ESPN’s NFC East blogger Dan Graziano wrote Thursday that, if healthy, Tim Hightower will be the starting running back for the Redskins this season, which of course means absolutely nothing considering Mike Shanahan's feelings about depth charts.
It would be a bit puzzling for this to happen-- even on a Shanahan-coached team-- given Roy Helu’s midseason emergence and Evan Royster’s nice performances down the stretch. But you have to figure that Hightower’s versatility in the passing game and his veteran leadership ultimately allowed him to front the pack going into training camp.Or maybe Shanny's just trying to get more out of his youngsters beneath Hightower on the depth chart.
It will be intriguing to see how Hightower fares coming off a torn ACL, which is no injury to scoff at. Running backs in recent history have had mixed results after shredding their knee in the year prior, and Hightower could land anywhere among that wide spectrum. Hightower does have the "benefit" of enduring his injury so early in the 2011 season that it allowed him ample time to recover. A couple links to provide context:
Adam Levitan of Rotoworld discusses how other running backs have fared coming off of ACL tears.
Andrea Hangst of Pro Football Focus analyzes the situations of five running backs returning from ACL tears in 2012.
But is he the best?
According to Khaled Elsayed and the people at Pro Football Focus, Helu played 78 pass-blocking snaps in 2011 and allowed just two quarterback pressures. That measures out to a 98.1 pass-block efficiency, bested only by Fred Jackson (100), Michael Turner (99) and Jason Snelling (98.2).
Hightower actually struggled in that department, despite his prolonged exposure in passing downs, as evidenced by his last full season with Arizona. He gave up nine pressures in 119 snaps, which put him just outside of the bottom 10 in terms of pass-blocking efficiency among running backs. Making things murkier, Hightower did not allow a pressure in the 37 pass-blocking snaps he saw with the Redskins last season, though it is a pretty small sample size to make a generalization from.
My take is this: Mike Shanahan obviously saw something he really, really liked in Hightower when he acquired him, and just wants to give him more than the five-game sample size he had in 2011 to determine if he can indeed bring to the table what Helu did. And though Hightower’s prone to having one of the poorer pass-block efficiency ratings in comparison to the rest of the league, he still protects his quarterbacks much more than not.
With that said, Helu has certainly made his case for the starting job and should push Hightower for snaps over the course of the season, especially if Hightower cannot take the field at 100 percent.
But then again, it’s Mike Shanahan coaching this team, so what weight does a "starting job" even carry?