ASHBURN, Va. -- The improvement was obvious, even if it was just a spring practice with shoulder pads tucked in a storage room. Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson ran around the end on a tight zone play, pressing the line of scrimmage, and then made a tight cut outside for a gain of five yards.
It wasn't a spectacular play, but it was a notable one for this reason: Running backs coach Randy Jordan said that a year ago, Gibson would have immediately cut upfield for, perhaps, a gain of two. Gibson now knows better where he must be -- and when. And he knows how to set defenders up.
"It's like night and day," Jordan said.
It's why Washington is excited about Gibson as the offseason closes -- and it's why he'll be intriguing, and then some, for fantasy football players this season. As a rookie, transitioning from playing mostly receiver in college, Gibson rushed for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In his first eight games, he averaged 4.34 yards per carry with seven runs of 10 yards or more. In his last six games -- he missed two because of a turf toe injury -- Gibson averaged 5.05 yards per carry with 14 runs of 10 yards or more.
"Last year was still a learning process for me," Gibson said. "I got the hang of it as the season went on and I started showing progress. But ... I feel like I should be able to show a lot of different things this year."
Washington's coaches hope the offense benefits from the addition of players such as receivers Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and third-round pick Dyami Brown. They hope the offensive line was solidified by drafting tackle Sam Cosmi in the second round and signing veteran left tackle Charles Leno Jr., among other moves.
But Gibson's continued ascension will be equally vital to Washington’s offense.
"You can tell he's matured, got a better feel and understanding," Washington coach Ron Rivera said of Gibson during minicamp this month. "Those natural instincts that you look for, the intangibles that guys that have been playing the positions their whole career naturally have. You start to see those come to light with Antonio. It's exciting."
Gibson improved as a rookie, especially in how he ran through the hole. Early in the season, he ran more upright and averaged just 1.44 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the last five games he averaged 1.79 -- a sign that he had matured but still had room to improve in this area. He also created more room; in the first five games he averaged 2.44 yards before contact compared to 3.4 the rest of the season.
Washington also hopes for more improvement in the pass game. Gibson caught 36 passes last season. Whether or not he catches more passes this season, the hope is to use him in more passing situations -- or run a greater variety of routes.
"The biggest thing for him is continuing to progress, not only as a runner but as a pass-catcher," Jordan said. "That's something we haven't really tapped in[to] a lot."
It's not just about his hands -- Gibson showed he can catch well. In spring workouts, he caught passes in traffic down the seam, on slant routes and on wheel routes out of the backfield. Jordan said it's also a lot about the subtleties: where he aligns, what his splits are and how to execute the route at an NFL level.
"The more opportunities he has to do it, [the better] he'll get ... at it," Jordan said.
Gibson also said he's confident regarding the turf toe injury that sidelined him for two games. He participated in all the workouts open to the media this offseason and did not show obvious ill-effects from the injury.
Gibson did not need surgery on the toe, but said, "Definitely something to monitor. I've been cutting and running full speed, making cuts I need to make. ... But I definitely got to watch and make sure I stay up on my treatment so nothing goes south."
To help, Gibson said he trained at EXOS in Dallas this offseason. EXOS' Performance director Brent Callaway said they take a holistic approach, focusing not just on training but also on physical therapy and nutrition. They worked with Gibson's toe but then focused on other aspects, preparing him for the season and continuing to work on his nutrition. Callaway said Gibson already was good in those areas.
Gibson also earned his college degree from Memphis, becoming the first male member on both his mother and father's sides of the family to do so. He also welcomed a baby daughter.
"He was already a mature kid when we had him out of Memphis," Callaway said. "He's a man now. He's a guy with a career who understands what he needs to do to move forward. That's where he's changed. Physically he hasn't changed. It will be really neat to see where he goes in the next three to four years. Watching him during the course of the year and watching him accelerate away from safeties and do stuff a 230-pound player shouldn't be able to do ... that's always eye-catching.
"He still has loads of speed and still has loads of change-of-direction ability. Now it's about getting that in the right condition so there aren't lingering problems with his foot."
That's why, with all the changes that took place on Washington's offense, Gibson's maturity at running back might provide the biggest boost.