Free Agent Scouting Report: Matt Forte (CHI) and Alfred Morris (WAS)
At this point, no one really knows what lies ahead for Lamar Miller. Up to this point, his career has been a series of tantalizing “what-ifs”; he has displayed bursts of undeniable upside, followed by frustrating disappearance acts. This has largely been a product of under usage, as the offense made a habit of falling into pass-happy play calling and giving playing time to obviously inferior talents far too often. Nonetheless, it makes for an extremely interesting situation. The Dolphins’ salary cap condition only adds to the confusion. If Miller departs from Miami this offseason, they need to have a back up plan. Jay Ajayi may be their running back of the future, but does he have what it takes to be their feature runner right now? That remains to be seen. So, let’s take a look at two runners that could be the workhorse Adam Gase is looking for if Miller moves on: Matt Forte and Alfred Morris.
Forte was the Chicago Bears’ second round pick of the 2008 NFL Draft, and was immediately handed a heavy workload. He toted 316 carries as a rookie and, although this was the largest number of carries he had in a single campaign, has remained a true workhorse for the entirety of his eight-season career. Known for his all-around game, Forte was always a huge portion of the Bears’ offense. He accumulated over 12,500 combined yards on the ground and in the air over the duration of his time in Chicago, in addition to 64 total touchdowns.
Morris’ path to NFL stardom was slightly different. A sixth round pick out of Florida Atlantic, Morris also won the starting job before his rookie season even started. But very, very rarely do late round picks carve out an immediate role, especially at a skill position. He showed that the Redskins put their faith in the right player by totaling 13 touchdowns and a whopping 1,613 rushing yards, a franchise record. Since his unbelievable debut season, Morris has seen his usage decrease and production wane off, but teams understand the numbers he is capable of putting up.
For starters, Morris is remarkably durable. He has never missed a game since joining the league, and has had the bulk of Washington’s carries for the majority of his career. In a league of players that are becoming increasingly more injury prone, this is inexplicably valuable. Morris excels in zone-blocking schemes. He displays the vision, patience, and cutback ability that plays perfectly behind quality offensive line play. Watch below, as Morris takes the handoff, identifies the hole, cuts back and breaks off a run of nearly 50 yards.
Additionally, while he doesn’t usually seek out contact, he still has impressive ability in goal-to-go situations, as he totaled 28 touchdowns over his first three seasons. This number plummeted to 1 this past season, but I suspect it had more to do with his usage than his aptness in this area.
Add in the improvement he has shown in pass protection since his arrival to the league, and the fact that he is widely considered a fantastic locker room guy, and there are ton of benefits that he brings as a potential signee.
In comparison, Forte is the far superior all-around back. There might not be a player in the NFL that has been more influential to both his team’s run game and passing attack than Forte has since his arrival in Chicago. In fact, his receiving abilities and contributions in pass protection may be his biggest strength.
Forte’s exceptional balance and vision have allowed him to be one of the league’s premier playmakers. He is able to run between the tackles, as well as around the outside, making him one of the more versatile backs in the league. Watch below for an example of what he is capable of on the ground.
Watch how he spins from a tackler, runs through a low tackle attempt, and carries a defender with him into the endzone, all within five yards. Forte’s best asset may be his soft hands, but he has proved throughout his career that he is much, much more than just a 3rd down back.
Forte would bring experience, professionalism and playmaking ability to a Dolphins’ offense that would desperately need it if Miller can’t be retained. After playing under Gase in Chicago, he also has knowledge of his offense and has shown that he can have success in it. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 8.8 yards per reception in 2015, for a total of 1,287 combined yards and 7 combined touchdowns, this despite playing in only 13 games and losing work to the up-and-coming Jeremy Langford.
