After finishing his 2012 rookie campaign ranked second in rushing touchdowns, yards per game and total rushing yards, you'd think Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris could relax through the offseason and prepare for opening night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But Morris has a different attitude heading into his sophomore season.
“My mindset going into camp is the same way I came in last year," Morris said on the Redskins official website, "I have to earn my spot.”
Despite his 1,613 yards and 13 scores, it's wild to think we may have yet to see Morris reach his full potential as a balanced and versatile running back.
“He has spent a lot of time in the offseason catching the football, running routes and you can see that hard work has paid off because he’s a lot more natural,” head coach Mike Shanahan said. “It gives you another dimension.”
Fantasy owners rejoice. Redskins fans too. Morris becoming a reliable target out of the backfield would not only make him a better player in 2013, but also even more important to the team offense.
Especially true for young running backs, improving as a pass-blocker is vital to becoming an every-down back. Morris' 97.9 pass-blocking efficiency rating from a year ago, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranked highest among running backs who played at least 50 percent of their team's pass-block snaps last season.
And his head coach wouldn't be surprised:
“Morris has always been a blocker," Shanahan says. "He’s got that strength."
Midway through the second quarter against the St. Louis Rams in Week 2 of last season, the Redskins led 14-6.
On 1st-and-10 from the Rams' 32-yard line, Robert Griffin III lines up under center, strong to the right and with both Morris and fullback Darrel Young in the backfield.
Morris has the tough responsibility of selling a play-fake to the right, then immediately picking up a rushing linebacker in Rocky McIntosh (50) off the edge.
This play works based off the effectiveness of two play-action fakes: the first one to Morris, and the second to Joshua Morgan who runs from the right side of formation behind Griffin as part of an imitated end-around.
Due to the intricacy of the play, the Rams defense is caught a bit off-guard, helping to clean up Griffin's blindside.
Behind the right side of the offensive line—who does a good job in their own right—Morris is left one-on-one with McIntosh.
If Morris successfully keeps himself in front of the linebacker, Griffin has plenty of time to allow the play to develop. If he fails, the play likely results in a sack or risky scramble by Griffin.
Not only does Morris get a good initial punch on McIntosh, but he keeps a firm base and moves well with the 6'2", 235-pound linebacker. He gives Griffin the time he needs to deliver a 68-yard bomb to Leonard Hankerson for a touchdown to give the Redskins a 21-6 lead.
With Morris earning himself a reputation as a reliable pass-blocker, his opportunity to catch more balls out of the backfield should naturally increase. With more trust from coaches, Morris stays in on passing downs, and he's yet another catching valve for Griffin when he's in the pocket.
Although he saw less than 15 targets as a receiver last year, Morris made the most of his opportunities, and fans should be excited for what he could bring in an increased role.
Trailing the Philadelphia Eagles 7-0 to start the second quarter during Week 16 last year, the Redskins line up on 1st-and-10 with Griffin under center and Morris deep in the backfield. The play will call for a play-action handoff to Morris, who will play it through the trench and look for a pass about two yards past the line of scrimmage.
Griffin takes a glance downfield, but the play-fake creates room. Morris is then left with room around him to pickup at least a handful of yards.
Morris brings in the ball at about the 45-yard line and then looks to move the sticks.
In a basic one-on-one with Mychal Kendricks, Morris is seemingly guaranteed the first down.
The easy move after passing the marker would've been a hop out of bounds. But Morris reverts back to his hard-running style, continuing to chop his feet and putting his head down into Kendricks. The result is an extra seven yards on top of the first down.
Here's another well-executed play during Week 5 against the Atlanta Falcons.
On first down late in the second quarter, Griffin lines up under center with Morris and Young in the backfield.
Griffin fakes an inside handoff to Young, which helps to draw defenders.
Tight end Fred Davis gets just enough of a block on his man to buy Griffin some time and dump a swing pass to Morris on his left.
After catching the ball a couple yards behind the line of scrimmage, Morris uses his speed to propel himself past a pursuing linebacker (54) and beyond the first-down marker.
Again Morris has the opportunity to step out of bounds after moving the chains, but instead chooses to bounce inside with deceivingly quick feet, sending an agile defensive back into the water coolers and dragging two would-be tacklers for an extra six yards following the first down.
Plays like this helped Morris earn a high elusiveness rating, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
An elusive rating ultimately determines a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers. Morris' 51.0 ranked fourth-best among backs who played at least 75 percent of their team's attempts last season.
When attempting to project Morris as a well-rounded running back, the ingredients are all there.
Albeit minimal increments, Morris increased his pass-catching totals over the course of his four years at Florida Atlantic. His hands measured larger at the Combine (10.25") than any receiver taken in the first round of the 2012 draft. Add that to his field vision, power and determination, and Morris is a threatening receiver just waiting to prove the label.
In 789 total snaps last season, Morris only caught 11 balls. But that low total isn't based off lack of ability or skill. Morris has what it takes to be more than just a powerful north and south runner. His ability in the open field is the same whether he takes a handoff or hauls in a pass. Give him space (or not), and Morris can pick up big chunks of yardage at any given time.
If Shanahan's true to his word about Morris playing a more prominent role in the Redskins' passing game this season, the sky is the limit for Morris, and he'll prove to everyone that he's more than just a product of Shanny's system.
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