Editor's note: This story originally ran on March 23 before the NFL draft. SportsDay is periodically bringing back past stories during the Cowboys' offseason. Today we examine running back Alfred Morris.
Then, in a rumored deal that finally went down, the Cowboys acquired RB Alfred Morris from Washington to a deal that looks very familiar - in fact, it is nearly the exact same deal they put on Darren McFadden last spring:
Now, this is clearly not the type of deal that "top of the market" RBs sign. In fact, according to further reporter discussions on the Morris contract, it looks like the price of the 27-year old veteran who has more yards in the NFL since 2012 than any RB other than Adrian Peterson is roughly $1.8m for 2016:
In other words, Morris is going to cost less than LB Andrew Gachkar this season. So, on the surface, let's start with simply arguing that there is almost not a thing to lose with this pick. There is no risk, there is no cap room being allocated of note, and there is no downside to seeing if this RB who has shown he understands the concepts of zone blocking schemes still has anything in the tank.
If you want proven RBs with no chance of it not working, look what Chip Kelly and the Eagles dropped on DeMarco Murray last spring: $18 million guaranteed to sign. And then they don't work anyway:
So, it looks like the overall investment for Alfred Morris is down below what they are paying Darren McFadden. That is quite impressive. Now, the question I have is it to pair with McFadden or is it to replace McFadden? In other words, I am hearing many people discuss the idea that this takes them out of the RB market altogether. It might, but if a quality RB is there between Rounds 2-4 and they choose to pull the trigger, I could see where McFadden and Morris are working for the same job. That means McFadden, one of the few 1,000 yard rushers in the NFL last year, would be out. But, we can talk about that after the draft. And, of course, any move like that would not happen until August anyway. The money invested in McFadden and/or Morris requires no urgency, whatsoever.
Now, let's look at this new signing and discuss why they are interested:
ALFRED MORRIS, RB, 5-foot-11, 224 pounds - Dec. 12, 1988 (27 years old) - 4.63 40 - 5th Year
There is no question that the Cowboys received more from their running game than most people expected in a year without DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo, and most of Dez Bryant. They did it on the backs of a very strong offensive line and a surprising year from Darren McFadden after Joseph Randle followed roughly the worst case scenario down the drain of his career.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that they did so while having to alter their scheme to fit the skill-set of McFadden. The former Raider had a reputation that preceded him here that we wrote about quite a bit last summer. He is not comfortable or fluent in the zone running game concepts. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have built their offensive line on the singular premise of finding zone blocking scheme personnel and then investing heavily in that very thing for the last 5 seasons. In an organization where consistency is sometimes difficult to see, they were very consistent in moving away from the old school man-blocking concepts of Hudson Houck.
Now, they were a zone team and ran it at best 100% of the time (2013-early 2014) and at worst about 80% of the time. But, with McFadden, it just never worked.
Here are the numbers for you to do with what you like: In 2015, Darren McFadden was given the ball 183 times on zone running plays and racked up 668 yards. This averages out to 3.65 yards per carry on a team that generally gets 5 yards a carry on these plays. On the old man-blocking plays with pulling guards and such, he ran 56 times for 442 yards for a whopping 7.89 yards per carry. So, the scheme the Cowboys run was half as productive as the scheme McFadden fits the best.
Now, those numbers would obviously change if the change-up became the fastball. But, the point remains, the Cowboys were playing without a QB and a threatening WR and were now trying to change their scheme to use the only competent RB they had left. That is why they tried to run through a couple other zone runners in Christine Michael and Robert Turbin during the year, too. It was a mess.
So, the objective in the offseason was to find a better scheme fit. It isn't that they couldn't continue to alter the offense for McFadden if it was worth it, but they literally spent all their 1st round picks on offensive linemen for one scheme. It would make no sense to turn the franchise's direction over a soon to be 29-year old running back who counts jus $100k in dead money if they go in a new (old) direction.
