Fantasy Football: Will Alfred Morris Be the Dallas Cowboys' Lead Back Next Year?

Dallas inked Morris to a deal this morning, but given Morris' recent play, is he ready to be a featured back again?

I received a text from my wife this morning.

"Who is Adam LaRoche?"


I wasn't upset with her -- she, someone who really isn't that into baseball, heard his name and some of his retirement story on the radio on her way to work. I was upset that this non-story turned story made it all the way to some popular music station on Sirius XM.

We've got the NCAA Tournament, some historic NBA play, and Spring Training all happening at once, and people want to talk about Adam LaRoche's kid.

Alas, the public loves non-stories that turn into stories. Have you watched an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians?

Within fantasy football circles, the same type of scenario could be unfolding. Today, Alfred Morris inked a deal with the Dallas Cowboys, giving the team depth at a position that lacked it. And while I don't necessarily consider this to be a complete non-story, I do wonder what it's going to blow up to, especially in fantasy football. Because as we saw last year with Joseph Randle, it's easy to hype the situation a running back currently has with the Dallas Cowboys.

Is Alfred Morris really an answer?

By the Numbers

Morris hasn't exactly had a typical career. A sixth-round pick in 2012, he sort of lit up the league as a rookie, posting over 1,600 rushing yards while scoring 13 times, a feat accomplished by only two other rookie running backs in NFL history.

According to our Net Expected Points metric -- or NEP, which you can and should read about more in our glossary -- Morris was predictably a monster that year.

Year Rushing NEP Per Rush Success Rate
2012 10.85 (6th of 42) 0.03 (8th of 42) 46.13% (10th of 42)

The table above shows Morris' Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per rush efficiency, while also noting his Success Rate, or the number of positive runs made by a back, among 100-plus attempt rushers in 2012. As you can see, he was a top-10 back across the board. And it wasn't as though he made a living on big plays. His high Success Rate matched with a really good per-rush average shows that he was making things happen in a lot of different ways.

The next season, Morris saw a bit of a dip in production, which was more or less to be expected.

Year Rushing NEP Per Rush Success Rate
2013 -4.15 (22nd of 47) -0.02 (20th of 47) 44.93% (11th of 47)

Though his numbers weren't nearly as good as they were during his rookie year, this type of profile looks like a grind-it-out type of back. Why? Because he's got a very average Rushing NEP per rush rate -- in fact, -0.02 was league average that year -- with a high Success Rate. In other words, he's not necessarily making huge plays (average rate of gaining expected points), but he's making positive plays consistently (high Success Rate). That's generally what you like to see from a bigger-bodied back.

Morris' early-career success comes with a couple of big caveats, though. The first is that, in 2012 and 2013, Robert Griffin III played the majority of snaps (28 games) at quarterback for Washington. Analysts will more than likely attribute the majority of Morris' early success (in hindsight, especially) to this fact, and while it does seem reasonable, it's not super grounded in fact. Because, in truth, Morris averaged just seven yards per game fewer without RGIII in 2012 and 2013 than he did with him. And that's not all that significant.

What could be the bigger deal here is Kyle Shanahan. Now the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, Shanahan spent 2010 to 2013 in Washington as their offensive coordinator. He implemented the zone blocking scheme, which has seen running backs -- under Shanahan's guidance -- like Steve Slaton and, last year, Devonta Freeman, thrive.

Look what happened to Morris' numbers after the departure of Shanahan, which coincided slightly with Robert Griffin III's benching.

Year Rushing NEP Per Rush Success Rate
2014 -11.86 -0.04 40.00%
2015 -15.40 -0.08 32.67%

A quick glance comparing this table to the two above shows a completely different running back -- and one that continues to decline each year in the league. For reference, Morris hasn't been above the league average's Rushing NEP per rush over the last two years, and his Success Rate -- something that made him such an important back in the league -- was worst in the NFL among 100-plus attempt rushers last year.

