Decoding the Dolphins Backfield

For all the fuss made when the Dolphins opened training camp with Kalen Ballage as the first-team running back over Kenyan Drake, it seemingly turned out to be nothing when Drake played ahead of Ballage with the starters in Miami’s preseason opener. Finally, clarity!

That clarity lasted only a moment, as Drake was seen Tuesday wearing a walking boot, with a minor foot injury identified as the culprit. With that, we’re set back to square one, or potentially even further back than that, depending on how quickly Drake recovers. The Dolphins say they expect him to be ready for Week 1, so perhaps things will proceed as previously planned.

But there’s uncertainty in the meantime, and Ballage’s acquisition cost has risen accordingly. For instance, Ballage’s August ADP prior to the announcement of Drake’s injury was 114.6 on DRAFT and 125.71 on BestBall10s. Since then, his BB10 ADP is 113.50 while rising to 104.9 on DRAFT. Similarly, Drake’s ADP has of course fallen, from 65.9 (DRAFT) and 62.33 (BB10) to 74.6 and 67.61, respectively.

The rush to chase the league’s Next Starting Running Back is totally understandable, but we should keep in mind who these players actually are. Drake’s injury could very well screw up his chances of securing a starting role, especially early in the year, but that doesn’t mean Ballage would necessarily be locked into a workhorse role if Drake were absent or limited. Or at least, even if Miami means to use Ballage as a workhorse, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to stand by the decision.

Ballage (4.46-second 40 at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds) is an uncommon athlete, roughly as fast as Drake (4.45-second 40 at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds) even at nearly 20 pounds heavier, and Ballage poses all the brute strength you’d expect of a 230-pound back. The problem is there isn’t much evidence that he knows how to find the open field, and his speed won’t matter if he’s running into piles. For this point it’s important that you know about DeMario Richard.

Richard was a good running back for Arizona State. He not only started ahead of Ballage and claimed the greater workload between the two – 647 carries for 3,202 yards (4.9 YPC) compared to 450 carries for 1,984 (4.4 YPC) for Ballage – but he posted better efficiency at that much greater volume. Then Richard ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and in the same draft that the Dolphins took Ballage in the fourth round, Richard went undrafted. Then the Falcons signed him as an undrafted free agent, right before cutting him in June. He has not been signed by an NFL team since. So Ballage played behind a back who not only went undrafted and then got cut at the conclusion of minicamps, but one who clearly outplayed Ballage.

My takeaway from all this is that Ballage, for all his size, speed, and strength, be it due to limitations in vision or whatever else, cannot find from the backfield the open space he needs for his speed and power to manifest in actual production. You might point to Ballage’s rookie season as evidence to the contrary – he averaged 5.3 yards per carry! – but he averaged 3.3 yards per carry on the 35 attempts other than his 75-yard touchdown run. Similar to how his rushing average at Arizona State in 2015 drops from 5.22 to 4.74 without its longest carry, and 4.25 to 3.69 in 2016. No one disputes that Ballage has the speed to split the safeties; the point of disagreement is whether he can avoid the linebackers at the line of scrimmage in between his relatively rare big plays.

It’s one thing to believe the Dolphins will begin the season with Ballage as their starting running back, it’s another to think he’ll finish the season with the same distinction. I think Ballage’s college production is concerning such that he’s vulnerable, even in the absence of Drake, to losing touches to Myles Gaskin and Mark Walton. I consider Walton the lesser player after he finished his college career with 2,006 yards and 26 touchdowns on 395 attempts (5.1 YPC) at Miami (FL), but he has some amount of favoritism as a former fourth-round pick and in-town product, to be fair. I’m more intrigued by Gaskin, who took an enormous workload at Washington and ran for 5,323 yards and 57 touchdowns on 945 carries (5.6 YPC).

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Neither Gaskin (4.58-second 40 at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds) nor Walton (4.6-second 40 at 5-foot-10, 202 pounds) offer much in the way of tools, so if they’re to catch Ballage it will need to be on the basis of skill. My concern with Ballage is that it might not take that much skill to catch him after averaging 4.4 yards per carry as an off-the-bench runner in the Pac-12, where Gaskin was obviously superior on a much bigger workload.

Despite my skepticism of Ballage as a backfield runner, I think he has real upside as a pass catcher in the NFL, and I think he’s a good best ball pick in the 12th round or later even if Drake’s recovery goes swimmingly. Tight end Mike Gesicki has reportedly struggled in Miami training camp, and in that case I’d sooner bet on Ballage to pose a pass-catching threat than Nick O’Leary. Perhaps it’s true to say that, even if Ballage fails at running back, he might be the kind of guy the Dolphins need to get onto the field anyway. If so, then underneath pass-catching functions would be an obvious way to get Ballage’s speed into the open field by design.

For now, I’m going to assume the Dolphins give Ballage the initial crack at a workhorse role in the first couple weeks. I’ll take the liberty of assuming he’ll fail in whatever extended audition he gets in this role, forcing an adjustment of some kind or another. Because Ballage’s power and speed is a real asset, I’d personally look to get him involved in space as a pass catcher. There’s evidence in whatever case that Walton and Gaskin can match or exceed Ballage as a pure runner, and they shouldn’t be dismissed as threats to do exactly that. I’d take Ballage as soon as perhaps the 10th round, but I’ll stay away at higher prices.

I won’t be approaching Walton or Gaskin in best ball leagues, but their early-season opportunity definitely boosts their profiles in dynasty formats or one-year formats with big benches (thinking more than 20 rounds for 12-team setups). They’ll both be on my FAAB radar, though.