Veteran running back Alfred Morris got the start for the San Francisco 49ers during their preseason bout with the Indianapolis Colts Saturday. And he looked more than just “good” and likely solidified himself a roster spot.
NFL preseason narratives are always meant to be taken with a grain of salt. But for 29-year-old veteran running back Alfred Morris and the San Francisco 49ers, Week 3 of the preseason against the Indianapolis Colts carried a lot of weight.
Both the Niners and Colts played the majority of their starters over the first half. Morris, whom the 49ers grabbed off the free-agent scrap heap earlier this preseason, got the start in this regular-season tuneup for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad.
Morris didn’t disappoint either. At all.
San Francisco’s newest running back led all rushers during the game, logging 17 carries for 84 yards and averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. It helped Shanahan wanted to establish the ground game — something the Niners haven’t been able to do during their previous two preseason games this season.
But it wasn’t just the numbers. It was how Morris ran during his on-field debut for San Francisco.
To understand this, one has to consider Shanahan’s other two projected top-two tailbacks, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida, who both missed the game with injuries. McKinnon and Breida are similarly built — 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, and 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, respectively. Morris is a bit heavier, coming in at 5-foot-10 and 224 pounds, which makes him better suited for inside-the-tackle and third-down runs for Shanahan’s offense.
You can get an idea of Morris’ agility and vision fitting this role in this 2nd-and-17 draw play versus the Colts:
McKinnon and Breida are better suited for Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme, which stresses moving defenders from side to side.
Morris, however, is built for north-south runs. And that wasn’t an issue for him at all in Indianapolis.
Still, Morris also flashed the ability to get to the outside, as seen in this outside run:
RB Alfred Morris’ first two carries as a niner (one called back for flag). Morris had a good debut and is already getting a look as a RB on the 53. Stats: 17 Carries, 84 Yards, 4.9 Avg, 11 Long. He’s the power back we were missing. full highlights this week. #49ers #AlfredMorris pic.twitter.com/Jd5uQTp7c6
— 49er_Edits (@49er_edits) August 26, 2018
This would have been Morris’ longest rush of the day, but a holding call against the 49ers negated the would-be pickup.
Morris thrived under Shanahan when both were with the Washington Redskins back in 2012 and 2013, and Morris’ solid efforts continued during his tenure with the Dallas Cowboys backing up Ezekiel Elliott. Based off his career rushing totals alone, he’d appear to have a lot to offer for San Francisco:
|4 yr||4 yr||WAS||64||64||1078||4713||29||48||4.4||73.6||16.8||11|
|2 yr||2 yr||DAL||28||5||184||790||3||70||4.3||28.2||6.6||0|
But running backs can lose effectiveness awfully quickly when they get close to turning 30 years old. The fact Morris is just shy of that number, along with the plethora of talented tailbacks coming out during the 2018 NFL Draft, likely kept Morris from being a high-priority free-agent target earlier this offseason.
Morris still thinks he has plenty left, however.
I definitely have plenty left in the tank, and that’s why in free agency I wasn’t rushed to jump on a team just out of desperation,” Morris told KPIX 5’s Dennis O’Donnell after the game.
“I went from Washington, being a starter every game my first four years, to being a backup [in Dallas] to being inactive,” Morris continued. “So my path just kind of took a turn I didn’t think it would take. So when Kyle said it would be an opportunity, I knew he meant it.”
That opportunity has led to a real chance for Morris to make the Niners’ 53-man roster. McKinnon and Breida are all but guaranteed a spot. As far as the No. 3 tailback slot, however, it remains up for grabs. Morris is a strong candidate, particularly after his exceptional efforts in Indy. Additionally, the 49ers have special teams ace Raheem Mostert and second-year pro Jeremy McNichols to consider.
Where Morris wins, however, is being an effective piece in Shanahan’s offense — someone capable of understanding the head coach’s complex system and working as a complementary back to both McKinnon and Breida.
By offering a different skill set, as well as flashing explosive ability in the most realistic of preseason games, Morris went a long way to ensuring a spot on the Niners’ 53-man roster when it’s announced this September.