The Washington Redskins' first preseason game featured only three of the four running backs who are likely to see significant carries this season. Tim Hightower, who would be the starting running back if healthy, did not play because he's still recovering from last year's knee surgery. It's possible he won't be full strength in time for the regular season, in which case one (or more of) the other three guys will have to take his place. Those other three guys played Thursday, and so let's take a look at how they did and see if we can figure out anything about the way the race to fill Hightower's spot is shaping up.
Evan Royster: 7 carries, 21 yards (3.0 ypc)
Positives: He was the starter for the game and ran with the first team, which I believe tells you something about the way the Redskins coaches view the current roster hierarchy. The people I spoke with in Ashburn last week indicated to me that they believe Royster to be the best runner of this group. He's shown an ability to break tackles that Roy Helu has not, and he's made some strides in pass protection, which may be the most important thing he can do if he wants carries in this offense. He had 22 yards on four carries, including a 12-yarder, on the Redskins' touchdown drive.
Negatives: He struggled to get going early, though it's hard to tell whether that was his fault or the fault of an offensive line that was missing three starters. He also dropped a handoff from Robert Griffin III that led to a turnover, though the fumble was charged to Griffin and did not seem to really be all Royster's fault. He was not targeted in the passing game.
Roy Helu: 4 carries, 17 yards, (4.3 ypc)
Positives: Helu was targeted twice by backup quarterback Rex Grossman. One of the passes was underthrown, and Helu caught the other, albeit for a loss of three yards. He is a better pass-catcher than Royster is, and while it has a ways to go, his pass protection is improving as well. He had a couple of nice runs, including an eight-yarder, at the start of his second series, though one was with the help of a holding penalty that was called and negated a four-yarder.
Negatives: He runs fine until he's hit, but he does not seem to do anything after contact. Again on Thursday, I did not see him break a tackle. Small sample size, but it backs up what we saw from him last year and even what we saw last week in practice, where they weren't tackling but he still seemed unable to do anything once he met resistance.
Alfred Morris: 15 carries, 54 yards (3.6 ypc)
Positives: The rookie Morris basically got the whole second half. The coaches know less about him than they do about the others, who were on the team last year, so it's little surprise that they wanted to see him with as large a workload as possible. He ran tough, I thought, especially considering he was playing behind third- and fourth-team offensive linemen. They like the way he leans forward and falls forward at the end of runs. It shows toughness, and put even more simply, it adds to yardage totals.
Negatives: Also not targeted in the passing game, and he's a year behind the other two guys in terms of reps and familiarity with the system.
Bottom line: I maintain my belief that each of the four of the players I've discussed here will start at least one game at running back for Mike Shanahan's 2012 Redskins. I think he considers them relatively interchangeable and will play whichever one is playing best or gives him the best matchup in a given week. Asked to predict a Week 1 starter, assuming Hightower's not all the way back by then, I'm sticking with Royster, who's having the best camp. But I have very little confidence in the pick, and I don't think it's at all crazy to think it could be Morris.