Why Are People Down on Alfred Morris?

After putting up the second most rushing yards over the past two years combined, why are people so down on Alfred Morris entering 2014?

Hovering near the turn between the second and third rounds of fantasy drafts is a young running back who's posted 1,000-yard seasons each year he's been in the NFL. He's a true workhorse - a rare back who's averaged over 300 carries, 4.7 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns per season over his career. He has yet to miss a game during his brief NFL tenure, but Washington Redskin Alfred Morris seems to continue losing traction as the season nears.

Why is that?

How is a young back with ample rushing opportunities, proven production, and no health concerns falling to the 13th running back being drafted in fantasy football?

New Sheriff in Town

After the abrupt dismissal of former head coach Mike Shanahan, the Washington Redskins quickly found their new replacement in Jay Gruden. The former Cincinnati Bengal offensive coordinator takes over a team that struggled with inconsistencies in hopes of providing stabilization. An adept passing guru, Gruden saw some success mentoring Andy Dalton, turning the former second round pick out of TCU into a solid fantasy quarterback a season ago. Gruden's help as the offensive coordinator led the Bengals to three straight playoff appearances, and there's hope he'll to do the same in Washington after their one-year hiatus.

So what does all of this mean for Morris?

Gruden's running backs have been far from exceptional, and are often platooned in a dynamic manner. numberFire's own Joe Redemann referenced how Gruden often deployed running back committees in Cincinnati, with a lead power running back complemented by a receiving back. The depth chart behind Morris consists of the oft-injured Roy Helu, the undersized Chris Thompson, the seldom used Evan Royster, and two rookies in Lache Seastrunk and Silas Redd fighting for roster spots. Helu stands the most to gain as Gruden's "pass-catching" back, as he led all Washington running backs picking up a quiet 31 receptions last year. But just how efficient was Helu when given his opportunities?

PlayerRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP per Target
Roy Helu3111.56421.320.28
Alfred Morris93.95122.040.33

After more than tripling Morris' targets, Helu understandably has the advantage over Morris in his Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) score, as this is a cumulative statistic. However, on a per target basis, Morris trumped Helu in productivity. There's a preconceived notion that Morris is an unreliable receiver, but numberFire's NEP score tells another story. Morris isn't a terrible option out of the backfield and produces quite well when throw to; hopefully Gruden finds ways to exploit that in 2014. Early camp reviews of Morris' pass catching ability have been glowing, too, as perhaps Washington aims to make their former Pro Bowl running back more multidimensional.

Can a Dismal 2013 Be Turned Around?

Washington struggled in 2013, but there were some bright spots for the offense. Pierre Garcon led the league in receptions, rookie Jordan Reed proved to be a capable tight end target, and Alfred Morris provided some stability, compiling the fourth most rushing yards in the league. Morris' play declined in 2013, but that was a direct result of the entire offense flattening out after a bizarre falling out between Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III.

PlayerYearRushesRushing YardsRush NEPRush NEP Rank*Rush NEP/PRush NEP/P Rank*
Alfred Morris2012336161310.856th2.637th (tied)
Alfred Morris20132761275-4.1522nd-0.0221st

*Ranking out of running backs with 100-plus carries

Morris' precipitous drop in statistics went clear across the board, as Washington's offense fell to shambles last year. In 2012, when Morris was second in the league in rushing, he not only had an exceptional statistical year, but he also did so in a very efficient manner. Morris picked up the sixth-highest Rushing NEP of backs with over 100 carries. That number plummeted in 2013 as he fell to 22nd, yet he was still able to find his way to 1,275 yards.

Can Morris turn things around this year?

With a revamped passing game orchestrated by Gruden, Robert Griffin III will be able to open up running lanes by stretching the offense vertically with the additions of speedsters DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts preventing less loaded boxes. Part of Morris' success in 2012 was the threat of RGIII running with the ball forcing edge defenders to either take away the outside big run by RGIII or move inside and prevent a big run up the middle by the bruising 224-pound back. The return of a healthy RGIII presents a threat to all levels of the defense, consequently aiding Morris in finding easier lanes to pursue against undisciplined defenders.

Comparable backs

As the 13th running back being taken, it can sometimes be valuable to look into the surrounding competition near Morris. Listed below are the 11th-15th running backs taken by ADP from in standard 12-team leagues.

PlayerGames PlayedRushing YardsRush TDReceiving YardsRec. TDTotal YardsTotal TDs
Giovani Bernard166955514312098
Arian Foster7542118317252
Alfred Morris161275778013537
Doug Martin645616605221
Zac Stacy139737141111148

With the varying amounts of games each of these running backs played last year, it may be more efficient to compare how well they each did running the ball from an efficiency standpoint.

PlayerRush NEPRush NEP per RushRec NEPTarget NEPTotal NEP
Giovani Bernard-6.75-0.0432.4520.1925.7
Arian Foster0.520.007.12-4.917.65
Alfred Morris-4.15-0.020.952.04-0.20
Doug Martin-12.64-0.10-0.12-8.99-4.92
Zac Stacy-10.41-0.045.490.42-12.96

Positive NEP scores are hard to come by for running backs. Out of the 47 running backs that surpassed 100 carries last year, only 18 of them had positive Rushing NEP scores. Coincidentally, the backs listed 11th through 15th also aligned with numberFire's Total NEP. Gruden's former disciple, Giovani Bernard, led the group in Total NEP, but could be challenged for carries by rookie Jeremy Hill as Bernard enters his sophomore year.

Arian Foster only played seven games, yet showed he's not ready to be given up on quite yet as he was the only back to post a positive Rushing NEP. Doug Martin failed to live up to his high billing last year, as he only posted a top-15 fantasy week twice before an injury cut short his season after six games. Lastly, Zac Stacy enters perhaps the most challenging division in the NFC West after a promising rookie season, but posted the lowest Total NEP of the group.

Each of the five running backs outside the top-10 could all be interchangeable depending on drafters' preferences. They each have questions entering the season, but none have put up quite the historic numbers that Morris has.

Can Morris return to his 2012 lofty status?

In 2012, Morris was the fifth best fantasy running back, but dropped to 15th in 2013 after a disappointing season by the entire team. The negativity pertaining to Morris' draft stock is merely reflective of the public's thoughts on Washington as a whole after a poor season. However, Morris is one of only nine running backs in NFL history to rush for 2,888 yards over the first two seasons of their career. With a healthy RGIII back in the pocket threatening defenses with Washington's read-option and play-action, Morris' numbers should rise back to their 2012 status.

With the scarcity of lead backs and consistent weekly fantasy producers, Morris' floor is one of the safest of the backs being chosen in his range. He was second in the league in rushing in 2012, and in a "down year", he placed fourth in 2013. While his reception upside is limited, you're getting a proven back capable of eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark where other backs questions of time share and health come into play. Considering the high risk among RB2s when spending a premium pick, wouldn't it be safest to pick the player most likely to live up to his expectations?