There were times this season — many times, in fact — when Evan Royster would enter the locker room at Redskins Park without anyone caring to notice. Such is life for an NFL practice squad player. Anonymity is the norm.
It was quite a contrast, then, for media to swarm Royster at his locker this week. The sixth-round rookie running back rushed for 132 yards on 19 carries last Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings, who boast the NFL’s 12th-ranked run defense.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Royster conceded.
The same applies to the Redskins running game as a whole. Royster became the fourth tailback to start this season — joining Tim Hightower, rookie Roy Helu and the recently-cut Ryan Torain — and the third to rush for 100 yards in a game. But as the offseason approaches, the position remains without a long-term solution and on the teams list of needs.
“You always want to find that Pro Bowl back, and with those guys, you feel guys are capable of it, guys who have shown some promise,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “Every year you’ve got to bring in some competition, and you’re always hoping to find that big-time player.”
The Redskins this season have averaged 3.96 yards per carry, which ranks 23rd in the 32-team NFL. Only twice in Mike Shanahan’s 14 seasons as coach of the Denver Broncos did they finish out of the top 10 in that category. Last year with Torain and Clinton Portis in prominent roles, the Redskins ranked 16th by averaging 4.16 yards per carry.
In light of that regression, the Redskins will continue to search for a back who can master Shanahan’s zone scheme.
Shanahan this week was lukewarm in discussing the future of the position with regard to how Royster and Helu have helped return the Redskins’ running game to respectability during the second half of this season. If he believes Helu, a fourth-round pick, or Royster is capable of the level of greatness former sixth-round pick Terrell Davis achieved with his championship teams in Denver, he concealed it well.
“Well, you can see we have some depth,” he said.
Washington’s search could lead to the free agent market, where two top backs are positioned to cash in. Baltimore’s Ray Rice (1,173 yards) and Chicago’s Matt Forte (997) rank fifth and 15th in the NFL in rushing yards, respectively.
The Redskins also could re-sign Hightower, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry before tearing the ACL in his left knee in Week 7. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
“A lot of people who have ACLs, with the rehab and what they go through, they’re usually able to come back full speed,” Mike Shanahan said. “And we’ll keep our fingers crossed that he goes through rehab and there’s no setbacks and he’s good as new. He’s tough, hard-nosed, and he was a good addition to our football team.”
Helu had at least 100 rushing yards in each of the first three games after he became the full-time starter in Week 12. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
Coaches like his speed, which has helped him bounce some runs outside for significant gains. He also has consistently gained yards after contact by keeping his legs moving and maintaining balance when hit.
Royster replaced Helu last Saturday because of Helu’s knee and ankle injury.
“Royster just has a good knack for finding the right hole,” Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s a very natural running back, and what you mean by that is he does it with ease. He goes one gap at a time, and it doesn’t look real flashy, but he’s always going in the right spot. Usually when you’re like that, you’re going to be a good yards-per-carry guy.”
The Redskins, however, want more than just a yards-per-carry guy. They want someone who can anchor an entire offensive scheme based on running and play-action passes, someone who always is noticed for their quality on the field.
Hightower, Helu and Royster each have made positive contributions, but are they the one?
“I think with all three of those guys, they have a chance to do it,” Kyle Shanahan said “We’re still waiting to see if they can.”