Many fantasy owners were petrified to try a Washington or New England running back this summer, but Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley have produced more than initially expected through three games. Can we finally trust a Mike Shanahan or Bill Belichick ball carrier going forward, or is it a good time to sell high? And if you had a choice of these backs over the balance of the season, who would you select today?
Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski aren't known for agreeing, and as usual they take different sides here. Consider their arguments, then add your own angles and vote in the comments.
Salfino Stumps for Morris: It looks like all the things we feared with Morris are actually happening to Ridley. This doesn't surprise me because Bill Belichick has been much more fickle/game-plan-oriented/insane (whatever you want to call it) with his backs in recent years than Mike Shanahan has been. Last year, for example, Shanahan changed backs because of injuries. But on Sunday, we saw Ridley, who seemed so safe in a suddenly more run-oriented Patriots offense, get 30% of snaps to 63% for Danny (the Waterboy) Woodhead.
So in saying I like Morris for the balance of the year, I'm not disrespecting Ridley's talent or even his environment (when he's on the field). I'm just uncertain now how he will be deployed in any given week. Morris, despite the fact that he's not at all involved in the passing game, is used otherwise as you'd expect a feature back to be used. He's getting the vast majority of carries and is always on the field in goal-line situations. So I'm very confident he'll be one of the 11-12 backs the past five years who have 250-plus carries. Given that he'll be deployed regularly on the goal-line (I'll project about 10 more TDs), we can live with the lack of catches. And in non-PPR, of course, that hardly matters at all.
The real question is where does Morris rank for the rest of the season? I'll go Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and then there's a pack that I think both Morris and Ridley are in. I'd take Ryan Mathews and Jamaal Charles next probably. But I don't see Lynch over Morris given Lynch doesn't catch either and the Redskins score more points and cause more running-game chaos with RGIII than the Seahawks do with Russell Wilson. Gore to me has too many miles/injuries to rank higher. Trent Richardson may be in a terrible run environment. But fine, I'll give you him. And maybe Reggie Bush really isn't hurt, if so, definitely Bush (who actually is pretty close or even in with that top group). So, for me, Morris is about the 12th best running back ROS and Ridley is a notch back with the 15-ish pack.
Pianow Rules for Ridley: I'm not too worried about the helter-skelter way of game planning in New England, and specifically what we saw last Sunday. That's what you get with Belichick & Co — their weekly plans are more matchup-dependent than anyone in the NFL. And even with a low snap count last week, Ridley still received 13 carries. Matching up against Baltimore, I can see the argument for using a lot of three-wide and hurry-up packages, even if it means the mediocre Woodhead comes along.
Eventually I see the Patriots expanding Ridley's responsibilities. He's mostly an inside runner but he has enough wiggle to make unblocked defenders miss, and he's been capable as a receiver (five grabs) and pass blocker when given the chance. And if the Patriots win the 10-11 games most of us still expect, there are going to be close-out opportunities against tired defensive fronts. It's a great time to go out and trade for Ridley, methinks. And for all the fantasy frustration about his recent usage, consider that he has more carries than a number of name brand feature backs (DeMarco Murray, Willis McGahee, Cedric Benson, Frank Gore, Darren McFadden, Michael Turner, to name a few). He's not being ignored.
Morris passed the eye test in the summer and he's been sharp thus far, though his 4.3 YPC is behind Ridley's 4.5. I worry about some other issues with Morris: obviously he's not used in the passing game at all (zero catches, one target), and I wonder how Shanahan will respond if Morris's fumble problems from college reappear. Morris also has to contend with Robert Griffin III for goal-line work, and if the Redskins defense doesn't shape up quickly, Washington might be playing from behind fairly often in the final three months of the year. (Morris produced despite this last week, but generally a run-based back from a losing club is a tricky fantasy proposition.)
While neither team is blowing defensive lines off the ball, I'll still take New England's offensive line over Washington's. I also like that Ridley has been around the NFL block a bit, into his second season, while Morris is still an unheralded rookie just three games into the dance. Ridley's certainly faced the harder schedule thus far (nasty Arizona and run-stuffing Baltimore), while Morris gets his first front-seven test this week at Tampa Bay (2.3 YPC). I have them ranked in the same general neighborhood going forward (15-20 range), but if it's an either-or choice, I'm riding with Ridley.