PROJECTS AS A FANTASY RB2, BUT HAS A LOT OF RISK VERSUS COMPARABLE ALTERNATIVES
Kenyan Drake was a mini-revelation in 2017, stepping in for a traded Jay Ajayi at midseason and opening eyes leaguewide. He came on especially strong down the stretch, once given lead back duties – no one ran for more yardage over Weeks 13-17, and he added 17 receptions along the way. He’s the most talented and highest-invested back in the Miami stable. Still, fantasy owners are showing pause on him: since mid-May, his ADP has slid behind a handful of rookies, as well as some comparable veterans. Moreover, despite the promise he showed last season, there’s good reason for that (measured) pause. Drake is a talented, dual-threat back, but he’s being given no guarantees as to his 2018 role, and there’s the value-busting downside in play for dice-rollers in Rounds 3 and 4.
Just Who is Drake?
Most of the football world remembers Drake from his Alabama days and his hotly-debated run-up to the 2016 NFL Draft. Drake never took on much volume in school (just 279 touches over four years) but showed tremendous juice when given the ball (6.4 yards per rush and 12.4 per catch). That dynamism was on full display at the Combine, where he posted an elite speed score on the back of a 4.45 40-yard dash and performed solidly in quickness and agility drills.
Still, that lack of usage was a significant ding. Yes, he missed most of 2014 with a broken leg, and yes, he spent most of his career competing for attention with Eddie Lacy, Derrick Henry, and T.J. Yeldon. But it was disconcerting, after such an explosive start at Alabama, to see him take such a thorough backseat to Henry for his senior year. Drake gave draftniks his share of intriguing film, but not a lot of actionable work to evaluate.
All told, the Dolphins invested a third-round pick in his upside in 2016. And in mid-2017, they made good on it, dealing away Jay Ajayi and leaving Drake as the only starting-caliber runner on the roster.
Drake’s 2017: Are You Not Entertained?
(Tepidly) handed the keys to the backfield in Week 9, Drake went on to compile one of 2017’s more efficient stretches. Over nine games as the lead dog, he averaged 5.03 yards per carry – actually down a tick from his 5.42 mark as a lightly-used rookie – and broke off the league’s second-most runs of 20+ yards (7). Operating behind a horrid offensive line, Drake kept his wildly active feet moving at a rapid rate; Pro Football Focus actually charted him with the best yards-after-contact season they’d ever recorded. Fantasy-wise, he posted just a single dud during that span, averaging 18.21 PPR points over the other eight games. (For reference sake: 6th-ranked Melvin Gordon III averaged 17.88 points.) Drake caught passes (3.2 per game as the starter), and his struggles in pass protection were effectively hidden by the presence of passing down back Damien Williams. Everything seemed to be going well.
But it’s clear the Dolphins still aren’t entirely sold on Drake as a lead runner. The fantasy world saw that last year: after the Ajayi trade, Drake was given single-digit rushes for four straight weeks, and only Williams’ Week 12 injury opened the door for his late-season usage. While Drake was sensational down the stretch, scorching Denver (23 carries for 120 yards and one touchdown), New England (193 scrimmage yards), and Buffalo twice (30 for 153 and 50 receiving yards), Dolphins brass is still actively seeking supplemental help in the backfield.
[When asked about the current backfield pecking order] We don’t know that yet. I think that’s going to play out over time. What we’re going to do is we’re going to get everybody ready. We’ve got to learn the offense. We’re still in the playbook. We’re still in the installations… I don’t have that in my brain right now. I think what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to continue to work, learn our system, learn our craft, our assignments and then get everybody out there and let them compete. – Dolphins running backs coach Eric Studesville, May 31
Studesville’s comments could be mere coachspeak, lip service to the changing NFL landscape of situational back play. But it's a bit concerning and downright odd to see a running back that took on 90.1% of team snaps from Weeks 13-16 (Drake was ejected from Week 17) not be coronated to some degree.
