The Replacements: How the Dolphins Can Address their Running Back Situation

Since the beginning of this offseason, it has been apparent that the Miami Dolphins’ running back position was going to be one to watch throughout the coming free agent frenzy. Unfortunately, all of the excitement has yielded negative results thus far. First, the team let underused fan favorite Lamar Miller walk on account of his price tag. Then, they signed their ideal replacement in C.J. Anderson to an offer sheet that few thought the Denver Broncos would be able to match. But, alas, John Elway swooped in at the last minute and matched the Dolphins’ offer sheet, retaining his coveted running back. The team’s contingency plan, Chris Johnson, visited the team, only to re-up his contract with the Arizona Cardinals just hours after his meeting. Now, Miami’s tailback cupboard is barren, with the unproven Jay Ajayi penciled in as the starter. The team is highly unlikely to let this continue to be the case, and are sure to address their murky running back situation in some way, shape, or form. So, without further ado, here are some potential solutions that will make you laugh, cry, vomit, or all three.

The Draft:

Ezekiel Elliot:

Zeke Elliott

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Sources close to the team have indicated that the Dolphins are nearly certain to draft at least one running back in Chicago next month. Ezekiel Elliott, the standout tailback out of Ohio State, is the only running back even remotely worthy of the 13th overall pick. He possesses a unique blend of physical talent and football intelligence that few current NFL running backs can match, and he is undoubtedly ready to perform at the professional level. Elliott would be a perfect fit in Adam Gase’s pass-heavy offense, as he excels in pass-protection and making plays off of receptions. He has even drawn comparisons to All-Pros like Edgerrin James and Le’Veon Bell. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Dolphins would grab Ezekiel Elliott if he unexpectedly falls to the 13th pick. Many believe that the Miami Dolphins would rather swap picks with a team like the Indianapolis Colts in order to accrue more assets in the draft. This maneuver would allow the team to more effectively address their plethora of glaring roster holes, such as linebacker, cornerback, and the interior O-line. However, in the case that Elliot does fall to the Dolphins, and they elect to draft him, the team’s running back position would theoretically be set for the next several seasons.

Middle Round Talent:

Logic dictates that drafting a running back between rounds 3-5 is the most feasible plan of action. The odds are that the majority, if not all, of the most talented running backs not named Ezekiel Elliott or Derrick Henry in this draft class will be available after the 2nd round is over. So, if the team is not willing or able to draft the undeniable talent in Ezekiel Elliott, then this is the route they would take. This idea represents a low risk way to take a chance on a fresh young talent while providing Jay Ajayi with some competition. I believe that the team will draft someone like Paul Perkins, C.J. Prosise, Kenneth Dixon, or Devontae Booker to provide competition to start ahead of Jay Ajayi. On the other hand, they could opt to utilize their higher round assets elsewhere and draft a guy like Josh Ferguson or Kelvin Taylor a little bit later as a 3rd down or rotational guy to go with Jay Ajayi. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if they did both, though I think the former is more likely. In my “professional” opinion, I expect the team to draft a running back in the 3rd or 4th round to push Ajayi for the starting job, and perhaps an additional one in 6th or 7th round as depth. Either way, expect a new face or two that fit what Adam Gase tends to like in a tailback.

Bargain Barrel Free Agents:

Arian Foster:

Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans

( Photo: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )

Arian Foster visited the team on Tuesday, March 29th, and reports indicate that the meeting went well, even though the two sides did not reach a deal. Mike Tannenbaum even stated that Foster was not healthy yet, and it seems that Foster’s camp does not want to sign a contract until he is 100%. Foster represents a very tough case to diagnose. When healthy, he is a top-tier NFL running back. I even see him as having been a top-5 back as recently as 2014. He is an experienced, smart downhill runner that has been an elite pass-catcher for much of his career. The problem is that Foster has the football equivalent of glass bones and paper skin. He will be 30 years old by the time next season rolls around, and has played in 16 games in just two of his seven NFL seasons. To make matters murkier, he suffered two major injuries in the last year including the torn Achilles that ended his season prematurely. If the team decides to sign Foster, it would likely be on a one-year deal with little guaranteed money and would occur sometime around the start of training camp in August. A low-risk, high-reward signing like this could yield dividends, as he should have some of the juice that made him an All-Pro talent left in the tank. Plus, having a veteran presence as accomplished as Foster in the backfield certainly wouldn’t hurt the development of the team’s younger backs.