We’ll start with Forte, because his weakness as a free agent is far easier to pick out: he’s 30 years old. 30 is often considered the threshold for a running back’s demise, meaning they hit 30 and suddenly become a shell of their former selves. It is fair to analyze how long it will take for Forte’s production to truly take a hit, especially considering the wear-and-tear that he has experienced since becoming the feature runner of the Bears’ offense. While many have thrown the “injury prone” label onto him throughout his career, Forte is actually much more durable than it may seem. However, as Forte continues to age it makes sense to wonder how much of a beating he will be able to continue to endure. The only true negative that Forte has displayed on tape is a lack of elite top-end speed, but his versatility largely makes up for that.
On the other hand, Morris’ status as a free agent has a few more glaring deficiencies. None are bigger than his inability to get involved in the passing game. He has displayed the occasional big play from a screen pass or as a safety valve for his quarterback, but has still only totaled 365 receiving yards since his inaugural season.
Morris has shown that he can at least be useful in pass protection, but it is nearly impossible to keep him in on third downs, specifically third and longs, as he simply doesn’t strike any fear in the eyes of opposing defenses when coming out of the backfield. Morris also struggles with the “making something out of nothing” type plays. If there is a hole to be exploited, the former Redskin will find it, but if not, he simply lacks the athleticism or power to bail his offensive line out. At 27, Morris could potentially improve in these areas, but it certainly isn’t ideal for an early down back.
I actually expect Forte and Morris to be pretty similarly valued this offseason, albeit for different reasons. People will be weary to pay Forte due to his age and heavy workload, but will be similarly skeptical of signing Morris due to his one-dimensionality and the career worst numbers he produced in 2015 (3.7 yards per carry, 751 yards and 1 touchdown on a career-low 202 attempts). Frank Gore immediately comes to mind when thinking about Forte’s situation. A longtime San Francisco 49er, Gore departed San Fran for Indianapolis after the 2014 season. At 31 years of age, Gore faced many of the concerns that Forte is now experiencing as a free agent. Despite those worries, Gore’s production over the course of his career earned him a three-year contract for a total of $12 million. Given the similarities between the two situations, it seems extremely likely that Forte will also be in this mid-level range.
While there are no concerns regarding Morris’ age, the weaknesses detailed above are sure to keep his contract similar to Forte’s. In fact, it will probably even be a little lower. His value is similar to that of Ryan Mathews. Mathews is arguably more versatile than Morris, but lack of true opportunity and injury concerns kept him at an average salary of $3.667 million over three years. For Morris, it will most likely be his steadily worsening statistics that ends up being his downfall. If he were negotiating a contract after his shocking 2012 season, the terms would be unbelievably different.
How They Fit in Miami:
It would be difficult and somewhat unfair to say that either of these options would be a better fit in Miami than Miller. If he leaves the Dolphins, as many are beginning to suspect, we will never know what could’ve been if he wasn’t plagued by weak offensive line play, borderline-horrendous play calling and a stunning lack of trust. With that being said, bringing in either Forte or Morris would immediately improve the Dolphins’ run game if they were forced to move on from their young running back.
Morris would provide a power option to the run game that has desperately lacked one in recent years. Gase would have to maneuver around his shortcomings in the passing game but, as one of the brightest young minds in the NFL, it would be silly to think that he’d be unable to do so. A Pensacola native, Morris would also be returning to his home state with a chance to start a new chapter of his career.
Despite the potential fit of Morris in Miami, it’s even harder to deny the perspective benefits of a reunion between Gase and Forte. Gase has witnessed firsthand the effects that Forte can have on a game, even if Langford saw his role increase as the year went on. Forte may only be a short-term option, but that would at least allow Ajayi to continue to develop and work behind one of the best all-around backs of this decade. Assuming his price remains reasonable, (perhaps even cheaper than resigning Miller) obtaining Forte seems like a move that could evidently improve the team in the present, while maintaining flexibility for the future.
This discussion may end up being irrelevant; Miller could still resign and, with the Miller/Ajayi duo, the Dolphins will be set at the position for at least the foreseeable future. But if Miller and the Dolphins ultimately choose to part ways, watch out, because things are about to get extremely interesting in Miami prior to the 2016 season.