Free Agency Preview: Miami Dolphins’ Running Back Dilemma

Dolphins ATB breaks down the Dolphins’ free agency strategy in addressing their current problems at the running back position.

Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin takes a hand-off from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa
Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubting the Dolphins’ running game has been underwhelming to say the least for many years. Not since Jay Ajayi have the Dolphins had a running back that brought a degree of excitement to the fan base.

Mike McDaniel brings hope to many fans that he can be the one that restores a complementary running game to Tua and the Dolphins offense which heavily features the RPO.

The Brian Flores running back committee was hardly successful.

Category Dolphins’ RankingMike McDaniel’s 49ers Ranking
Rushing Yards29th 7th
Yards per Carry31st 17th
Rushing TD24th5th
20+ Yard Carries29th9th
Rushing 1st Downs27th8th
The 49ers achieved this production despite only spending $8.8 million on all of their RBs in 2021.

Despite this production, The Dolphins enter the offseason with somewhat of a dilemma at running back. At this time, Myles Gaskin continues to be RB1 on the roster.

Many fans are also keen to bring back Duke Johnson, whose positive play towards to closing stages of last season helped the Dolphins recover from their terrible 1-7 start to finish 9-8.

Salvon Ahmed has recently been tendered, and many people also regard Phillip Lindsay as being a good fit in McDaniel’s zone rushing scheme.

The Dolphins are heavily predicted to finally select a premiere running back in this year’s draft, with Breece Hall and Kenneth Walker III predicted to be key target of Miami’s.

There is clearly a need to improve at the position, but will it be through new additions in free agency?

Miami needs to be proactive and aggressive in bolstering their running back core this offseason.

Who may those additions be and what will they cost?

Raheem Mostert- Estimated $2-3 Million P/Y

Raheem Mostert is the somewhat obvious choice given his familiarity in Mike McDaniel’s running scheme. Despite a season ending knee injury last season, Mostert is predicted to make a full recovery in time for the 2022 season.

Over the course of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Mostert rushed for 1,293 yards averaging 5.3 YPC, 10 rush TDs, 336 receiving yards and three receiving TDs. His vision and big-play home run speed have been key factors in his success, and would complement the Dolphins current RB core.

However, Mostert is nearing 30 and coming off a significant injury, which my affect his performance and overall value on the market.

Nevertheless, Mostert has been described as a McDaniel guy, and is largely considered a natural fit for Miami to help implement McDaniel’s running system in South Florida.

Leonard Fournette – Estimated $6.1 Million P/Y

Lombardi Lenny, Playoff Lenny, whatever you want to call him, he is another name that has been heavily linked with Miami in the past. While he is the more expensive choice, the Dolphins have the cap space to make it work.

Fournette has consistently produced throughout his career. In his five years in the NFL, Fournette has rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, 31 rushing TDs, 1,696 receiving yards and eight receiving TDs. In 2021 Fournette rushed for 812 yards, averaging 4.5 YPC and eight TDs.

Unlike Mostert, Fournette has only just turned 27 years of age. However, the toll on his body should not be overstated, with nearly 1000 carries and 239 receptions, mainly attributable to being the workhorse back in Jacksonville.

In a Dolphins’ offense that is predicted to be run first, Fournette could quickly become a focal point of that offense. Nevertheless, if we want to see Playoff Lenny, Miami needs to get there first.

Melvin Gordon- Estimated $5.2 Million P/Y

When the Denver Broncos jumped the Dolphins in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Javonte Williams, it may have paved the way for the Dolphins to acquire Melvin Gordon in free agency.

In his seven years in the NFL, like Fournette, he has consistently produced with over 6,000 rushing yards, averaging over four yards per carry, and 53 rushing TDs. Gordon is also a threat in the passing game with over 2,200 receiving yards and 14 TDs.

One area of concern is that with nearly 1500 carries and approaching the age of 29, is Gordon the right man for Miami to invest in? In his seven years in the league he has missed 14 games to injury.