To that end, the team hasn’t made huge changes to the backfield – yet – but it's added reinforcements. The personnel department brought in the ghost of Frank Gore, who’s 35 years old but handled 260+ carries in each of the last three seasons, and they took enigmatic Kalen Ballage in Round 4 of the draft. Neither profiles as a ball-dominator, at least not in 2018, but this has all the makings of a three-man committee. Bear in mind that Drake has yet to top 133 carries in a pro or college season and that he was given just 54.7% of snaps after Ajayi’s trade but before Williams’ injury. His wild-running style and general lack of polish in the passing game don’t scream “bell-cow back.”
What to Expect When You’re Projecting
Unfortunately for Drake, even if handed the featured role, he doesn’t project well – at least, not to the same ceiling as some of the other backs drafted in the same tier. All the Dolphins backs will operate in a low-volume offense, one that cranks out relatively few snaps (last year’s fewest rushing attempts and 11th-fewest plays overall) and spreads the ball thin across its weaponry. Furthermore, the Dolphins don’t look like a very good team. They finished last year 6-10, and returning quarterback Ryan Tannehill's 37-40 record is lackluster; he’s ended only one season above .500. Miami lost three impact starters to free agency while adding mostly low-end veteran help, and Vegas currently pegs them at just 5.5 wins. Even a superhero version of Drake would probably be weighed down, at least noticeably, by circumstance.
Drake's situation evokes Lamar Miller's time as a Dolphin. Miller and Drake share strikingly similar builds, draft stature, and early-career usage trends. Miller was also electric in limited early-career work, averaging 4.6 yards per carry in Miami. Through six years, though, he’s also yet to strike a volume/efficiency balance as a featured NFL back. Drake is a different man, of course, but it remains tough to project much of a volume leap, even in a best-case scenario. He feels hard-pressed to match that 21.6 touch-per-game pace of late last year.
That’s not a direct knock on Drake, who’s been stunningly efficient in his brief NFL tenure. His early rates may look wild, but they seem to project quite well across a similar 2018 workload. Still, it appears at this point that Drake holds a similar floor as some of his ADP peers, but a limited ceiling. He won’t threaten 300 rushes like Jordan Howard, and he’s not a workhorse prospect like Derrius Guice. It’s tempting but difficult, to project Drake beyond 250 touches. His explosive efficiency does make that a fair play, but his volume downside can’t be ignored. There’s a non-zero chance he finds himself embroiled in a full-on committee for much of the year, handcuffed by a slow-moving offense and doomed far too often by the game script. The projections below all look bullish on Drake's ability, and they reflect high standing among Footballguys staff. While they're strong (and fair) numbers, though, they look more like absolute-ceiling expectations than a baseline we should draft from.
2018 staff Projections
|Projector||Games||Rush||RuYds||RuTDs||Recs||RecYds||RecTDs||Fum||PPR FanPts||PPR RB Rk|
Arodin, a member of the Footballguys Shark Pool community, is particularly pessimistic as to Drake’s role: is it a committee forming, or are the Dolphins simply looking elsewhere?
It’s not a good sign for a player’s valuation when the team keeps looking for guys to replace him with. I expect committee usage for Drake, but he could land a featured role with his next contract. Long-term hold if I own him, but not actively looking to acquire.
Though fellow Shark Pooler Tanner9919 sees things differently:
[Head coach] Adam Gase hasn't ventured too far from having one running back get the majority of carries. I suspect that the volume work for Drake will continue. Gore is too old and too worn down to be effective as anything more than a relief back at this point (5-7 carries a game). At WORST, Drake is a strong HOLD candidate; at best he has an outstanding shot at finishing as a top-10 back - he showed a LOT to close out the 2017 season. I would not sell if I owned him I'd hold and see what happens.
Patrick Waterman of numberFire shares in these highs and lows, pointing out that, while head coach Adam Gase’s offenses are often runner-friendly, that’s been tied quite closely to team performance:
If you narrow the focus to only Gase's tenure as a head coach, then there is a drastic difference. In Gase's 16 wins, he had a running back touch the ball 17 or more times in 15 games. This is more than 94 percent of the time, drastically higher than the 77 percent for the league. And the really scary part is in only 5 of his 16 losses did a running back touch the ball more than 17 times. This is only 31 percent, much lower than the league total of 46.