Grading the Redskins: Morris powers running backs

Grading the Redskins: Morris powers running backs
January 21, 2013, 11:00 am
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Over the next two weeks, Redskins reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2012 and evaluate its outlook for 2013. Previously, we looked atoffensive tackles, the interior offensive linewide receivers, and tight ends. Today, it’s the running backs.

Position: Running backs/fullback

Grade: A

2012 starters: Alfred Morris/Darrel Young

Key reserves: Evan Royster, Keiland Williams, Roy Helu Jr.

Key free agents: Young (restricted).

Rewind: The Redskins gained a league-best 2,709 yards on the ground in 2012 – an astounding increase of 1,095 over the team’s 2011 total.

Sure, a lot of that was a product of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which racked up the third most carries in the league with 519, and dual-threat quarterback in Robert Griffin III, who led all signal callers with 815 rushing yards. The rest of it, though, was the product of a sixth round draft pick who surpassed all reasonable expectations.

In training camp, Alfred Morris wasn’t even a lock to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. By the end of the preseason, however, the Redskins’ coaches knew that had unearthed something special. Indeed, what the 5 foot 9, 218-pounder lacked in breakaway speed he made up for with second effort, work ethic and ruggedness.

On 335 carries, Morris gained 1,614 yards (second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson), scored 13 touchdowns (second behind Arian Foster) and claimed the Redskins’ franchise record for rushing yards in a single season.

The only negative – and it’s a minor one – was Morris’ brief struggle with fumbles. He coughed up the football three times during a four game span, but the problem did not persist as he went the final three regular season games and the playoffs without putting a ball on the ground.

Morris also showed significant progress in other key areas that weren’t taught in college: the finer points of pass protection and how to care for a body that gets battered on a weekly basis.

And though it all, the 24-year-old from Pensacola, Fla., remained humble and continued to drive his 1991 Mazda, which ingratiated the rookie to his veteran teammates and made him wildly popular with fans.

Morris’ backup, Evan Royster, did not play much at all, gaining 88 yards on 23 carries and scoring twice. The team’s other running back, Roy Helu Jr., was placed on injured reserve after the season opener with two sore Achilles’ tendons and a toe injury.

The Redskins brought back Keiland Williams into the fold after he had performed well as a reserve and spot starter as a rookie in 2010. He did not play an offensive snap and we will see if he has a role in 2013.

Darrel Young, meantime, proved himself to be one of the game’s top blocking fullbacks in just his third season. Although he only gained 60 yards on the ground, he caught two touchdowns, contributed on special teams and helped pave the way for the NFL’s top running attack.

Fast forward: Like so many things when it comes to the Redskins, the future of the team’s ground game depends on Griffin’s recovery from a second ACL reconstruction in three years. Some experts estimate that RG3 will be back for the season opener in September, while other suggest it could be longer.

As a result, there are so many questions as the NFC East champs hit the offseason. For instance:

*When Griffin returns, will he be as much of a threat to run the ball? He carried the ball 120 times this season – 215 fewer attempts than Morris but 97 more than Royster.

*If the Redskins have doubts about Griffin’s effectiveness on the ground – or believe it’s possible Kirk Cousins might start the season under center – will they need a running back to take some of the load off of Morris?

*If the team decides it needs another running back, will it pursue a proven player in free agency or will the Redskins turn to Helu or Royster? In 2011, Helu led the Redskins with 640 yards rushing on 151 attempts in a rookie season hampered by injuries. Royster, meantime, gained 328 yards on 56 carries a season ago.

*Further, if Griffin can’t be (or isn’t asked to be) as involved in the ground game, how does that affect Morris? Some of Morris’ production was the direct result of confusion caused by the team’s arsenal of option plays.

With no concrete timetable on Griffin’s recovery, at least not one the team has communicated publicly, the answer to the above questions might not be known for some time. 

As far as contractual status, the only free agent is Young and given his production and the fact that the 25-year-old is restricted, it would hard to imagine the Redskins not making re-signing him a priority this offseason. Royster and Helu are under contract for two more seasons, while Morris is signed through 2016.