The Dolphins had interest in Gordon during the draft, and again in 2020 when he hit free agency, but elected to go with the cheaper option of Jordan Howard. Look how that worked out… While he clearly remains a capable starting back, the time may have passed for the Dolphins to make their move.

Younger Options?

If there are concerns as to the age and long-term durability of the above mentioned players, then the following players may be an alternative for Miami:

Ronald Jones- Estimated $2.7 Million P/Y

Despite being largely replaced as RB1 in Tampa by Leonard Fournette, Jones has remained productive rushing for 2,130 yards over the past three seasons, returning 17 rushing TDs. Jones has averaged 4.5 YPC in his early career.

In 2020 Jones’ 978 yards on the ground were the 11th-most rushing yards among running backs in 2020. His 5.1 yards per attempt was good enough for  fifth-best in the NFL among running backs with at least 137 carries.

This came to be despite Jones playing an average of just 48% of snaps through 14 games; ten percent less on average than the 10 running backs ranked above him.

Jones is coming off a nagging ankle injury that he sustained late in the season, however, the biggest upside to Jones is his age. Jones is only 24 years of age, therefore has a lot of football left in him.

In a Mike McDaniel run scheme his career could swing in a positive direction, if he can establish himself as RB1 in Miami. He has a solid skill set with an ability to break off long runs at any time. Jones represents a low risk, with potentially very high upside for the Dolphins.

Marlon Mack- Estimated $2.5 Million P/Y

With the introduction of Jonathan Taylor, an MVP caliber player, Marlon Mack is somewhat the forgotten man in Indianapolis; largely due to the amount of time missed through injury. Mack suffered a season ending Achilles tear in week one of the 2020 season, followed by only thirty touches in 2021 in six games.

Mack broke out with the Colts in his second season, rushing for 908 yards and nine touchdowns — in only 12 games. In 2019 Mack followed this up finishing with 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns across 14 games.

Mack is only 26 years of age, and for the most part has missed the last two seasons. A one-year rental where Mack can prove that he can still be a lead back may be an option for both parties. Mack has a high ceiling, but his injury history should not be overstated.

Conclusion

Addressing the running back position is a key focus for the Dolphins this offseason. The 2021 core was underwhelming at best, but many fans wish to re-sign Duke Johnson and Phillip Lindsay. If so, the Dolphins may not wish to improve within free agency and instead focus on the draft.

However, many thought this would be the case in the past two seasons, and look how that turned out. The direction they go remains to be seen, but it will not be long before we find out. Fins Up!

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Duke Johnson and his Underrated Impact

After being picked up by the Miami Dolphins, Duke Johnson had his first 100 yard game, and looks to bring a new element to this offense.

Miami Dolphins running back Duke Johnson
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins, after starting 1-7, have managed to win six straight, and are now in the thick of the playoff rates. The most recent win, coming against the New York Jets, showed a different side of the offensive unit.

For the first time this season, Miami had a 100 yard rusher, and while many saw Myles Gaskin filling that role, the one who completed that feat was none other than University of Miami alum Duke Johnson.

In the 93rd game of Johnson’s career, he was able to amass 107 yards and two touchdowns, his first time achieving either in his career.

Duke Johnson had a day on Sunday.

It was through his rushing prowess that Miami was able to survive a lackluster passing performance and put together yet another win.

However, Johnson’s biggest impact doesn’t come from just his own ability. While important, his impact on other players, specifically other running backs, opens up Miami’s offense in a new way.

Fresh Legs

The NFL season is widely regarded as a “war of attrition”. Analysts and former players cite the beatdown of the previous weeks as a major struggle. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for players to get close to the shape they were before the season.

Specifically, the toll of the running back position is grueling. A workhorse back may carry the ball 20+ times a game, with more contact reps in receiving and pass-blocking. In short, running backs are being hit more often than other skill positions, and it sets in late in the season.

Thus, it becomes important to find “fresh legs” in time for the playoffs. Players who are in good enough shape to produce while also helping to keep other players healthy by splitting carries.

Duke Johnson’s fresh legs are very important for a playoff run.

