The Washington Times - July 16, 2013, 08:57AM

Before the Redskins report to Richmond for training camp on July 24, I’m examining their strengths and questions at each position. Next up: running backs.

(Previous position previews: Quarterbacks)

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RUNNING BACKS

Returning starters: Tailback Alfred Morris and fullback Darrel Young

Impact reserves: Tailbacks Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster

Others: Tailbacks Chris Thompson, Keiland Williams, Jawan Jamison and Tristan Davis; fullback Eric Kettani

Key departures: None

New faces: Thompson (fifth-round pick, Florida St.) and Jamison (seventh-round pick, Rutgers)

Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan kept four (three tailbacks, one fullback) in 2012, five (three tailbacks, two fullbacks) in 2011 and five (three tailbacks, two fullbacks) in 2010.

What to like: Morris recognized room for improvement after his monstrous rookie season (1,613 yards, 13 TDs, 4.8 yards per carry), and he’s determined to fix those problems.

“Last year, my tracks weren’t always good,” he said in May. “I sometimes missed cuts, not being as patient. In that sense, I left a lot of yards on the field.”

Morris also did not hold on to the third-down role he coveted. The physical and mental components of pass blocking often are difficult for a rookie to master against complex, fast NFL blitzes. Morris was physical in pass protection and improved as the season progressed, although the zone read option reduced the frequency at which he was required to pass block. Training camp repetitions should help him continue to get comfortable.

The Redskins, overall, are deeper at running back than they were last season because Helu is expected to be fully recovered from his left big toe injury and because they drafted Thompson and Jamison in the late rounds.

I see Helu as the key to balancing the backfield. His speed and elusiveness on the second level set him apart from Morris. A healthy Helu would reduce Morris’ physical burden after Morris carried 335 times last year. Helu also could join Morris and quarterback Robert Griffin III in an extremely potent triple option. Helu is a quality third-down back because of his good hands, his ability to gain yards after the catch and his adequate pass blocking. He improved his blitz recognition as his rookie season progressed in 2011.

Young is entering his third season as the first-string fullback. He missed most of camp last year and all of last preseason with a strained left hamstring, so this summer is an important opportunity for the former linebacker to continue to mature and sharpen his play. Young is fast, which makes him a threat to gain yards after the catch. I’m surprised he had only eight receptions last season compared to his 15 in 2011. Young relishes contact so much that sometimes he can get out of control going for a big hit. Experience should help him stay in control and finish blocks.

Preseason questions: If Shanahan kept three tailbacks for the fourth straight season, the Redskins would have six tailbacks fighting for two spots, making it one of their most intense and intriguing roster competitions. Each back is a bit different from the others. Because Shanahan believes running backs can’t be fully evaluated until they can be tackled in preseason games, we should pay attention to how he allocates playing time.

Helu’s durability is a concern until he proves otherwise. Knee and toe problems have affected him in each of his first two NFL seasons, and last season he played only the first three games. Foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson cleared him to practice in June, and Helu proved he could sharply cut at the end of OTAs. Helu hasn’t played in a game since last September, so there’s an incentive for Shanahan to risk Helu’s health in games that don’t count. 

Fitness also clouds Thompson’s outlook. He tore the ACL in his left knee last Oct. 20 and didn’t participate in spring practices, although he is expected to be ready for training camp. The previous year, he suffered compression fractures of his T-5 and T-6 vertebrae. He’s only 5-7 and 192 pounds, so it’s unrealistic to expect him to be an every down back, but the Redskins don’t need him to fill that role.

He’s explosive with top speed that turns defenders’ angles into bad ones, and that would make for an effective change to Morris’ pace. He also is known for exceptional vision and his cutting ability in the hole. Redskins coaches before the draft salivated over his 7.5 yards per carry and his 11.8 yards per catch during his senior season at Florida St. In order to be a third-down back, he must pass protect with quality technique and awareness that compensate for his lack of size.

Royster must be more consistent in carrying out his assignments in order to keep his place on the depth chart. Most notably, he missed a blitz pickup against Baltimore last December, which prompted Griffin to scramble on the play; Griffin injured his right knee when nose tackle Haloti Ngata tackled him. Royster doesn’t finish his runs as physically as Morris does, and it will be interesting to compare his style to Jamison’s in game situations. Jamison was an elusive runner in college, particularly in the second level, whereas Royster hasn’t proven that in the NFL.

Veteran Keiland Williams is a wild card in this competition because of his ability to contribute on special teams. He can catch, and he is an experienced a pass protector compared to Washington’s other backs. His special teams contributions could land Thompson and/or Jamison on the practice squad, or maybe he makes the team as a fourth tailback.