As one that works hard to avoid enchanting predictions for a football team following a little preseason action, I enjoyed bits and pieces of the Redskins’ win over the Bills last week. And whether I want to admit it or not, there were some things that got me excited about the upcoming season and the way this young team is forming together.
Creative formations, consistent defensive pressure, and overall boost in offensive speed were delights for a fan that hasn’t seen much of the sorts in recent years. But it was one guy in particular that caught my eye — and the eye of many others — when he entered the game in the second half.
Last April, head coach Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were equipped with nine total draft picks and a roster with a plenty of need. With the third pick of the sixth round, the Redskins selected Alfred Morris — a running back from Florida Atlantic.
Over offensive line depth like Nate Potter, Matt McCants, Andrew Datko and Brandon Washington?
Before defensive back projects like Alfonzo Dennard, Winston Guy and Trent Robinson?
And if Shanahan was sticking to his old ways of taking a late-round flyer at the running back position, didn’t he hear me bangin’ the table for Cyrus Gray? Were the more household names Boom Herron and Terrance Ganaway not on the Redskins’ board?
Shanahan and the Redskins saw something in Morris. And while he may have been on the team’s radar before late January, it was at the Senior Bowl that Shanahan and his staff got their chance to coach the South roster in Mobile, Alabama and get a firsthand look at the stocky kid from Pensacola. They apparently liked what they saw.
Despite playing against third-stringers and guys likely headed for the practice squad, I was impressed with Morris’ performance in his first NFL preseason game. His final stat line of 15 carries for 54 yards is far from flashy, but it was his style and effort that stood out and forced you to take notice.
Coming out of college, Morris wasn’t labeled a speedster. In fact, many had him going undrafted due to his lack of speed. But a 4.67 forty at the Combine wasn’t enough to push Shanahan away. And it was likely the same stuff that Morris showed in his first professional outing that kept coaches intrigued and wanting to see more.
Though scouts may like to see better straight-line speed, Morris’ forty was ranked just shy of the tenth-best dash times amongst running backs in Indy. It wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.
More importantly, Morris performed well in the three-cone and 20-yard shuttle drills, testing one’s change-of-direction speed and lateral quickness, respectively.
Morris ranked seventh amongst running backs in the three-cone, better than first-round draft pick David Wilson. He also ranked fifth amongst running backs in the 20-yard shuttle, coming in just a hair shy of first-rounder Doug Martin.
Morris demonstrated that explosiveness against the Bills last week. He wasn’t particularly quick — or given the chance to show his sprinting speed — but he gave a burst immediately following the handoff. He displayed a balanced running motion that worked well with his ability to bounce off tackles and he wasn’t afraid to put his head down to pick up extra yards.
Shanahan has always coveted north-south runners that can find the hole quickly in his zone-blocking scheme and break through with one cut. And while Morris may not be a threat to take it to the house with homerun emphasis, he has a great mix of vision, burst and balance to be a successful back under Shanahan.
Although some have labeled Morris undersized, his compact 5’10”, 218-pound frame is perfect for his physical style of play. As he proved against Buffalo, Morris isn’t afraid to put a hat on a pass-rusher and contribute in pass-protection. And I’m sure he’s fully aware of the importance Shanahan places in running backs that can be effective in protecting the quarterback.
One aspect of Morris’ game that was unfortunately left out last Thursday was his pass-catching. Far from a dual-threat back, Morris did improve his receiving skills over the course of his college career. He also has hands measuring larger (10.25″) than any receiver taken in the first round of April’s draft. One has to believe — especially in this Redskins offense — that Morris’ ability as a receiver will continue to improve.
It’s fair to say that Morris has grown on me. Before the start of camp, I predicted him strictly a practice squad player. But after quality practices, strong effort and making the most of limited playing time, Morris has firmly positioned himself amongst the running back competition at Redskins Park.
With Tim Hightower still recovering from a torn ACL, and recent reports of Roy Helu experiencing pain and tendinitis in his Achilles, Morris may go from being a darkhorse to a legitimate option. At which point, I won’t give two thoughts about Alfonzo Dennard, Cyrus Gray or any of those other late-round fliers.