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.
Why Hightower is the best choice: In a cast of rookies and unproven backs, the fourth-year Hightower has the look of a grizzled veteran. He carried 140 or more times in each of his three seasons with Arizona and his 118 career receptions certainly help his case. Hightower has also been a steady performer in all three of Washington's preseason games, with 170 yards rushing on just 25 carries (6.8 ypc). Plus, the coaching staff appreciates the way he pounds the football. "He's a violent runner," Kyle Shanahan told reporters. "He runs as hard as he can, gets to the line of scrimmage, and presses his cuts. ... He's exactly what we look for in this offense."
Why it's Helu: Owner Daniel Snyder has never been a patient man, so the idea of bringing along a back slowly probably doesn't apply here. Of all the backs on the roster, Helu has the most promise, and is the most likely to develop into a franchise back. In fact, he's already flashed some of that promise in August (101 yards against Indianapolis), prompting some to predict he will soon leave all the other Redskins rushers in his dust. Helu's back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for Bo Pelini's Cornhuskers showcased his big-gain ability (he averaged eight or more yards a carry in three Big 12 contests last year). Now Redskins fans are praying he can offer the same excitement in the Nation's Capital.
Why it's Ryan Torain: Um, hello! Didn't Torain end the 2010 season as the No. 1 back on the depth chart? Didn't he open camp running reps with the first unit? So what if the team has added an Arizona castoff and a pair of rookies--it's still Torain's job to lose. After all, he did gain 100 or more yards in three of the final seven games of last season, including a 172-yard romping of Tampa Bay. Are we to believe that a broken hand has pushed him out of the running for the job? Most reports suggest Torain will rejoin the team before the end of camp --possibly in time for the final preseason game.
Don't forget about: Evan Royster
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?
Who fantasy owners should pull for: Helu
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 FootballDiehards.com.