Before this game, Duke Johnson had only rushed the ball four times, all of which coming in week 11. When compared to Myles Gaskin’s 154 carries, it’s clear Johnson wasn’t impacted the same way.

This gives Miami more freedom to give Johnson workhorse-like reps, keeping their backfield healthy and fresh. The mix of Johnson, Lindsay, Gaskin, and Ahmed gives four capable runners in a system that thrives in RPO looks.

Versatility

Going into the season, it was clear Miami wanted versatility in their running back room. With hard, power runners like Malcolm Brown, they hoped to win in short-yardage situations. Backs like Gaskin and Ahmed, on the other hand, would provide explosiveness and pass-catching ability.

Although, it was clear the Brown signing didn’t work out, as he went on IR early and struggled to produce in Miami’s system. Without him, Miami lacked a power back and someone who could thrive between the tackles.

The signing of Johnson, although new, seems to have fixed some of those issues. His ability to keep his legs driving while sustaining contact leads to solid gains, even with an inconsistent offensive line.

Duke Johnson scores a TD while keeping his feet moving.

Against New York, Johnson broke eight tackles and looked more than capable of being a short-yardage option. This means Gaskin and Ahmed can be used for their proper roles, making big plays on zone runs and passing plays.

Competition

The drive to compete, on a team level, is the biggest principle in all of sports. However, the competition for playing time and success within an organization can be just as heated.

NFL coaches, especially Brian Flores, push the idea of bringing guys in to have them compete. Along with potentially getting a new contributor, the threat of fewer snaps can bring the best out of others. This principle is no different with the addition of Duke Johnson.

Coming from Washington as a seventh-round pick, it’s clear that Myles Gaskin, the previous starter, has an underdog mentality. In his three years in the league, he has been able to rise up the depth chart and become a prominent face in Miami’s backfield. Thus, I believe the addition of Johnson will only help him as a player.

Myles Gaskin looked better when offsetting Duke Johnson.

The underdog stature is one common in Miami’s running back room, as Johnson, drafted in the third round, is the only one drafted that high. The internal competition on having someone to work with and against will bring the best out of this group.

The Bottom Line

Duke Johnson looked like a legitimate NFL starter in his first game, and it comes at an opportune time. Miami faces three tough defenses to close out the year, likely needing to win out to get into the playoffs. With a competent run game, these strong units can’t hone in on the short passing game, which Miami thrives with.

It’s not only his production, but the other elements that Miami hopes to maximize in order to give this team the late-season surge they need to make the postseason. The addition of Johnson paying dividends now, and Dolphins fans have good reason to believe it may in the foreseeable future.

How to Tell When the Miami Dolphins are Running Wildcat

The Miami Dolphins came out in the Wildcat often on Sunday, with little success, and it may be due to this tell in their formation.

Miami Dolphins huddle
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins are, for the third week in a row, winners after defeating the Jets 24-17. After starting slowly, Miami was able to put up 17 second-half points, largely due to Tua Tagovailoa and his ability to shake off an early interception.

Although, the most interesting part of the game might have been the offensive gameplan. The Miami Dolphins consistently came out in Wildcat formation, where either a running back or wide receiver would take the snap. Then, they would choose to either hand off to another playmaker or keep the ball on a run up the middle.

The Dolphins, although coming out in Wildcat several times, were unable to find much success with the formation. A majority of their runs were stopped in the backfield or only gained a few yards.

A major possibility for Miami’s lack of success, along with mediocre offensive line play, may be a tell that signals when the Dolphins will motion into Wildcat.

While watching the game, I was able to uncover a small change in Miami’s pistol formation when they plan on motioning Tua out wide.

Below is a side-by-side photo of Miami’s pre-snap look in a pistol formation (in which the QB is not under center, and a running back is behind him). The play on the left is a reverse pass to Albert Wilson, while the one on the right motions into Wildcat.

The left is a Miami Dolphins pistol reverse play, while the right is a wildcat run play.
The left is a pistol reverse play, while the right is a wildcat run play.

