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What's Going to Happen in the Miami Backfield? - Footballguys

The Footballguys staff offers thoughts on the Miami running back situation

Miami has one of many backfields where the roles are not clearly defined. Since running back is one of the most important positions in fantasy football, it's wise to get as clear a picture as possible on every backfield.

Kenyan Drake was excellent down the stretch in 2017 after Jay Ajayi was shipped to Philadelphia. But the Dolphins brought in veteran Frank Gore and rookie Kalen Ballage. Does Gore have anything left? Is Ballage ready to have a notable role? Will Drake actually be one of those rare workhorse backs?

Ryan Hester: Drake appears to be the best combination of playmaking ability and experience. Sure, Gore has experience in spades, but his age is catching up to him, leaving him with little electricity. While Ballage has shown promise in OTAs, it's a reach to assume any rookie can translate from shorts to regular season conditions.

Drake will certainly cede work to Gore, but how much and what kind is hard to determine. If goal line work is lost to Gore, it will be difficult for Drake to pay off his current price. Drake scored four total touchdowns last season, all coming after Week 10. If we project that across an entire season, it's a respectable RB2 type of number. However, Drake's touchdowns were 66, 8 (a receiving score), 42, and 1 yards in length. The long rushes will be difficult to replicate, and any receiving touchdowns for running backs are gravy.

Without the easy scores, the weekly output will be volatile. It's also worth noting that Drake was excellent as a receiver last season (29 receptions, 232 yards, 1 touchdown on 42 targets starting in Week 9, when he first received more than 30 snaps in a game). If he loses any passing game work, he won't come close to that 16-game pace of 51 catches, 412 yards, and 74 targets.

And even though Gore and Ballage are near-free in drafts, Gore shouldn't be on the radar. He hasn't averaged 4.0 yards per carry since 2014, and he won't be seeing the 260 carries he got in each of the last three seasons. It's hard to see any of these players paying off their ADP. But keep an eye on Ballage in case Drake suffers an injury and the team wants an explosive player involved.

Jeff Tefertiller: Drake played well down the stretch. My main concern is an injury. Also, expect Frank Gore to play often due to his excellence in pass protection. Ballage is athletic but has poor vision.

Daniel Simpkins: This is one of the more intriguing situations to unpack. I don’t trust Kenyon Drake to maintain last year’s workload. His primary competition was traded away in the season, creating an abnormal number of touches and targets for Drake. The Dolphins bringing in both Frank Gore and Kalen Ballage was not just a depth move— it was an indicator that they do not fully trust Drake with the kind of feature work he saw last year. Ballage is a talent I love for the long-term, but I project that Gore will be the leader of this committee, at least for this year. He’s the cheapest of the three and there’s no risk if this is finally the year he hits the veteran wall. Watch out for Ballage next year, especially after learning behind one of the greatest to play the position.

Chad Parsons: Kenyan Drake is one of the shakiest NFL starters in the NFL heading into training camp. The depth chart was barren following Jay Ajayi's in-season trade in 2017, however, Drake did not emerge through the offseason with the same insulation. Frank Gore is all-time great at the position. In fact, the last time Frank Gore did not see at least 15 touches a game was 2005. Gore was not brought in as a player-coach or merely a placeholder. Expect Gore to take the 1A position at any faltering moment (ball security, pass protection, etc) by Drake. Also, despite Miami waiting until Day 3 to address running back in the draft, Kalen Ballage was the one prospect incumbent backs like Drake should have feared. Ballage is the closest running back prospect to David Johnson in the past few seasons. His profile includes a high-level combination of prototypical size and receiving ability. The biggest question is can he run inside, a similarity to Johnson exiting college. Drake begins the season as an upside RB2 but loses the job by midseason to a combination of Frank Gore on early downs and a sprinkling of Kalen Ballage as the season finishes. Gore ends up as one of the better running back values from off the radar as a sturdy RB2 for multiple months.

Andy Hicks: Long term starters at running back in the NFL are almost always drafted in the first three rounds. Miami invested a high third-round pick on Kenyan Drake in 2016 with Arian Foster and Jay Ajayi heavily favored over the rookie. Drake needed time and although flashing ability was raw as a prospect. 2017 saw Jay Ajayi moved on halfway through the season to the eventual Super Bowl winners after constant clashes with the coaching staff. Drake was ready, while Ajayi would have been a long-term issue if kept. Drake finished the season in style and the addition of Frank Gore and Kalen Ballage are depth options only. This could truly be a breakout year for Drake if he can remain fit and the Miami offense can find a focus passing the ball. Neither are sure things, but the upside of the third year man from Alabama is very real.

