NFL general managers tasked with scouting and drafting the best young talent are often judged by their ability to identify and acquire elite athletes of the first round. But they really earn their monstrous paychecks in the mid rounds. That’s where Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen appeared to have struck gold when he moved up and selected running back Roy Helu with the 105th pick in the 4th round of the 2011 draft. Then he sat back and watched Helu run for 640 yards in his debut season.
Running endlessly in Nebraska’s option offense, Helu was an intriguing ball carrier. He didn’t have the outstanding lateral agility (despite what the Combine says) that is craved at the position, and he didn’t have elite vision — at times, he ran into his own blockers, which is what you don’t want in a ball carrier. However, he had other traits that stood out and made him worthy of a high draft choice.
For starters, Helu had good size when he stood at 5’11″ and weighed nearly 220 pounds at the NFL Combine. He also had game breaking straight-line speed that would quickly leave defenders trailing by dozens of yards. It’s hard to break long runs in the NFL without a speedy ball carrier, so when there’s a chance to grab one, you do it.
Further, he had one-cut ability that saw him only go forward and made him appealing to zone blocking teams that ran the inside and outside zone concepts because it meant he wasn’t going to be racking up a whole lot of negative yardage — which is an area of emphasis in the scheme. In addition to the above, he was patient while approaching the line of scrimmage and fast after downfield, moving at a rapid rate past would-be tacklers.
So all of these things make him a quality prospect and justify his draft position, right?
Some draft databases had Helu rated as the 14th best player at his position behind others that didn’t contribute nearly as much as he did last sesaon. And some teams apparently felt that he wasn’t worthy of a higher pick either when word spread (when it comes to the NFL draft, word is spread with a megaphone) that Helu battled injuries (he did) in college and was not tough. Teams may have knocked him, but last season he proved to those same teams that he is indeed worthy of a high pick.
Against the New York Jets in week 13, the Redskins opened the game with Helu running for 15 yards. The offense came out with the 12 personnel, featuring a lone back in the backfield and two tight ends — one in a three-point stance in the traditional ‘Y’ alignment, with another one split wide.
With the bark of a command by quarterback Rex Grossman, the split tight end shifted across the line of scrimmage and to a tight split next to Fred Davis, who was aligned in a three-point stance.
At the snap of the ball, Grossman made a quick toss to Helu, who quickly covered real estate to his right. His blockers also moved quickly and executed their assignments well; the ones who went uncovered at the line of scrimmage helped their play-side teammate before peeling off to the second level to maul linebackers.
As Helu makes way to the line of scrimmage, he reads the outside hip of the offensive guard (who is covered in the image by the massive offensive tackle), which indicates it’s an inside zone run concept, and makes a hard cut to the inside of the formation with his right foot where an alley has opened up.
After he patiently ran laterally to stretch the defense and made a hard cut to the inside to attack the alley, Helu hurdles a defender, lands on his feet, and speeds through the hole before being tackled 15 yards down the field.
This may seem like an ordinary run that any back can make, but it’s not. Helu showed a variety of traits on this play that there were questions about him having prior to the 2011 draft, traits that other rookie ball carriers don’t show or have.
When Helu received the ball, he was patient to the line of scrimmage, which is very crucial to play development because it gives the blockers a chance to get to their assignments. Once he got to the line of scrimmage, he showed the vision to find the cutback lane (which was not large) and he hurdled a defender before landing on his feet to continue the run, exhibiting athleticism.
Once he got back on his feet, he ran fast through the hole, which is what all NFL running back coaches seek from their ball carriers, but often they don’t get it. Instead, young RBs run to the hole quickly, and then can’t get through it fast enough. Helu also showcased breakaway speed.
These are the types of runs that Helu made as his workload increased over the course of his rookie year. He displayed vision, patience and athleticism as well as soft hands throughout the season, which is why he’ll likely fight off Tim Hightower and emerge as the Redskins’ featured back next season despite not being a household name — something Allen is perfectly fine with.