Roy Helu: Can the Second-Year Pro Become the Washington Redskins' Starting RB?

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2012

SEATTLE - NOVEMBER 27:  Running back Roy Helu #29 of the Washington Redskins rushes against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on November 27, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In 2011, Roy Helu showed signs of being the type of explosive and versatile playmaker the Washington Redskins' running game needs.

The fourth-round draft choice had to wait until Week 9 for his first pro start. Against the San Francisco 49ers' rugged run defense, Helu found the going tough on the ground.

He managed only 41 rushing yards on 10 carries, but did chip in with 14 receptions for 105 yards. That kind of multipurpose skill could give Helu the edge in a crowded backfield rotation.

A Week 12 road trip to take on the Seattle Seahawks proved to be Helu's breakout moment. He sped through a tough run defense for 108 yards, including a 28-yard scamper involving a spectacular hurdle over would-be tacklers.

Helu followed this up with two straight 100-yard games against the New York Jets and New England Patriots, respectively. Niggling injuries reduced Helu's workload just when it appeared he was set to emerge as a real star in the making.

What distinguishes Helu from the other members of the Redskins' running back depth chart, is legitimate big-play capability. He posted over 4 yards per carry eight times last season, including 7.4 against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 and 6.8 against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10.

Helu also managed to break runs of over 20 yards on four occasions. Initial burst and acceleration are in short supply among Redskins' running backs, except Helu.

The two problems he faces are durability and decision-making. Fitness issues limited him to only four carries during the final two games, and Mike Shanahan recently told the Washington Times how this hurts his development.

When healthy, there were plenty of times when Helu seemed hesitant to simply make a quick turn upfield and exploit a hole, an odd issue for a runner with his natural speed. If an obvious cutback lane opened up, Helu would take it, if not, then he was content to simply fall into the line for a minimal gain.

Ironically, Helu seemed more comfortable attempting to hit the middle of a defense, than taking the outside on the stretch play. He needs to make quicker decisions and identify gaps in the zone scheme.

This can probably be coached to some extent, although it's hard to escape the feeling that speed of thought is something a running back either has or he doesn't. It's what made Terrell Davis that much better than any of the other runners who thrived in Shanahan's zone system.

Yet Helu's agility and true breakaway speed make him worth the coaches' efforts, even if it means tweaking the system to include more inside zone plays. The value of a big-play threat cannot be overstated; elite speed scares a defense more than anything else, and that has been missing from the Redskins' offense for too long.

Evan Royster has superior zone instincts, and Tim Hightower is a comparable receiver and better blocker, but neither offers the threat Helu does in the open field. That could be enough to make him the starter.