NFC East: evan roster

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.
Jeez, with everything going on today, I almost forgot it was fantasy week! But it is fantasy week, and so I owe you a fantasy post. I promise there will be more than one tomorrow, but for today this will be it, as in addition to fantasy week it is also poker night.

Here is how our fantasy experts have ranked the running backs in the NFC East heading into this season. Each guy is listed next to his overall ranking, not his ranking in the division:

[+] EnlargeTim Hightower
James Lang/US PresswireDon't be surprised if the Redskins use Tim Hightower and their other backs to run up the middle often.
3. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

9. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

18. Roy Helu, Washington Redskins

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants

40. David Wilson, Giants

42. Felix Jones, Cowboys

57. Evan Royster, Redskins

59. Dion Lewis, Eagles

70. Tim Hightower, Redskins

80. Chris Polk, Eagles

86. D.J. Ware, Giants

99. Da'Rel Scott, Giants

101. Bryce Brown, Eagles

105. Phillip Tanner, Cowboys

— Interesting that Murray is the only starter in the division with a clear-cut handcuff. If he's out, Jones will start. I'd watch Tanner because (a) Jones gets hurt too and (b) I think Tanner is good. But as of now, he's a clear No. 3 on the depth chart. Not so in New York, where Wilson is ranked the highest because they just took him in the first round and none of those other guys has shown much during his career so far, or in Philadelphia, where Lewis will get a challenge from the undrafted (but well regarded) Polk and seventh-rounder Brown. This is a situation to watch in training camp, and if you have McCoy, you will want to get whoever they pick to back him up. I think if you own Murray, you want Jones, but if you own Bradshaw, you're better off backing him up with non-Giants options than guessing how the carries would break down if Bradshaw did.

— As long as Hightower is still recovering from his ACL injury, this ranking is understandable. But if he's full-go come training camp, he should be the highest-ranked Redskins back. He is the starter, in the eyes of the coaches. And as much as everyone wants to make Helu happen, a healthy Hightower would be used just as a healthy Hightower was used in the first month of the 2011 season. Helu and Royster would continue to be used in key spots and develop in backup roles. The general rule in fantasy is to stay away from Mike Shanahan running backs anyway, so that's the first bit of advice on that situation. But if Hightower's healthy, he'll be the one getting the carries and the catches in September. And if you have him, you want Helu and probably Royster, too. But I don't know what kind of league you have to be in to have three roster spots to use on Redskins running backs. Me, I'd draft Helu and trade him after his first good game.

— I think Bradshaw's ranking is low, though I understand it. If he's healthy, I'd rank him probably around No. 11 or 12. I think you can survive with a healthy Bradshaw as your No. 1 back if you really load up at quarterback and wide receiver. So if you get him as the 20th back off the board, I'd say you've done well. But you need to back him up, or trade him early before the foot injuries come back.

— The two guys ahead of McCoy are Houston's Arian Foster and Baltimore's Ray Rice, in that order. That's for those of you who were too lazy to click the link. I feel ya. Real nice weather the last couple of days, who wants to spend any more time than they have to in front of the computer? Personally, I'd have no issues with ranking those three guys in any order as long as they're the top three.