Alfred Morris and The Danger of a Running-only Back
Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris is a popular choice to return to statistical greatness and win owners their fantasy football leagues this season, but are people drafting him at the right cost?
Right now Morris is being drafted as the #12 RB by ADP. For standard 12 team leagues, this likely means some team will be counting on him to be their RB1 – the anchor of their team. While we like Morris a whole lot as a player, his extremely limited passing game skills make him a stronger bet to finish with RB2 numbers, and for that reason you might want to take a second look at big Alf before sprinting to the draft board with his name in hand.
Let’s Be Clear: Alfred Morris Played Well Last Year
There is a minority view out there in the fantasy community that Alfred Morris had a poor year performance-wise compared to his incredible 1,613 yard and 13 touchdown rookie season. On strictly a raw number standpoint that may be true, but much of that can be pinned on the sinking ship of a team the Washington Redskins were in 2013. From an individual standpoint Morris played very well for a guy on a 3-13 team dealing with coaching controversies, quarterback controversies, a porous defense and an anemic passing game.
In spite of all that, Morris averaged a sturdy 4.6 yards per carry as a 220 pound power back – a mark tied for 4th among RBs with at least 200 carries. It was Morris – not Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, or LeSean McCoy – that led the NFL with 10 runs of 20+ yards. Unfortunately the Redskins would be left in holes they had to try to throw themselves out of and Morris’ carry total dropped by 59. That’s a big deal for a guy who doesn’t catch many passes on the field, and more importantly for your team in fantasy football leagues.
Decreased offensive efficiency also partially accounts for Morris’ touchdowns nearly being cut in half, though there’s more to that story. With the Redskins caught in a shootout with Chicago in week 7, Morris was often taken off the field in favor of passing-down back Roy Helu who ended up with 3 red zone rushing touchdowns. In week 9, fullback Darrel Young inexplicably scored 3 short rushing touchdowns – two of them 1 yarders and another 3 yarder. Not all of those 6 touchdowns should have gone to Morris, but there was certainly some element of misfortune there.
So we know Alfred Morris was still playing at a high level in 2013 and that circumstance was primarily responsible for his declining numbers. With the Redskins hiring a new coaching staff, signing DeSean Jackson, and reportedly getting a rejuvenated Robert Griffin III back, the team should be in line for a bounce-back year. However, that doesn’t mean we should expect Morris’ numbers to return to what they were during his rookie campaign in fantasy football leagues.
The Shannahan Effect
Although the new coaches should help Morris’ numbers in indirect ways, it can’t be forgotten how much previous head coach Mike Shanahan’s system is known for creating running back production. Worse players than Morris have been plugged into that system for a couple decades and have put up eye-popping numbers. Unlike some of the backs that had come before him, Morris does have the talent to produce outside of Shanahan’s system, but it’s most likely going to be a harder chore and the same running efficiency may not be there.
New head coach Jay Gruden is also bringing a more pass-friendly system with him that he employed with the Bengals over the past few seasons. With Gruden, Cincinnati passed the ball 54.89% of the time over the past 3 seasons. Compare that to the Redskins who passed only 51.86% of the time since Morris was drafted, and remember game flow skewed 2013 towards the pass. The team may have more possessions and the score of the game may allow for more runs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Morris’ carries will increase from 2013.
With Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, and Andre Roberts, the team definitely has the personnel to scale back the running game as the coach’s history says he’s inclined to do. Gruden may even want Helu on the field more often to better complement his passing sets.
The Rare Success of a Running-only Back
As good as Morris is, he simply won’t be able to return to RB1 status in fantasy football leagues without greatly increased rushing volume. Having caught just 20 passes over his first two seasons, he won’t have the receiving yards to buoy his total stats. Since 2000, here are all the running backs who have finished top 12 in standard scoring and had 15 or fewer receptions. I’ll also include the number of carries and touchdowns they had.
2003: Stephen Davis finished #12 with 14 receptions, 318 carries and 8 touchdowns.
2004: Corey Dillon finished #7 with 15 receptions, 345 carries and 12 touchdowns (plus 1 rec TD).
2004: Rudi Johnson finished #8 with 15 receptions, 362 carries and 12 touchdowns.
2005: Shaun Alexander finished #1 with 15 receptions, 370 carries and 27 touchdowns (plus 1 rec TD).
2008: Michael Turner finished #2 with 6 receptions, 377 carries and 17 touchdowns.
2008: Brandon Jacobs finished #12 with 6 receptions, 219 carries and 15 touchdowns.
2009: Thomas Jones finished #5 with 10 receptions, 332 carries and 14 touchdowns.
2010: Michael Turner finished #10 with 12 receptions, 334 carries and 12 touchdowns.
2012: Alfred Morris himself finished #5 with 11 receptions, 335 carries and 13 touchdowns.
Over the past 13 seasons, there have only been 9 instances of a player finishing as a RB1 with 15 or fewer catches in fantasy football leagues. Only 1 of those players had fewer than 12 touchdowns, but he had 318 carries and just barely made the cut at #12. Only 1 player had fewer than 318 carries, but he had 15 touchdowns and again just barely made it to #12. Only Michael Turner has appeared on this list more than once. These seasons are rare, and when they do happen, they almost always require large quantities of carries and touchdowns to make up for lack of receptions.
Going by history then, unless Morris turned himself into the next Marshall Faulk over the offseason, it would appear quite unlikely for him to finish in the top 12 at his position if he did not have a significant number more carries and touchdowns than he had last year. We’ve already gone over why it wouldn’t be smart to bank on Morris having a boatload of carries. Now it’s certainly a possibility he finds himself in the end zone more than a dozen times but touchdowns are very much a gamble and even then that’s no guarantee he would return draft-day value.
Is Alfred Morris a #1 RB in Fantasy Football Leagues?
Unless you’re content with drafting solely for the bottom floor of safety Morris has established his first two seasons, aim for someone higher than Alfred Morris to be your top running back in your fantasy football leagues. This sentiment is especially true for PPR leagues where Morris is further punished for his lack of receptions. Morris is certainly a talented back in his own right, but in a day and age where every bit of production counts in your fantasy football leagues, you might want to consider a more multi-faceted back to be your workhorse.
Of course, that’s just my opinion based on some light historical analysis and what I believe are some fairly rational inferences about this upcoming season. Where do you think Morris will finish this season?