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First Down: Getting inside the mind of Mike Shanahan

Brad Evans
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Shanny


For roughly 11 seasons, the fantasy community and Mike Shanahan were homeboys, inseparable buddies attached at the hip. Golf rounds, bike rides, bar hops, complete annihilation of league competition … you name it, they did it together.

Denver was a running back factory under Shany's watch from 1995-2005 cranking out a seemingly endless supply of fantasy superstars — Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Rueben Droughns. Though often times the pecking order was initially hard to decipher, it was well-understood whoever earned the title as "workhorse" would reap ample statistical riches. During that 11-season stretch the leading rusher on the Broncos netted a ridiculous 1,616 total yards and 12.6 touchdowns per season, tallying an average RB rank of 9.3. The love affair between the zone-blocking czar and his owners seemed unbreakable.

Then Shanahan befriended the Devil.

Over the next three seasons (2006-2008), a virulent strain of evil infected the owner-Shany friendship. A cavalcade of washed-up veterans (e.g. Travis Henry and Michael Pittman), untalented youngsters ("Taco" Tatum Bell, Mike Bell and Selvin Young), underused future megastars (Peyton Hillis) and random dudes (P.J. Pope) were shuffled through the Broncos backfield providing plenty of instability, distrust and shattered championship dreams. Injuries were partially to blame, but so was the coach. Sink an early-round pick in a Denver back and a hellish season was sure to follow. Shanahan not only slept with fantasy's girlfriend, he did the dirty deed in its bed.

Lucifer was born.

Last season, Shanahan's sinister ways continued, this time in Washington, as three backs, Ryan Torain, Clinton Portis and Keiland Williams, were deployed. When healthy, Torain had the appearance of a Shany back from the Denver glory days, averaging 4.5 yards per carry while tallying 93.9 total yards per game with five touchdowns over eight starts. Extrapolate that output over a full slate and he would've finished with numbers similar to Matt Forte, the 12th-best rusher on a per game basis in standard leagues last year.

Many owners have made a vow to never draft another Shany back again, but somewhere behind Lucifer's fiery eyes and perpetual orange glow is a name who could reap a tremendous profit for those willing to take the risk. Someone is bound to step up, provided Rex Grossman or John Beck are at least semi-competent. To help prospective buyers sift through the (expletive), here's a breakdown of the Washington backfield:

Ryan Torain
Lucifer Line (out of five): Four Olandises
If a stiff wind blows through Redskins Park, Torain would likely lose a limb. Though a hand-in-glove fit for Shanny's offense, the man is dried-leaf fragile. Already dealing with a hand injury suffered in practice Wednesday, he could quickly fall out of favor if sidelined for a significant chunk of training camp (UPDATE: Test results revealed a broken bone in his left hand. He is expected to miss a week-to-10 days). After last season's strong performance, his familiarity with the zone-blocking scheme and one-cut-and-go style, the veteran is the prohibitive favorite to trot out of the tunnel as the Week 1 starter. However, he's an upright-runner who lacks wiggle and explosiveness, leaving him vulnerable to nicks and scrapes. He's a fair gamble in Round 7 (78.3 ADP), but the injury imp is bound to limit him to less than 10 starts.
Fearless Forecast (12 games, six starts): 161 carries, 724 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 110 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns

Roy Helu
Lucifer Line (out of five): Four Olandises
Speaking as a betting man, the rookie from Nebraska has excellent odds emerging from the fray. He isn't the type who will drag tacklers, but his characteristics are ideal for the 'Skins' zone-blocking scheme — plus speed (4.45 40-yard dash), versatility and sensational cut-back ability (Eye-candy here). It's no wonder why Helu reminds Shanny of a young Portis. The prolonged layoff due to the lockout may stunt the growth of many rookies, but the fourth-rounder is a hard worker who should pick-up the system quickly. Recall he averaged a stout 6.6 yards per carry during his senior season with the Huskers last year. Because Torain would find a way to get injured wrestling a Jell-O mold, it's highly probable Helu will see extensive action at some point this season. Already drawing rave reviews in camp, he will likely produce RB2 level numbers at some point this year. Even if he doesn't take first-string snaps Week 1, he should net roughly 10-12 touches per game at the onset. Helu, going around pick No. 97, has significant upside.
Fearless Forecast (14 games, eight starts): 196 carries, 862 rushing yards, 13 receptions, 107 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns

Tim Hightower
Lucifer Line (out of five): 2.5 Olandises
Coming over from Arizona in a barely noticed trade last week, the hard-working veteran is a fumble-prone rusher whose finest attribute is third-down protection. He is a sensational pass-blocker and receiver out of the backfield, but his absent explosiveness labels him timeshare material. Shanahan considers him a third-down back, which will likely be his gig Week 1. However, if Torain falls and Helu struggles executing on the little things, his role could expand as the season progresses. For now, he's waiver fodder in deep leagues, but it's possible he'll log a start or three.
Fearless Forecast (16 games, two starts): 83 carries, 349 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 185 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns

Evan Royster
Lucifer Line (out of five): Two Olandises
Quite possibly the darkest of dark-horses, the sixth-round pick doesn't possess physical characteristics that drive scouts wild. He isn't particularly fast, powerful or elusive. However, when fed the rock he's simply produced. Last year during his senior year at Joe Pa-U, he surpassed Curt Warner becoming Penn State's all-time leading rusher. If he can seize the moment with Torain's hand in a splint, it's possible Royster could open some eyes and move up the depth-chart. Obviously, with the exception of the deepest dynasty leagues, he's undraftable, but the youngster is someone to keep tabs on. His prolific, consistent production while in Happy Valley shouldn't be devalued. Helu is the more talented rookie, but with Lucifer you just never know.

Keiland Williams
Lucifer Line (out of five): 1.5 Olandises
The versatile role player is a classic out-of-nowhere Shany back. Completely overshadowed by Michael Vick's history-making scoregasm against the 'Skins Week 10, he rewarded dice-rollers with 139 total yards and three touchdowns. The following week unpunctual owners dashed madly to the waiver wire to acquire his services only to drop him by Thanksgiving. Torain's resurrection greatly reduced Keiland's touch total. This year, his standout performance against Philly will likely be nothing more than a distant memory. With Mike Sellers out of the picture, Williams is being experimented at fullback. Barring a string of catastrophic injuries to the players discussed above, he will forever be remembered as a one-week wonder.

Bring the noise on Twitter. Follow Brad @YahooNoise. And harass him in person, along with esteemed Yahoo! colleagues Brandon Funston and Andy Behrens, throughout August in a city near you. Visit FantasyFootballSymposium.com for more info.

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Image courtesy of the AP

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