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Redskins RB Alfred Morris isn't elite, but he's worth keeping

ASHBURN, Va. -- The question isn’t whether or not the Washington Redskins like running back Alfred Morris. They do. Ultimately, the question will become how much. And it’s clear after listening to Redskins coach Jay Gruden this spring that Morris fits the description of the sort of player they want to keep: hard-working, does his job, punctual and productive.

Morris can be an unrestricted free agent in 2016. In the spring, a source said there was only a 50 percent chance an extension would get done before the season. There’s way too much time between now and next offseason to know what will happen.

Though Morris isn’t an elite back, he is a good one. His production has declined in each of the past two years -- sometimes as a result of his own performance, other times because of game situations (not playing with the lead in the fourth quarter) or because of others’ play (the run blocking wasn’t great).

His lack of productivity on third downs is an issue, which is one reason the Redskins drafted Matt Jones in the third round. Morris isn’t a breakaway runner, yet he does a good job getting chunks of yardage. Morris was 12th in the NFL last year with 26 gains of 10 or more yards and tied for third with nine runs for at least 20 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Yet his longest for the season was only 30 yards -- 62 backs had a longer run.

But there’s this: In the last three years combined, Morris and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch have an NFL-best 110 carries of 10 or more yards. And Morris is tied for second during this stretch with 28 carries for 20-plus yards. Morris is durable, tough, moves the chains and gets yards after contact. He also likes that the Redskins might use more power runs, a style that he said he preferred. His patience and vision fit it well, if the Redskins use more of that system.

Having Jones around clouds the future. For now, Jones will just be the guy who gives Morris a break. I don’t know how good Jones will be; I know some teams rated him way below the third round.

“Alfred has had as good a camp as anybody in this building and I’ve been very, very impressed with Alfred, as I always am,” Gruden said. “He comes to work. He’s always on time. He’s always working hard, and at practice he’s always finishing runs and doing a great job in pass protection, so it’s going to be hard to take any reps from him.”

Also, if you’re talking quite a bit about culture change, then players such as Morris are guys you want to keep around.

Again, here’s what Gruden said about him a couple of weeks ago:

“Some of the guys that we've got in the building -- Alfred Morris is a quiet guy, but he just goes about his business the right way every day,” Gruden said. “He comes to meetings on time. He lifts weights extremely hard. Niles Paul is the same way. DY [Darrel Young] is the same way. Those guys are coming in here. When you've got guys in here like that, that have been here, that have worked that hard in the weight room, and are very punctual, and they come out to practice and they practice hard with a purpose, it only can rub off in a positive way to your younger players."

Morris' lack of playmaking ability on third downs limits his ceiling and thereby his earning potential. The Redskins also will have other contracts to deal with (Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Williams and a bump from Robert Griffin III if he plays well and they hold onto the $16.2 million option).

But even if Morris is productive, it’s not as if he’ll shoot into an extreme salary stratosphere. Again, he has not been an elite back. His yards per carry have gone from 4.81 as a rookie to 4.05 last year. He averaged a career-low 4.16 yards a carry vs. seven-man fronts last season. He also ran a career-low 38 times against eight-man fronts (averaging 2.13 yards per run, by far his worst against that look).Those numbers have to change.

He’s had one 100-yard game in his last 23 outings; he had seven as a rookie. Yes, there are other factors involved but in 15 of those games he averaged 3.75 yards per carry or less. That’s not to say he’s not good -- he absolutely is -- but just to put in perspective some numbers to gauge what it might cost the Redskins to keep him and why it should be feasible.

And keep this in mind: Only eight backs this season will have a base salary of at least $3 million. There are 15 who have a salary-cap hit of at least $3 million. Those are low figures compared to other spots. At tight end, for example, 14 players will have a base of at least $3 million and 21 will count at least that amount against the cap.

So there’s room for Morris if they want to make it happen. They could replace Morris’ yards if they really wanted to, but the more guys you have doing things the right way, the better your organization becomes.