He's also become increasing worse at breaking tackles, per Pro Football Focus' Pat Thorman.

Of course, so many things play into this. Yes, Shanahan left and RGIII's play turned disastrous, but the line arguably didn't get as much push over the last two years, and 2014 saw some really crappy quarterback play.

Even with that said, though, it's tough to be excited about a running back who ranked worst in Success Rate last year and one who has seen a decline in play each year in the league. The good news is that Dallas is a plus-situation that runs the zone blocking scheme, and we've seen another experienced back become somewhat rejuvenated in the Cowboys' system in the past.

Déjà Vu?

If you recall, the Cowboys made a move for a veteran running back just a season ago. That was Darren McFadden, who was written off -- even by yours truly -- after a miserable time in Oakland.

What McFadden showed us last year is that you don't need to be supremely talented to run behind Dallas' offensive line. Don't get me wrong -- DMC looked much better in 2015 than in the couple of seasons prior, but his career trajectory completely changed in Dallas last year.

YearRushing NEPPer RushSuccess Rate

Over 2012 through 2014, Darren McFadden was the absolute worst running back in the NFL, per NEP. Yes, his situation was incredibly undesirable, but it's similar to the notion above with Morris: if you're that bad, no matter the circumstances, there's reason to be alarmed.

Of course, DMC went from awful circumstances to decent ones last year, and he was able to increase his Rushing NEP per rush by 0.13 and Success Rate by over 6 percentage points. What's even more impressive is he did that with Cleveland Browns-esque quarterback play. All of this led to very average Rushing NEP and Success Rate numbers.

So what does this all mean? Well, we have proof that this "throw an experienced and struggling running back behind Dallas' offensive line" can work to an extent. The problem is that the Cowboys -- or fantasy owners -- may not be maximizing what that role could potentially do. In other words, Alfred Morris (or Darren McFadden) might be fine as early-down backs for Dallas, but is "fine" what we're looking for here?

Fantasy Football Implications

If we assume Morris sees 200-plus attempts in Dallas, then he's valuable in some way to fantasy football. Anyone getting that kind of work should be rostered.

But that's not everything, and that kind of volume is no lock at this point. 

It'd be tough to imagine him seeing an incredible boost in efficiency after what he's done over the last two years, and another problem with Morris -- and this is different than what most owners felt and saw with McFadden down the stretch last year -- is that he's never proven to be a good pass-catcher. Despite seeing 200 or more carries in every season of his career, Morris has never caught more than 17 passes. Last season, for reference, DMC caught 40.

The receiving ability isn't just opportunity-driven, either. Morris' Reception NEP per target rate was 0.11 last year, when the league average among backs was over three times as efficient at 0.36.

This signing, then, could indirectly help Lance Dunbar, who re-signed with the Cowboys earlier this offseason. Dunbar is a passing game specialist, but his season was cut short last year due to a torn ACL and MCL. Prior to getting injured, though, Dunbar took over the passing-down role in the Cowboys' backfield, compiling 23 targets through Week 3. That was the most in the entire NFL at the position.

So if this is the bulk of the Cowboys' backfield moving into the 2016 season, what should we expect? 

Well, Dunbar should be in line for a lot of targets. It's his role on the team, and Dallas isn't exactly filled with receiving talent.

That means the one way Morris ends up being anything like he was in the past in fantasy football is with Darren McFadden -- or a future rookie -- absent from the picture. Things are definitely favoring him seeing the most touches on early downs right now -- he's worked well in the zone blocking scheme in the past, he's younger than McFadden, and the Cowboys actively went out and signed him as a free agent.

But we should still be cautious before dubbing Alfred Morris any sort of middle-round fantasy football value. Couldn't this move have been strictly to provide depth to a rather barren backfield? Couldn't it simply be insurance?

This story isn't a non-story, because from a football standpoint, the move makes sense. From a fantasy football front, though? I'm not ready to dub Morris a must-grab.