Ronnie Hillman:

Signing C.J. Anderson’s partner in crime may not be ideal, but Ronnie Hillman is a solid rotational running back. In fact, there were short stretches last season where the speedster outperformed his teammate. While not the prototypical Gase-style running back that Anderson is, Hillman has as much experience in Gase’s system as Anderson does. In two seasons under Gase, Hillman totaled 910 yards from scrimmage at 4.0 YPC and 5 total TDs as a rotational player. He performed even better last season under Gary Kubiak, with 974 yards from scrimmage and 7 TDs at a respectable 4.2 yards a carry. Hillman actually outgained Anderson in the regular season, and even took the starting gig from him for a time. Throughout the 2nd half of the season and the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, Anderson was clearly the more versatile and talented player, but Hillman undoubtedly held his own as a sidekick. I believe that Hillman would be a great change of pace guy to rotate with Jay Ajayi, as their opposite styles of play would broaden coach Gase’s options in the ground game.

The Rest:

This late into the free agency period, the best talents available tend to be older veterans, damaged goods, or players that have yet to prove themselves worthy of a long-term contract. Contrary to popular belief, these are the kinds of guys that can be the difference between an average team and a good team. The low-risk contracts that players like this sign often yield dividends to the team that pulls the trigger. The remaining running back crop is far from exciting, especially if you take the previously discussed Foster and Hillman out of the mix, but there are still guys out there who could make a positive impact on the Dolphins’ backfield. The team already signed Isaiah Pead and re-signed Daniel Thomas to add depth to the currently up-for-grabs below Jay Ajayi (Damien Williams is officially on notice). Although, I doubt either of the two running backs will be on the final 53-man roster when all is said and done. They also brought in former Tampa Bay scatback Bobby Rainey in for a visit yesterday. Some other options include: LeGarrette Blount, who is a proven bruiser that served as New England’s starter until he was lost to injury late in the season. Joique Bell, an effective rotational guy and spot starter for the Lions for much of the year. And, Fred Jackson who is still a capable third down/receiving back at the ripe age of 35. None of these men are game-changing talents, but they could create solid depth below the likes of Jay Ajayi and whichever rookie the team decides to draft.

Trade:

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs

(Photo: John Rieger/USA TODAY Sports)

Any sort of blockbuster trade is extremely unlikely at this point in time. However, NFL teams have shocked the world before, especially on draft day. During the draft, teams become desperate to secure more picks, and often package players as part of the deal. Hype for these kind of trades steadily increases as the draft looms closer, and I can see a few deals that technically make sense for both sides.

I’m not going to spend too much time on it, as the odds of it happening are 3,720:1, but I’d love to see a trade for Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs have a good young running back corps, and were rumored to be shopping Charles around, as his contract expires after the 2017 season anyway. This trade would allow the Chiefs to utilize their young talents in Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware while getting a return on a player that they probably would not re-sign the next year anyway. An All-Pro when healthy, Charles is an incredible football player, and he looked like the best running back in the league before he tore his ACL in week 5. Prior to his injury, he had 541 yards from scrimmage on 5.1 YPC and 5 TDs. While he is approaching the dreaded age of 30 and is coming off a torn ACL, there is no doubt in my mind that he’d be a dominant weapon for Adam Gase to use and would likely not cost the Dolphins too much as far as draft picks go. But, as I’ve said before, the odds of this happening are about the same as me getting a girlfriend that likes me for my personality and not my stunning body.

Jay Ajayi:

Miami Dolphins vs New England Patriots

(Photo: Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

The only certainty surrounding the Miami Dolphins’ running back corps in Jay Ajayi. I’ve mentioned the 2nd year running back out of Boise State frequently in this article, and so I think it beneficial to mention how he fits into the organization’s plans going forward. Ajayi showed flashes throughout his first NFL season, but struggled mightily to stay on the field. He totaled 187 yards and a touchdown at a mediocre 3.8 YPC in nine games of limited action. He struggled in pass-protection at times and was never really a factor in the receiving game either. The team does not seem confident in handing him the starting role, though I can absolutely see him thriving in a time-share with another running back or two. I think that Ajayi will function as the team’s big-bodied back while they look for supplemental pieces in the draft that can fill the roles that Adam Gase needs for a more efficient offense.

The Skinny:

Gase

(Photo: Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports)

I highly doubt that the Dolphins’ brass is confident in the trio of Jay Ajayi, Isaiah Pead, and Daniel Thomas, and there are a multitude of directions that they could go in addressing this situation. Replacing the production of Lamar Miller is a tall order, and it remains to be seen as to how the team will manage without a proven talent in the backfield. Whether the team drafts Ezekiel Elliott, signs Arian Foster, employs Ajayi and a rookie in a rotation, or uses Adam Gase’s witchcraft to trade for Jamaal Charles, is tough to predict. But, I’ll bet my Peyton Manning rookie card that Adam Gase devises some real devious schemes to do damage in the new Sun Life Stadium, no matter the weapon(s) he acquires.

 

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