the type of player I feel like I am. I see a lot that I do when he's doing it. I'm always watching what he does and learning from him.
"He's always helping out. Sometimes I feel like he's a coach at some point, helping me out. I always look to him for advice and when he gives it, I listen."
Both are expected to add new dimensions to an offense that is heavily based on position flexibility. In May, Turner named McKissic alongside Sims as players he wanted to emphasize getting the ball in their hands, while Rivera called Gibson a "Swiss Army knife" after Washington drafted him in the third round.
Depending on the situation, Rivera said both of their experience as receivers could be useful.
"If we had a situation where we knew J.D. could play the slot, if something else came up we'd know that Antonio could go out and play as the X as well because we cross trained both of those guys at some point in camp. They did just what we needed if we got into an emergency. It's one of those things where we feel comfortable."
Regardless of where they're playing, both have the ability to make big plays. Running backs coach Randy Jordan called McKissic a "fire starter" -- someone who can make an impact at any spot on the field -- and he believes McKissic can create mismatches in the passing game.
"He can take it from anywhere on the field and go score six for you," Jordan said. "He has a lot of room before he hits that ceiling and...I cannot emphasize this enough, he fits what we want to do."
McKissic has only played in 35 NFL games (four starts), but he is coming off his best season in which he had 438 yards from scrimmage and averaged 6.1 yards per touch. He is confident he can be an every-down running back.
"I don't want to come out and make 10 plays and come out and don't do anything the next day," McKissic said. "I want to show durability, that I'm a guy that can play 16, 17 games all the way into the playoffs and being healthy the whole time."
Rivera has yet to reveal how Washington intends to use Gibson. He has seen Gibson's burst and athleticism at various points in practice and believes the rookie is an "exciting, young, dynamic player." Although Rivera said Gibson's role is part of the secret they intend to keep until Sept. 13, there is a plan in place for how to utilize his skills.
"Antonio's a very versatile young man, a solid football player," Rivera said. "We'll continue to do things that we're going to try to put him in the best position to help us, try to put him in a position to have success as a football player. There's a lot that we can do with a young man like him."
Gibson doesn't care what his role is as long as he can play, but he does feel like his experience as a receiver is going to help him. He caught 38 passes for 735 yards and averaged 19.3 yards per catch, which was second on the team. Because of that, he can trust himself against whoever lines up against him.
"[Defensive back], linebacker, whoever you put out there, I've got that mindset that if you line up in front of me, you're going to have to give me your all because I feel like nobody can guard me if you line up across from me. That's just my mindset from playing receiver all these years. Linebacker, DB, safety, whoever; you know I'm coming at you."
There's also the chance Gibson and McKissic could line up in the same backfield in two-back sets. McKissic got experience playing in those formations with the Seahawks and Lions, so he knows how potent players like Gibson and himself can be in those situations.
"We've got RPOs and we can do all types of things out of that," McKissic said. "We can do it with the receivers, also. Versatility, man. Doing what the receivers are able to do also helps the offense just keep running fast and keep the defense on its heels."
Rivera doesn't want people to place any significance on McKissic and Gibson being at the top of the unofficial depth chart, but their placement there is a testament to how Washington wants its offense to operate this year. McKissic believes the prospect of having him and Gibson on the field is going to put stress on defenses. It's safe to say Gibson agrees.
"I feel like we could be a problem."