Are there still fantasy owners out there who enjoy chasing Shanahan running backs? Anyone?
It's possible. Maybe you struck gold with Reuben Droughns or Olandis Gary back in the day — at this point, it would be way, way back in the day — and you just can't quit this coach, this system. You're a zone-blocking zealot. I get it. We all have our ridiculous loyalties. Hell, if Natrone Means were to make a comeback at age 40, I'd probably still add him somewhere, just for nostalgia's sake. That dude won me a title. Some of you no doubt have the same relationship with Shanahan backs.
But here's the thing you need to know about the Shanahan era in Washington: It has not actually produced a respectable ground game, not yet.
We always skip over this detail when we engage in the Royster-Helu-Morris debate. The Redskins ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing last season and 30th the year before. Yes, we've seen individual running backs have occasional nice weeks, but this team is not exactly the late-'90s Broncos. "Zone-blocking" is not synonymous with "great running game." Doing it well still requires O-line competence, with week-to-week (if not year-to-year) continuity. The 'Skins didn't have their starting line together for any preseason game.
So before you scoop up every Washington RB you can find, realize that you're collecting shares of a low-yield attack. It's a backfield that fantasy owners keep asking about, however, so we have to cover it. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has suggested the team will "go with the hot hand" in the running game this year (which of course assumes that someone will eventually have such a hand), so let's review his options...
Evan Royster — Right now, Royster has the top spot on the official depth chart, with Helu second and Morris third. But to his credit, Royster seems to recognize that a Mike Shanahan depth chart is not exactly an enforceable contract. "I think they're going to keep us pretty much in the dark until probably the day before the game," he's said. Which means the rest of us are likely to be in the dark until just after kick-off. Royster is a solid (if not flashy) downhill runner, decisive enough, capable as a receiver, a guy who closed the 2011 season with a pair of 100-yard efforts. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry as a rookie last year, then 4.5 in the preseason. There may not be many big plays with Royster, but he can at least avoid the negative/tragic plays.
Roy Helu — Health is an issue here, as Helu has dealt with Achilles soreness, so we shouldn't assume the 'Skins are looking to give him anything close to a full workload. Then again, we can't really assume anything with this team. Helu is the most explosive runner in this committee, though perhaps also the most implosive. He lost a pair of fumbles last year, and ball security was an issue for him at the collegiate level, too. If Washington's opening week match-up at New Orleans enters shootout-mode, Helu seems like a good bet to receive touches. He's a dangerous ball-carrier, a home run threat.
Alfred Morris — The late-round rookie was the healthiest Washington back during camp, which counts for something. He seemed plenty decisive during exhibition play, though the game-speed is obviously about to be dialed up. Morris isn't especially fast (4.67 speed) nor uncommonly strong by the standards of his position (16 reps at 225 lbs), and he was a fumbler in college. So his tangibles aren't the greatest. But he had a solid preseason (5.0 YPC, TD), generating low-level buzz, so he can't be dismissed.
Bottom line: This is pretty clearly another spin-the-wheel year for the Shanahans. Or at least that's what they're telegraphing with this "hot hand" stuff. Maybe they've privately settled on a single back, or maybe not. I'm still of the opinion that RGIII is likely to lead this team in rushing in 2012. He'll probably lead the team in Week 1, too.
My official advice — and this is not likely to change — is that you allow yourself a max of one Washington running back. No more. And when fantasy experts collectively declare that your guy is clearly the player to own, toss him on the trade block. Take the easy profit. Allow some other owner to experience the modest highs and excruciating lows of this backfield. You're not allowed to complain about getting Shanahan'd this year, not when it's so incredibly easy to avoid.