Alfred Morris is the best forgotten about running back in this year’s fantasy football mock drafts.
And I’m not saying he should be forgotten about, like the movie Sharknado. What I’m saying is people are disregarding a guy who is likely to finish in the top-7 among running backs.
Currently, Morris is being drafted towards the end of the second round in most drafts. I’ve even seen people take Doug Martin off the board ahead of him.
The knock on Morris is that new head coach Jay Gruden will expunge a significant amount of production from Morris because of what Gruden did in Cincinnati with BeJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
I heard that knock and opened the door. Gruden was standing there, but so were Alfred Morris, Roy Helu and the 2011-13 Bengals teams.
So I decided to deconstruct each piece of this Morris puzzle down to its simplest parts. Kinda like when I was a kid and would take apart my Rubik’s cube, but this time without the cheating.
The Goods On Gruden in Nati:
Fantasy football managers have a very short memory. And when I say short, I mean week-to-week. That’s why I’ve been so confused with this Jay Gruden, “two-back system” theory.
Gruden became the Bengals offensive coordinator prior to the 2011 season. He remained in that position through the 2013 season.
In 2011, Gruden was puppeteering Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott. Scott’s performances—especially the one during Benson’s mid-season suspension—had many thinking Scott should have a more prominent role in the backfield.
Instead, Gruden kept trotting out the plodding Benson each week, while talking the “it would be nice to get Scott more carries” rhetoric each week.
Of the Bengals 455 rushing attempts in 2011, Benson accounted for 273 of them (60.0%) and Scott had 112 (24.6%).
One of the most interesting stats, however, is that both running backs combined for 18 receptions (Benson-15, Scott-13).
For the 2012 season, the Bengals released Benson and brought in BenJarvus Green-Ellis from the Patriots. Scott was injured for the first two weeks of the season and then tore his ACL. He was done for the year.
Gruden then had Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard at running back. Leonard started the season as Green-Ellis’ primary backup but Peerman snatched that role from Leonard as the season wore on.
Peerman received a total of seven carries up until Week 9 of the 2012 season. From Week 9 until Week 11, Peerman average 7.3 carries and 52.3 yards over that three game stretch.
After Week 9, Gruden said, “I think it’s important to get Cedric some more touches. He’s earned that right and gives us a little change of pace.”
In Weeks 10 and 11, Peerman had eight rushes each week, no receptions. Peerman was injured in Week 12, didn’t play in Weeks 13-15 and got five carries in the Bengals final game.
And in 2012, Green-Ellis, Leonard and Peerman accounted for a total of 42 receptions.
Now we get to what everyone is focusing on:
Jay Gruden’s 2013 season.
Prior to the 2013 season, most expected the Bengals to draft a change-of-pace running back to compliment Green-Ellis. They did just that with Giovani Bernard.
Despite being underwhelming all season, Gruden continued to let Green-Ellis dominate the Bengals 481 rushing attempts. BJGE logged 220 carries (45.7%) to Giodude’s 170 carries (35.3%).
The aspect of this Gruden-led offense that was different than his 2011 and 2012 offenses is that Gruden consistently used a running back (Bernard) to catch passes.
Prior to 2013, Gruden utilized five running backs as an offensive coordinator. Those running backs caught the following number of passes in 2011 and 2012: 15, 13, 22, 9 and 11. Green-Ellis led this group, averaging a whopping 1.4 catches per game in 2012.
In 2013, Bernard caught 56 passes (3.5 receptions per game) while BJGE caught 4 total passes all season.
So that’s all the stats and stuff. But let’s read between the lines and quotes and carries and all that stuff and see what’s really going on with Alfred Morris and Jay Gruden.
First of all, Gruden showed that he—as any good coordinator would—utilizes the talents that are at his disposal. If you look at Gruden’s 2011 and 2012 seasons, there’s an argument that he doesn’t like to throw the ball to his running backs.
After the Bengals acquired Benard in 2013, and Benard caught 56 passes, everyone is saying Gruden likes to throw to his backs.