Enter Alfred Morris.
Here is a guy who has had his own issues. One is having to run behind the Redskins offensive line with a team that also had no Dez Bryant or Tony Romo. Morris can do many things well, but also comes with limitations.
He CAN: play every Sunday as he was hardly ever hurt and never inactive (64 of 64 games played). He can take on a heavy work load (more carries than anyone since 2012). He can hold on to the football as he hardly ever fumbles (he last fumbled in 2014; he last lost a fumble in 2013). He can get what is blocked and a bit more. He has run almost nothing but zone plays.
He CAN NOT: Generally, he cannot breakaway with blazing speed (he was once 4.6 - he likely is less than that now). He cannot catch the ball in space much. And he cannot do magic tricks in space.
This demonstrates what a zone-read offense can do for a RB's production. Without it, but with that substandard Redskins line, he was not great last season.
Let's look at some particular plays from his last 3 games: At Philadelphia, At Dallas, and Home to Green Bay in the playoffs:
Week 15 at Philadelphia: Zone left and Morris sees that there is not much frontside so he finds the gap inside and gets 7 yards by being decisive and putting his foot in the ground. This is the type of play the Cowboys will run 12 times a game (to either side) some weeks.
Other side, the Eagles have it stretched out pretty well, but Morris slams it in there for a quick 5. This is 13 personnel, so you can see that this is a very loaded box and the Eagles aren't scared of anything down the field. Tough sledding against that front.
Here is a bonus play of new Cowboy Cedric Thornton swatting away their backup center and SMU guy, Josh LeRibeus, before devouring Morris. LeRibeus is not very good on running plays, to be honest. This is one example of many.
Another zone to the left against the Eagles, and again, Fletcher Cox is too much for LeRibeus, but Morris powers through for 5 yards. You just have to be decisive and make your move to get what you can get. Hesitation is a disaster in this scheme.
Week 16 at Dallas: Here is a play we saw all season from the Redskins. A zone stretch play that never gives a crease. If you want 3.7 yards a carry explained, I could show you 25 of these that get 1 yards. Sometimes, there is literally nowhere to go.
This is much better here. Zone right and now the center LeRibeus gets to the next level. This opens it up and Morris is bouncing to the outside for 15 or so. Well done and some nice burst out of traffic to the daylight.
This is another Cowboy zone blocking regular play. Inside zone and then the RB likes what is out wide after he doesn't see a path immediately. The Right Tackle Morgan Moses turns Randy Gregory out wide and upfield and you can drive a truck through there. Morris obliges and heads upfield for 7 yards.
Same thing here. This is DeMarco Murray. Inside zone, vision opens up something wide, and we are off to the races with one DB to deal with in space. You can see him checking window after window before he heads outside. If one play fires you up, this might be the one.
One more against a not-so-inspired Dallas defense playing out the final week, but he can still get you yards after contact and not concede anything. Nice job here getting a bunch more after a poor effort from Hitchens (pull on his jersey?).
Playoffs against Green Bay: Overall, this wasn't much of a day as they got behind and stopped running, but here are a few - Inside zone and a window allows him to get into the secondary for a big chunk of yardage.
And one more for showing late decision making and vision and making something out of not much. I thought his final 3 weeks showed that for this price, why not?
That is really what this whole exercise showed me. Why not? $5m a year? I am out. But, less than $2m a year? I cannot express how safe a deal this appears.
It boils down to this: Washington did not replace him with Matt Jones. That is a myth and they are shopping for a RB in this draft. Also, I believe Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are massive upgrades over Washington's interior at the present. And then add vertical threats with Dez Bryant and friends back with Tony Romo under center?
Morris is not much of an option on 3rd down or 2-min drill. But 1st and 2nd down? Short yardage? And 4-min drill to kill off games?
This gets an easy endorsement as a price that shows good business sense from the front office. I would still not rule out RB in the draft: