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Running Back Position Could Be Wide Open

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For the first time since 2003, when Stephen Davis left Washington for the Carolina Panthers, the Redskins could have an open competition at running back.

Head coach Mike Shanahan has said that Ryan Torain will get the first opportunity to earn the starting job.

Torain will have seven other running backs on his heels, though. Second-year player Keiland Williams and rookies Roy Helu, Jr. and Evan Royster are also likely to be in the mix for the starting job.

Last year, the 6-10 Redskins rushed for just 1,461 yards as a team, their lowest total since 1994 (1,415). That season, the team finished 3-13, so clearly there is a link behind the ability to rush the ball and winning football games.

In 2010, the Redskins' top back was Ryan Torain, who posted 742 yards and four touchdowns. The remaining running backs collectively gained 312 yards and three touchdowns.

After cutting ties with aging franchise back Clinton Portis this offseason, the Redskins turned to the 2011 NFL Draft to reload the position.

Under the direction of Shanahan, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and assistant head coach-running backs Bobby Turner, the Redskins selected two running backs on the third day of the draft.

The Redskins traded up in the fourth round to select Nebraska's Helu with the 105th overall pick. Helu comes from a Huskers team that features the one-cut zone-blocking scheme, similar to what Mike Shanahan runs.

"I thought with Helu, he brought something that we haven't had and that's speed," Shanahan explained. "He has that 4.4 speed. We haven't had that guy, so he brings something a little bit different to the table."

In the sixth round, the Redskins selected Penn State's Royster with the 177th overall pick. Royster is a local product, having grown up in Fairfax and gone to school at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va.

In college, Royster gained nearly 4,500 yards on offense and scored 32 touchdowns on the ground and through the air.

In comments after the draft, Shanahan suggested that Royster could come in and compete for a starting job as a rookie.

"He's just a natural runner," Shanahan said of Royster. "In fact, when you take a look at him, you don't really see anything that would just kind of blow you away. All he does is gain yards.

"So I think we got an excellent back who will come in here and compete for a starting position."

Competition should be stiff in training camp, with Helu and Royster joining the other six running backs currently on the roster.

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Headlining the holdovers is Torain, the team's most effective back when healthy.

Joining the active roster in Week 3 last year, Torain proved that he can carry the team, posting three 100-yard games and ripping off several big gains.

Another significant contributor to the rushing attack last year was Williams, an undrafted rookie.

He earned a roster spot coming out of training camp and took advantage of limited opportunities with 261 yards and three touchdowns, good for second on the team.

James Davis joined the team and saw action in Weeks 12-13 after starting the season with the Browns. He rushed for 51 yards on 15 carries, earning 3.4 yards per carry.

Chad Simpson, Andre Brown and Shawnbrey McNeal were in the organization last year but did not see playing time at running back. Simpson played early in the season as a kickoff returner before suffering a foot injury and landing on injured reserve.

Torain matches the system that Shanahan runs, so he should have a leg up on the competition for the starting job.

Whether it's Torain, Williams, Helu, Royster or one of the other backs, the key is going to be their ability to break off big plays.

"Regardless of if you're a third-down back, a first-down back, you've got to be able to make some plays," Shanahan said. "I think the big difference with Clinton [Portis] and some of the backs that we had in the past is he was a 4.4 guy coming out. [He was] very physical, but the one thing he could do is, once he had that open lane, he could go the distance."

Competition for the third running back position should be equally as challenging. Both Williams and Royster can catch passes out of the backfield and pick up blitzes, making them useful on passing downs.

Torain, Williams, Helu and Royster appear to be the frontrunners for the team's roster spots, but don't discount Davis, Brown and Simpson getting a close look as well. Special teams and the practice squad offer other opportunities to stay in the organization.

"You feel good about the people that you added, you feel like you've got some depth, and every football team needs depth," Shanahan said. "We're looking for people that are good football players. Now we've got more competition at that position, which is always good. We'll put these guys in the mix at the pro level and see what these guys can do."

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