And because Benard had 170 carries to BJGE’s 220, I keep hearing stuff about Gruden’s “two-back system.” But Gruden didn’t have that “two-back system” in 2011 or 2012. The reason he didn’t was because there weren’t two running backs on the roster worth having a “two-back system.”
So now let’s pull focus on Roy Helu and see if he’s going to bring out the 2011 & 2012 single-back Gruden or the 2013 two-back system Gruden.
The Lowdown on Roy Helu:
Roy Helu was a fourth-round pick in 2011. In the same draft, Washington picked up Evan Royster in the sixth round.
Initially, the coaching staff didn’t trust Helu as a pass protector. They traded for Tim Hightower and Helu slid to No. 3 on the depth chart.
Hightower tore his ACL in Week 7, which opened the door for Helu to operate in a more prominent role.
In Week 11, Helu broke out against a stiff Seattle defense and for the next three weeks he carried the ball 23, 27 and 23 times, respectively.
Helu missed Week 15 with toe and knee injuries and was relegated to just four carries and two receptions in Washington’s final game of the season.
Helu’s 2012 Season:
The 2012 season was a disaster for Helu. Even though he passed Royster on the depth chart in 2011, he started camp as the No. 2 back due to injuries. He was suffering from Achilles tendonitis in both tendons. This made the coaching staff question whether he could stay healthy working at a bell-cow capacity.
Experts were still guessing if Royster or Helu would be the main running back for Washington for the 2012 season. While the experts were looking right, Mike Shanahan went left: Alfred Morris was the starter.
Helu’s 2012 season ended with him on injured reserve after Week 3 (severe turf toe).
Helu's 2013 Season:
Helu had surgery on the toe in February of 2013 and missed OTAs. He was named the No. 2 running back after a quiet training camp battle, however.
Helu had a couple of solid weeks as Morris’ backup (especially in Week 6 when he scored three touchdowns), but never received more than a handful of carries each week.
Helu finished the 2013 season with 62 carries for 274 yards and four scores, good for 3.9 rushes per game. He also caught 31 passes.
Helu has shown that he is an explosive running back who has soft hands out of the backfield. The issue with Helu is he can’t handle an increased workload without succumbing to injury—or at least that’s what history tells me.
In other words, Helu is not a 100+ carry type of running back. He’s cut from the Cedric Peerman cloth and will see an average of three to four carries per game.
And as far as receptions, that depends on how well Washington does this year.
In 2012, Washington won seven of their 10 wins by a touchdown or more and ran the ball 519 times. That’s when you’ll see Morris get 300+ touches because he’s being used to kill the clock.
In 2013, Washington went 3-13 and ran only 451 plays. Ten of those losses were by a touchdown or more. And Morris’ touches dropped to 276, 59 fewer rushes than he had in 2012.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Morris’ touches will increase as long as Washington is pulling out W’s each week.
And this season, I see Washington being more competitive with a healthy RGIII, the addition of DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed having another season of experience and Pierre Garcon being able to run a full route tree without consistent bracket coverage.
Morris will especially benefit from a having a healthy RGIII because of the running threat RGIII brings when on the field.
RGIII’s proficiency at running the bootleg freezes the backside ends, which allows Washington’s backside tackles to neutralize opponents’ linebackers. It’s the formula that allowed Morris to see much wider running lanes in 2012 than he did in 2013.
With Gruden calling plays as the head coach, it’s unclear which system he will use. Based on Gruden’s history in Cincinnati, he has used both a bell-cow running back and a time-share backfield. Gruden has utilized the running back in the passing game (Giovani) and he has not (in 2011 and 2012).
I can tell you that Morris is a bell-cow type of running back, one who possesses superior talent to the likes of Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Neither Helu, nor any other running back on the roster, poses a real threat to reduce Morris' workload.
In that vein, I fully expect Morris to get between 275 to 300 rushes and average about 4.5 yards with them. Touchdowns are fluky, but it would be shocking if Morris finished with less than double-digit scores. Those are top-7 running back numbers. He’ll be a steal with his current ADP in the late-second round.