Will Tim Hightower succeed as a feature back?
Take a look at the leading running backs through three weeks of NFL preseason play and you'll find names like Kendall Hunter, Stevan Ridley and Ben Tate, interesting players for the future, but not starters entering 2011. But you'll also see a familiar veteran name: Tim Hightower.
Things couldn't have gone better for Hightower this offseason. He saw his former team, the Cardinals, select Ryan Williams in the second round of April's draft, creating a crowded backfield in the desert. This led to a trade that landed Hightower with the Redskins, where Clinton Portis had been banished and no proven veteran was on the roster. Ryan Torain broke his hand in the first few days of training camp. And Hightower took advantage in a major way, averaging 6.8 yards per carry through three preseason games, including a 58-yard scamper against the Colts and a 37-yard TD against the Ravens. Mike Shanahan has basically named him the starter. The hype for Hightower as a fantasy starter in all leagues is mounting.
Why am I not buying? Let me count the ways:
1. I know there are all kinds of optimistic stories out of Redskins camp about how the offensive line has been together and uninjured throughout August, and how Shanahan's zone-blocking system is finally taking effect. And I'm not trying to say Washington's O-line won't be somewhat improved. Chris Chester will be better in a zone system where he's relied upon to be an athletic right guard, as opposed to the Ravens' power-blocking scheme. Trent Williams will be better at left tackle in his second year. But this is mostly the same group that produced middling results in the run game and got its quarterbacks killed in 2010.
2. My buddy Andy Behrens from Yahoo! brought up this point to me: It's pretty clear that some teams went into the preseason guns blazing, game planning, rolling with their starters later into games, pedal down. The Cleveland Browns were such a team, and so were the Redskins. I'm not completely devaluing Hightower's good performances here. The speed he showed getting around the corner on that TD run in a national TV game against most of the Ravens' starting defense? Impressive. But as to just how mauling the Redskins are ready to be on the ground, well, let's just say I'm reserving judgment.
3. That Ravens run notwithstanding, Hightower isn't a special player. He's more thumper than burner (he weighs 222 pounds) and had his moments at the goal line in Arizona, but mostly in my film-watching he's always come across as a J.A.G. (Just Another Guy). Take away the two long preseason runs -- which I'll grant is absolutely unfair, but bear with me -- and Hightower has 75 yards on 23 carries, or 3.3 yards per carry. By my count, 14 of his 25 carries have gone for two yards or fewer, and eight have gone for zero or negative yards. Yes, that absolutely qualifies as statistical cherry-picking, but I think it also qualifies as alarming, and consistent with my impression of Hightower as a decent-at-best talent.
4. Now is the time we're going to rely on Mike Shanahan to pick a favorite rusher and roll with him for an entire season? Before Bill Belichick was tormenting fantasy owners with his weekly cavalcade of unpredictable running backs, Shanny was the maestro. Who can forget Selvin Young, Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Quentin Griffin, Travis Henry and Mike Bell? Just because Shanahan is singing Hightower's praises now (and he is) doesn't mean he won't fall out of love with him the moment Torain proves he's healthy and powers into the end zone, or the moment rookie Roy Helu breaks a big run, something he's far better equipped to do than Hightower.
Listen, I (finally) believe that Hightower is the most draftable back on the Skins' roster at the moment. But I can't consider him a top-20 rusher. Maybe that will wind up looking like a silly prediction. Maybe this preseason absolutely is a precursor to a resurgence of Washington's running game, with Hightower at the center. But I don't believe it. I think this is still a platoon waiting to happen, and I think we're severely overrating this offensive line if we're ready to consider it capable of doing big weekly damage to good, focused NFL defenses. And all this is to say nothing of John Beck, the man currently favored to start Week 1 for the Redskins, and a signal-caller who has much to prove if he's to distract defenses from loading the box to stop the run. I'll let someone else take Hightower early in the seventh round, pick up Helu way after that, and wait for things to shake out.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.