With Tim Hightower still out as he continues to recover from last year's serious knee injury, second-year man Evan Royster will start at running back in the Washington Redskins' preseason opener Thursday night in Buffalo, coach Mike Shanahan told reporters Tuesday.
I don't see this as a surprise. Royster looked like the best back in camp when I was there last week, and the conversations I had with Redskins people while there led me to believe they think Royster has a higher ceiling than fellow second-year back Roy Helu does assuming both players are fully healthy. I know they also like rookie Alfred Morris, and that he's not out of this mix, and the chief concern they have with both Royster and Helu is health.
So the fact Royster gets the first start doesn't automatically mean he's the favorite to open the regular season as the starter. For one thing, Hightower's recovery is proceeding, and if he can get healthy he's the starting running back. Also, since the chief worry about both Helu and Royster is health, we have to see not only how they look in the preseason but also how they hold up.
Shanahan's history leads me to expect Royster to play the majority of the game Thursday, rather than share time equally with Helu and/or Morris. Shanahan likes to give his running backs "whole games," or something close to it, in the preseason to simulate the kind of work they'd be asked to do if pressed into a starter's role during the season. So it wouldn't surprise me to see Royster play the bulk of Thursday's game and then see either Helu or Morris start and play most of the Aug. 18 preseason game in Chicago.
Also, I'm curious to see how much the evaluation of the running backs is affected by the injury issues with which the Redskins are dealing. Fullback Darrel Young is out for this game, as are starting right tackle Jammal Brown and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, and right guard Chris Chester is a question mark due to a sprained ankle. It's tough for a running back to look his absolute best when he's missing his fullback and three-fifths of his offensive line.
To sum up: Consider this Royster start an interesting clue, but remember there's a lot more to sort and figure out about the Redskins' running back situation.