Camp Battles: Hightower, Helu and Torain fight to be 'Skins No. 1 back
A Shanahan-coached team is not supposed to finish No. 30 in rushing or fail to reach double digits in rushing touchdowns. Just not the way it's supposed to be. But last year, with his son Kyle managing the offense, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan watched the backfield he'd inherited produce just 91.3 yards per game -- a far cry from the ground games he'd assembled years ago in Denver that regularly ranked near the top of the league.
In April, Shanahan followed his usual floor plan for backfield success by collecting prospects from the draft's middle rounds (Nebraska's Roy Helu in the fourth and Penn State's Evan Royster in the sixth). In July, the team acquired Tim Hightower in a trade, and by the start of camp, no fewer than five names were thought to have a chance at the starting job. The release of James Davis has trimmed that list to four.
Royster's disappointing senior season at Penn State allowed him to drop into the sixth round where Washington scooped him up. During his sophomore and junior seasons, Royster was one of the most productive backs in the Big Ten (11 100-yard games during that stretch) and he possesses similar size to the other backs in this competition. In the Redskins first preseason game against Pittsburgh, Royster mopped up in the second half with 66 yards on 15 carries. Many predict he'll be the odd man out in this race, but with Shanahan manning the controls, who really knows?
Don't get too excited by Hightower's preseason success. He probably will walk out of camp with the starting job, but fantasy owners have been disappointed time and time again by a player who has never been able to consistently perform at a high level.
Some of the early knocks on Helu are standard stuff for a rookie back (needs work in pass protection, must produce near the goal line, blah blah blah). That all comes with time. A quality that cannot be learned is explosiveness -- raw speed -- and Helu's 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash at the Combine suggests he can flat out burn (in his performance against the Colts, he took a second quarter carry 51 yards to help set up one of Washington's scoring drives).
Plus, it's not as if the other Redskins backs do not have question marks--Torain is too often injured, Hightower has been up and down, and scouts question whether Royster possesses NFL quickness. Helu's upside is the key here, and soon he should emerge from a backfield that has shown great promise this preseason.
Mike Beacom is a contributing writer for