The difference between the two, although subtle, is noticeable.

Tipping Their Hand.

When Miami plans on putting Tua in motion, they bring him closer to the line of scrimmage by a yard. The play on the left (a Wilson reverse) has Tua about three yards behind the center. On the other hand, the play on the right (which becomes Wildcat) has Tua only two yards behind.

Throughout the game, it was easy to tell if Miami was going to run Wildcat or not. If there were three yard markers in between Tua and the center, it was pistol. Only two yard markers, on the other hand, meant Wildcat motion was coming.

There are 3 yard markers in between Tua and Reiter on the left, only 2 on the right.

This clear tell, while not the only reason, may have contributed to Miami’s lack of success in the formation. In combination with poor offensive line play and an inability to create holes, Miami tipped their hand to the Jets’ defense.

Another interesting element, shown in the photos, is the difference in Tua’s foot placement.

On the Wildcat play (shown on the right), Tua’s feet are noticeably more flat and parallel to each other. The left, on the other hand, has his left foot much farther in front. This may have shown the Jets’ defense, in combination with the distance from the center, that motion was coming.

Through simple cues in body language and distance, it was easy to tell if the Wildcat formation was coming. This could be concerning for the future, as Miami continues to use the formation to establish the run. If teams know that the motion is coming, it becomes far easier to eliminate the idea of the pass and sell out against the run.

The Bottom Line

Miami must work on eliminating the simple tells in the Wildcat if they are to use it more often. They ran more Wildcat in this game than any other game this season, and teams will pick up on this trend.

If the formation is to be successful, the Dolphins will have to learn to not give away what’s coming, along with opening holes for their ball carriers.

It will be interesting to see if this tell continues to show in the coming weeks, and how defenses react to the Miami Dolphins Wildcat runs.

Miami Dolphins: Three Keys to Victory vs. New England Patriots

The Miami Dolphins look to start the season with a victory over Mac Jones and the New England Patriots. Here are the keys to victory

Miami Dolphins
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The NFL season is finally here! Last night, we had a fantastic game as the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Bucs survived a scare against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas left several points on the table against Tom Brady, and that’s not a winning formula. Looking ahead to Sunday, what will the winning formula for the Miami Dolphins be when they take on the New England Patriots? Here are the three keys to victory!

Three Keys to a Miami Dolphins Victory

Make Mac Jones look like a rookie

During the lead-up to the NFL Draft, one of the biggest talking points was former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Just how high would the former Crimson Tide star be taken? Could he be the third quarterback off the board? Was he even worthy of a first-round pick? Opinions varied wildly on the young quarterback, but ultimately the only one that matters is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Belichick made Jones a first-round pick in April. Now he has made Jones the starter of the New England Patriots. Jones has some big shoes to fill, and he’s going to get a major test right out of the gates in the Miami Dolphins defense. Miami had one of the better defenses in the league last year, and they’ve arguably gotten better since then.

Head coach Brian Flores is undoubtedly excited about the idea of unleashing this defense on a rookie quarterback. The Dolphins have added pass-rushing prowess with first-round pick Jaelan Phillips. They also added a chess piece in the defensive backfield with safety Jevon Holland. Coupled with the further development of defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and one of the best corner duos in the league, it’s a recipe for disaster for a rookie quarterback.

Miami will need every bit of that if they’re going to walk away with a win and start their season 1-0. Flores is undoubtedly going to make life a nightmare for Jones, with multiple looks and disguises. Will Jones be able to diagnose what he’s seeing? Will Howard be able to force turnovers at the rate he did last season? New England should be in for a long day if Miami can create pressure up front and confuse Jones behind it.

Improved offensive line play

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Miami Dolphins have questions along the offensive line. It feels like a broken record to continue harping on the line, but the fact remains there are still significant questions. Watching the offensive line play in the pre-season did not assuage any fears Dolphins fans had about the performance of this line.

