Projected starters: RB Tim Hightower, FB Darrel Young
Key reserves: Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Alfred Morris
Vet on the bubble: Don’t really see one. They only have four veterans and it’s hard to see any of them in legitimate danger.
Camp battle: Who starts if Hightower can’t? This battle comes down to Helu and Royster and the latter offers more of what Hightower does: decent runner, good pass protector, solid hands. He’s also a little more durable than Helu. And Helu can be effective off the bench for a spark or two. Seems like Royster is more effective when getting his carries in bunches; last season his footwork was better after his first few carries. So don’t be surprised if Royster gets the nod, but Helu will play a vital role regardless of who starts. I’d still want the ball in Helu’s hands on screen plays.
What I like: Hightower’s all-around game. He’s not great, but he can do everything. I like his pass-blocking, though I don’t think he’s as good as Clinton Portis was in this area. But, like Portis, he’s a violent blocker; occasionally that gets him in trouble when he comes up too aggressively, but it’s fun to watch when he lands his block…Helu’s big-play ability (it’s not elite but it’s the best on the roster). Also like his ability to make defenders miss. No other back on the roster could have made that leaping-the-defender play vs. Seattle… Royster’s decisiveness on his cuts. When he first played in the preseason he was tentative on some cuts, but the more he played the better he got. He, too, made defenders miss when given an opportunity. He just needs to work on maintaining his balance downfield; he sometimes left yards on the field because of this (and because of ordinary speed). But I liked how he could quickly slither through a narrow opening. Kid knows how to run…Young’s progress. He shouldn’t get more than a few touches a game, but he did show last year an ability to make the first guy miss and get good yards….Morris’ pass-blocking ability. OK, can’t say that I’ve seen it because I never saw him play in college. But his former coaches love him in this role.
Remaining questions: When will Hightower be himself? Recovering from an ACL injury is never easy and often unkind to backs. At least for the first year back….Can Helu handle more than a moderate load? He had four straight games of 20-plus carries and then only four in the next two games combined…Can Royster be anything other than a serviceable backup? He did post two 100-yard rushing games and working in a three-receiver set helped open holes for him. The Vikings, for example, used one eight-man front and nine six-man fronts on his 19 carries last December.
Better or worse: Hard to say they’re better than at season’s end. Yes, Helu and Royster are more experienced so that helps and both were productive in stints last season. So their depth is better. But their starting running back is coming off an ACL injury and couldn’t practice in the spring. I’ve seen the videos of him running and I’m sure he’s attacked his rehab with extra vigor. It’s what he does. But until we see him cut on the field and take the pounding, no one really knows how he’ll respond. He was considered an OK back before the injury (albeit a good fit in this system). If Hightower is healthy, then this group will be better. But history suggests running backs do not play as well the year after an ACL injury. It’s psychological as much as anything and in an offense that relies on cutting, it could take even longer to have full confidence in the knee. Also, Helu needs to prove he can stay healthy. However, there is potential for this group to be solid if all are healthy.
Final word: The offense showed late in the season how much the scheme matters. They had a third-string running back running behind a line with two reserves starting – and Royster still gained 100 yards in two games. One thing that coaches and scouts emphasized before the draft regarding Robert Griffin III is the impact he’ll have in the run game. Dan Reeves said he saw it with Michael Vick in Atlanta: the backside ends were frozen by the threat of the bootleg. That enabled the backside tackle to not worry about blocking him and instead help the guard or go right to a linebacker. It’s a little subtle, but when you’re trying to create a cutback alley it’s rather important.
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