The Redskins’ backfield holds both promise and uncertainty. Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster all return, but Hightower is coming off of a torn ACL, Helu appears to have some limitations, and Royster still is trying to establish himself after a promising end to last season.
The only sure thing appears to be fullback Darrel Young, who returns for his second straight year as a starter and is seen by coaches as a valuable contributor both on offense and special teams.
Here are five questions facing the Redskins’ backfield:
1.) Can Hightower fully recover?
Acquired via trade last August, Hightower quickly established himself as Washington’s leading back with big gains and effective pass protection during the preseason. After putting up modest numbers during the first four weeks of the regular season, Hightower appeared to have found his groove with a big first half against Carolina, but then tore his ACL and was lost for the season.
The former Richmond Spider has never wavered in his confidence that he would make a full recovery, and the Redskins believe the same. Hightower was re-signed during the offseason, but the team held him out of spring practices as a precaution. Coach Mike Shanahan said Hightower should be ready for the start of training camp.
If healthy, Hightower will start for the Redskins. Coaches value his hard running style, his pass-blocking ability and his leadership. He is certainly the more experienced and well-rounded of Washington’s backs. But it remains to be seen if Hightower is back to his old form. If so, he should thrive. But until we see him in live action, questions will remain.
2.) How durable is Roy Helu?
If Hightower isn’t yet at full strength, the starting job will come down to Roy Helu and Evan Royster. Both showed some flashes last season, but Redskins coaches still have some questions about Helu. For one, although he offers that threat to break a big run, he struggles to consistently pick up chunks of yardage. The Redskins would like to see him do more than just take what’s there and be able to make something out of nothing. There also are questions about Helu’s durability. Injuries hampered him late in the season and kept him out of most of this offseason’s OTAs. Shanahan said the questions about Helu’s durability will remain until he can prove otherwise.
3.) Can Royster pick up where he left off?
Royster took advantage of late-season opportunities by producing back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances to conclude the 2011 campaign. He does a little better than Helu when it comes to producing yards after contact. Pass protection remains a work in progress for Royster, but he has promise.
He too was limited this spring by a hamstring pull, but not as much as Helu. Shanahan said, however, that Royster still has much to prove as well, so this training camp and preseason will be extremely important. Even if Hightower fully recovers and starts, one or both of the young backs will help shoulder the load. The Redskins know they don’t have a feature back in the mix, but believe that utilizing the running back-by-committee approach, they can produce an effective attack.
4.) Where does Alfred Morris figure in?
The Redskins used a sixth-round pick to draft the Florida Atlantic product in April, and he likely will see time during training camp at both running back and full back. Morris had some struggles this spring, but that is to be expected. It doesn’t seem likely that he would overtake a healthy Helu or Royster, but it will be important for him to take advantage of any opportunity he gets. The Redskins currently only have one fullback (Young) after this spring’s release of Mike Sellers. The scouting reports on Morris describe him as a good blocker, so that could help his chances of making the roster.
5.) How will Robert Griffin III help the run game?
It’s no secret that the Redskins will take advantage of Griffin’s world-class sprinter speed, using him on bootlegs, draws and option plays. This will help keep defenses off balance. Fear of getting burned on the edges could require opponents to keep ends or outside linebackers at home, which means fewer men for linemen and running backs to account for. That should translate into more running room and better production from Washington’s backs.
The Redskins don’t want to rush Griffin heavily , but sprinkling him into the ground game here and there will help the offense in a variety of ways.