Mike Shanahan has yet to decide on who the Washington Redskins’ starting running back will be heading into the 2012 season, but that is not a bad problem to have.
Tim Hightower, Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster are three outstanding, young backs each with their own talent to boast.
Hightower is clearly the most experienced back at the Redskins’ disposal, but his injury history must be a concern. His performance in 2011 was nothing to gloat about either, cooling down dramatically after a hot start to the season.
Helu had some good moments for the Redskins as well late in the season, including three consecutive 100-yard games against the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and New England Patriots. He finished as the team’s leading rusher with 640 yards on 151 carries with just two touchdowns.
Helu will certainly have a case to start after an impressive rookie campaign, but his biggest competition may be fellow second-year back and former Penn State star Evan Royster.
Royster may have been the most impressive rusher for Washington, dissecting opposing defenses on the ground while smashing through defenders at will. He averaged a team-best 5.9 yards per carry, racking up 328 rushing yards in limited playing time.
The Nittany Lions’ all-time leading rusher promptly capped Washington’s season off with two consecutive 100-yard rushing performances against the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles.
But which of these three would be best as the starting running back?
With the way things are in the NFL today, the running back position has become quite invaluable. Teams believe that any serviceable back can do the minor brunt work expected from ball-carriers these days.
The Redskins were one of few teams last season that did not follow this philosophy, however, relying on all three of their backs at different times to get the job done. Shanahan’s offenses have always been rather run-centric and with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III behind center this season, that is even more likely.
Ultimately, a “starting” running back is insignificant. The NFL does running backs-by-committee, a trend that Shanahan can probably get a lot of credit for due to the way he handled his ball-carriers in Denver. A trio of backs may be tough to balance and interchange, but a dynamic duo of Helu and Royster could prove to be deadly for opposing defenses.
Blogging the Beast’s Jimmy Kempski may have put it best when he said such a duo could be like “a poor man’s version of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.” A commenter on this highlight video compared them Clinton Portis (Helu) and Terrell Davis (Royster).
Hightower should still see some carries. He has always been a viable red zone option, especially during his time with the Arizona Cardinals where had 23 touchdowns in three seasons.
But Helu and Royster create your classic 1-2 punch of thunder and lightning. Royster’s physical, punishing running style is the perfect change of pace from Helu’s shifty, speedy style of play. Carrying the ball for Shanahan, both backs could have the good fortune of each toppling the 1,000 yard rushing mark on the season.
Royster, Helu and Hightower may be vying for who can be the starter right now in training camp, but come time for the regular season, their success will hinge on how well they can complement one another while wearing down opposing defenses.
Add RG’3 scrambling prowess into the mix and the Redskins could have their opponents in hot pursuit all game long.