To make matters worse, the Dolphins come into the season opener with both injury and COVID issues along the line. Miami is going to be without starting left tackle Austin Jackson. One of his presumptive replacements — rookie Liam Eichenberg — has been dealing with a lingering “lower-body” issue. Fellow newcomer to the Dolphins, Greg Little, is also dealing with injury issues. It’s going to be a significant point of concern for Miami heading into Sunday’s game. The million-dollar question is going to be, “How well can the offensive line hold up?”

All through training camp, we’ve heard about all the progress that Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has made in his second season — and first full training camp. All of that progress won’t mean much if he can’t put it on display because of a porous offensive line in front of him.

Jesse Davis will likely be thrust into the starting lineup regardless of whether or not Eichenberg is fully healthy. Can his veteran leadership bring the offensive line together? Will they be able to protect Tagovailoa and open up holes for running backs, Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed? They’re going to have to if Miami has any hope of starting the season undefeated.

Tua needs to prove his progress

The biggest story line for the Miami Dolphins this off-season has been quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It has arguably been one of the biggest story lines in the entire league. There’s been talk ad nauseum about what the young quarterback needed to show in year two with the Dolphins.

Pundits and analysts alike have talked until they’re blue in the face about whether or not coach Flores actually believes in Tua. None of that to mention the persistent Deshaun Watson rumors.

All of that — well, maybe not *all* — gets put to rest on Sunday. We saw a bit of his progress in the pre-season, and it was enough to give fans hope that all the talk they’ve heard from camp wasn’t just that. But it’s a much different animal doing those things in the regular season.

If the Dolphins have any hope of walking away from the season opener with a victory, it’s all on Tagovailoa’s shoulders. He needs to show fans — and the Patriots — how much he’s actually progressed in the off-season. He’s finally had an entire off-season to work with the team. He’s been given weapons on the outside with Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller — who will miss this week’s game due to suspension. It’s time for Tagovailoa to make the leap and become a franchise quarterback.

Miami is going to need some explosive plays if they’re to beat the Patriots. Whether that comes from Waddle, tight end Mike Gesicki, or someone else, remains to be seen. But no matter who it comes from, it’s going to start with the arm of Tua. It’s ‘put up or shut up’ time. One way or another, there’s going to be a firestorm of talk after Sunday’s game. If Tua is on his game, and the defense is on theirs, it should be a Victory Monday for Dolphins fans.

Follow Chris Spooner on Twitter

Mutualism: Offensive line and the Run game

A mutualistic relationship is when two things work together in harmony, each benefiting from the relationship. For the Dolphins the Offensive Line needs to be better.

The NFL is an ecosystem, in an ecosystem there are predators and bottom feeders.

In short, there are winners and losers every single year in the NFL and the ecosystem changes. For better or worse.

In Terms for the Miami Dolphins, you couldn’t have seen such a turnaround from 2019 to 2021. A team crafted out of street free agents, undrafted players and ageing veterans had the makings for predators to lick their chops.

It was trial by fire to see who could overcome and adapt harsh situation, and at times while trying to cool the flames, they would hinder themselves and the rest of the team.

The Defense struggles at times but found their footing, they went from prey to predator by learning and adapting to the environment.

2019

On the other hand, the offensive line is trying to find a footing to best handle it’s surroundings. At times in 2019 and 2020 there were inconsistencies. Some days the line was meshing well other days, well, they were fresh meat.

In this league you cannot have abysmal trench play, it hampers the running game and QB play. We all have seen how poorly the line played in 2019, the statistics tells a holistic story.

A Historic Rate

There are other metrics to gauge Offensive line play such as PFF’s pass/run block win rate. ESPN’s rate also shows it too.

Michael Dieter, who was a in 2019, finished as the team’s worst offensive linemen. Jesse Davis, who started 15 games, was the only other offensive linemen to make the list.

The team had the worst pass blocking scheme in the NFL. Trench play was absolutely abysmal and there were many instances where Ryan Fitzpatrick could not do anything.

Trickled down Economics

Running backs Kenyan Drake, Marl Walton, Myles Gaskin and Kalen Ballage could not even eclipse anywhere near 100 yards a game.