After a remarkable career, Frank Gore at age 35 is here to retire in Miami. He will be capable if the wheels fall off Drake and more reliable than an unproven fourth-round rookie as an alternate. Kalen Ballage as that rookie will be solid, nothing more if the ball comes to him.

Jason Wood: I don't understand the narrative that says Drake's hold on the starting job is tenuous. He played well once the team treated him like a feature back. And this offseason they signed a 35-year old local hero returning home to finish his career and drafted another local kid in the fourth round. That's tough competition?

Drake didn't receive double-digit carries until Week 12 but was given 10+ carries in every game thereafter. In those five final games, Drake ran 91 times for 444 yards, scored twice, and caught 17 receptions for 150 yards. If you pro-rate that workload over 16 games, you get:

  • 291 carries
  • 1,421 yards rushing
  • 4.9 yards per rush
  • 90 targets
  • 54 receptions
  • 480 yards receiving

Those are elite, RB1-level numbers. It's unlikely the Dolphins will feature Drake that heavily, but he doesn't need 350 touches to justify the current RB2 price tag, either. Modestly discounting each of those run rates still gives Drake a clear path to exceeding ADP.

Devin Knotts: Drake is a nice value and a player that I'm targeting this year who has great upside.

Let's not overplay the Gore signing, this is a nice gesture by the Dolphins to sign Gore who was born in Miami, played college at Miami and is now a Dolphin. Drake is a difference maker on a team that lacks difference makers and should be prominently featured in this offense.

Ballage is a developmental type back that if Drake goes down could factor in the passing game, but I do not expect much out of him in the running game this season. One of the reasons Ballage was taken was that he played on special teams all four years at Arizona State and expect him to play a significant role on the Dolphins special teams unit this season.

Justin Howe: I wrote Drake's spotlight a few weeks ago, and I haven't wavered much from my worry over his workload. The thing is, as long as he can be projected for at least 200 carries and the lion's share of pass-game work, he's a solid RB2. Given his small-sample efficiency - 6.4 yards per rush and 12.4 per catch at Alabama, then 5.0 and 7.5 in Miami last year - Drake can spin real, if unpredictable, production at a volatile position.

The real issue is nailing down his ceiling - and therefore the appropriate round in which to target him - and it's tricky. It's generally not advisable to keep an explosive guy's wild efficiency numbers wild, and as his volume projection increases, that efficiency should probably drop. As a result, it would be irresponsible to merely cut-and-paste those per-touch numbers into 2018; I'm projecting 4.6 per rush and 7.5 per catch. That would account for a realistic dip but still capture his dynamism. And it still leaves Drake a sound RB2 (13.28 PPR points a game). He looks like the rare guy whose efficiency helps to offset volume concerns and construct a decent floor.

Behind him, there's really no upside to Frank Gore. He's little more than an end-of-draft stab at volume potential. That potential is real, though. Drake probably won't see more than a maximum of 225-235 rushes, and if one of Gore or Kalen Ballage definitively claims the No. 2 job, that would leave 100-120 (plus handcuff status) on the table. If nothing else, it would be a worthwhile RB5 play late in deep drafts. I'm not a huge fan of Ballage the prospect - he was a very incomplete and situational player throughout school - but I'd rather take a late flier on him. His speed and agility scores were remarkable, and the Dolphins clearly prioritized him to a degree. There are definite dynamo traits in his makeup.

Bob Henry: Like others, I'm bullish on Kenyan Drake. He was a legit RB1 down the stretch once the coaches gave him a featured role. One could argue (coaching influence aside) that Jerick McKinnon has a similar athletic profile but that Drake has done more with the opportunity he had than McKinnon in previous stints in Minnesota.

McKinnon is going earlier than Drake, yet I'm not sure their ceilings are much different. I'll give the edge to McKinnon there simply due to Kyle Shanahan's influence, but that is probably undervaluing Adam Gase and Drake's ability to produce in a similar fashion as last year.

The obvious rub here is Frank Gore. Even though he's 35 years old, it's hard to imagine Gore not having a consistent role on early downs or even supplanting Drake at the goal line. That said, Drake jumped off the screen to me last year and that impression continues to stick with me as I have him projected for a strong dual role (170 carries, 40 catches), with above average (if not near elite) efficiency levels and the edge over Gore in terms of finding the end zone.

Kalen Ballage is an intriguing talent who more closely fits what Drake brings to the table. I remember him as a high school recruit and thought he would've blossomed into a much bigger producer at the college level (especially in the PAC 12). While he tests exceptionally well, he still has to prove that can translate into a role and better production. As long as Gore and Drake are healthy, that role will be minimal, but his dynasty appeal is certainly there.