How the loss of J.D. McKissic could impact Antonio Gibson next season

How the loss of McKissic could impact Antonio Gibson in 2022 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Mostly because he’s proven to be a really effective player and partly because the Commanders hadn’t really done anything notable in free agency up to that point, there was a strong reaction Tuesday when it was reported that J.D. McKissic had agreed to a contract with the Bills

The confusion about Washington allowing McKissic to leave then upgraded to fury when the terms of his new deal — it could top out at a maximum of $8 million, which really isn’t all that high and a number the Commanders certainly could’ve matched — were leaked. 

How could Ron Rivera and the front office let this departure happen? those who were angered collectively asked. They do realize that this whole free agency thing has started, right? In all, many emojis were used and plenty of fans were and remain upset.

Well, one possible explanation for McKissic’s exit could be that Washington was worried about the veteran’s health, seeing as a neck injury forced him to miss the last six contests of 2021. As useful as McKissic is, he’d be much less so if there are any lingering effects from the hit he suffered against Seattle or if he were to be sidelined again.

Another factor, however, very well might have to do with the man who McKissic has spelled over the past two campaigns, and that’s Antonio Gibson.

Gibson’s background as a college receiver has translated somewhat to the NFL but not nearly as much as post-draft and pre-rookie year projections forecasted. So far, Gibson’s posted 36 and 42 grabs as a pro, totals that McKissic smashed and barely beat, respectively, by catching 80 and 43 balls of his own (had he not gotten hurt, of course, he would’ve smashed Gibson’s output again in 2021).

There are other running backs still available that the Commanders could scoop up in order to soften the loss of McKissic, and next month’s draft will introduce another wave of prospects at the position to pick from. That said, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner simply ask more from Gibson in terms of being a receiving threat.

Gibson isn’t as polished as McKissic is in the area — the former had six drops a season ago, while the latter didn’t have any — but he has shown an ability to be explosive when he’s targeted. Just ask McKissic’s new squad about that, actually, because they’re undoubtedly aware of his talents. Gibson himself has even acknowledged he sometimes longs for wideout days he experienced at Memphis.

While upping Gibson’s overall workload as a running back may be risky — he finished fifth in the sport in carries in 2021 — adding more chances to catch and eliminating a few carries here and there represents an intriguing path toward replacing McKissic. In following that line of thinking, Rivera could opt to secure a traditional-style running back to do more work on the ground while Gibson’s featured more through the air.

Don’t forget about Curtis Samuel, either, which was easy to do during his disappointing debut with Washington. In his final go-round with the Panthers, Samuel compiled 41 rushing attempts, meaning he, too, could apply his multi-faceted skill set now that McKissic’s is no longer at the franchise’s disposal.

Just because the Commanders have Gibson and, to a much lesser extent, Samuel, doesn’t mean that they can proceed onward without missing McKissic. He’s probably one of the NFL’s more underrated players after all he did in Washington and, once you consider the contract Buffalo awarded him, it’s quite fair to question why Rivera didn’t retain him.

There’s a solid chance this decision is second-guessed over and over in the future, to put it bluntly.

If this change, though, encourages Gibson and the staff to unlock his potential as an all-around contributor, then McKissic’s absence will be much more manageable. Samuel and a free-agent signing or incoming rookie can fill in here and there, sure, but Gibson has the upside that suggests he could do much, much more than merely fill in. 

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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