Fitzpatrick was the leading rusher for the team.

To say the least, the offensive line was a nagging parasite, harmful to the team overall.

Miami’s offense could not score to compete with its opponents, Defense on the field for more than 60+ snaps every week. As a team, the Dolphins could not function properly.

Sort of like eating gas station sushi to fill your hunger on a road trip, it does not end well.

2020

The good news about the offensive line was that it did not get worse. As a result of newly introduced reinforcements into the NFL landscape there were some improvements.

Helpful Vets

Jesse Davis has been the anchor of the offensive line for the Miami Dolphins since he was drafted in the 2017 NFL draft. As a rookie, he has played in 47 of the team’s 48 games. He’s been improving every year.

Ereck Flowers was brougth in as a Free Agent to plug the hole at Left Guard. He was an important piece to help Austin Jackson understand the NFL before going down with a season ending injury.

The Miami Dolphins have been looking for a solid center since Mike Pouncey left in 2018. They got one in Karras, who did a decent job protecting Fitzpatrick and Tua as the quarterbacks.

The Newbies

Some people may think that Jackson was drafted too high despite having played less games than other starters in college. He showed that he can play left tackle in the NFL, but is still very raw.

Kindley was given no reconsideration as a right guard in 2020. His ability to protect Tua’s blind side helped the team establish a running game that finally eclipsed over 100 yards in the final 6 games. Kindley shifted to left guard when Ereck Flowers went down.

Robert Hunt played on the right side as a right tackle alongside Solomon Kindley, protecting Tua’s blindside. Although Hunt was decent, his highest celling as a lineman looks to be a fixture at Right Guard.

Impact

Overall, the play was significantly better compared to 2019; however, it can always improve. Per PFF, the Dolphins offensive line was ranked 28th. A slight improvement over the worst rank in 2019.

Few teams invested more in improving the offensive line than the Dolphins did entering the 2020 season. They spent draft picks on Austin Jackson in the first round, Robert Hunt in the second round and Solomon Kindley in the fourth round — all who played more than 700 snaps in 2019.

An offensive line with three rookies, would struggle early on, but did improve slightly. Robert Hunt looked to be the best out of the bunch as his 76.4 PFF grade from Week 12 through the end of the regular season was 5th out of 37 right tackles.

2021

As Pre-season winds down we see glimpses of what this Dolphins offensive line could be, thus as it factors into offensive philosophy.

Scheme

Contrary to Ben Fennels point (I love ya ben) but the Offense looks to be a pass first offense. In theory, it will open up the run game.

In fundamentals of an RPO-based offense the offensive line has to consist of guards and tackles that can run block well. The top three run blockers on this offensive line consists of Soloman Kindley, Robert Hunt and rookie OL Liam Eichenberg.

Eichenberg has tried out playing Left Guard at camp but looks to fight Jesse Davis for the starting RT spot. He took first team reps at Right Tackle for the first time against Atlanta and looked consistent opening up holes in the run game.

“Eichenberg is an extremely solid, if unspectacular, tackle prospect. He saw his performance take a massive leap from his first to his second season as a starter. His pass-blocking grade went from 63.5 in 2018 to 85.6 last year and his run blocking grade from 60.8 to 78.8.”

PFF’s Mike Renner on Liam Eichenberg

Recipe for Success

I expect some growing pains on the offensive line to happen against the 3rd pre-season game against the Bengals and early on in the regular season. Furthermore, there has been a noticeable trend from since last year particularly on the right side of the line.

Last season on the right side proved it with the Combo of Hunt/Kindley as the running game was efficient running the ball to the right. Pass protection and the running game worked on Tua’s Blindside.

Thanks to some help from Kyle Crabbs and Sharp Football analysis, rushing YPC produced on the right side of the line.

It’s about fundamentals and execution this pre-season. If the entire line can stay disciplined, stay confident and build upon fundamentals, this OL will be even better.

Not only will it not harm the team but become another strength to push the Dolphins to the top of the NFL ecosystem.

Follow Hussam Patel on Twitter

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