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.

Dolphins vs Panthers All-22 Breakdown and Key Observations

Miami won for the 4th time in a row, in convincing fashion, and the Dolphins vs Panthers All-22 Film tells an interesting story of the game.

dolphins vs panthers
Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

For the fourth week in a row, the Dolphins have found themselves as winners. This time, Miami won in decisive fashion vs the Panthers, with a final score of 33-10.

This game brought hope to Dolphins fans, and for good reason. This game showed the formula many thought they would at the beginning of the season. A combination of stellar defense and opportunistic, ball-control-based offense has gotten Miami wins over the last four games.

When watching the All-22 tape on NFL Gamepass, it was clear that Miami’s plan is starting to work out, and here are five things that stood out when watching the film for Dolphins vs Panthers.

Fantastic Phillip Lindsay

Following being waived by the Houston Texans, running back Phillip Lindsay was claimed by the Miami Dolphins, who were looking for another back to complement young guns Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed.

Coming off a short week, it was uncertain if Lindsay would play, but, as he explained, he was quick to get into the facility and study the playbook.

It was clear that the hard work, even in minimum snaps, has paid off. The two-time thousand-yard rusher showed, even with a below-average OL, why he was so successful in Denver.

Phillip Lindsay’s first run in Miami.

Above all other traits, his burst and awareness have stood out. Other backs, especially Myles Gaskin, seem to wait for holes to develop. This, although valuable with a good OL, becomes an issue when there isn’t time to sit back.

Lindsay, on the other hand, is constantly moving. Even when the hole isn’t there, his feet are always driving forward, raising his floor on yards to gain. Even when he gets tackled early in the play, his forward momentum keeps him from losing yards.

Phillip Lindsay showing off his great burst.

Along with this, his pass blocking is a thing of beauty. On QB Tua Tagovailoa’s 57-yard pass to Jaylen Waddle, Lindsay makes up for OT Liam Eichenberg, who got beat on the play. Coming out of the backfield, he demonstrated textbook blocking, attacking the rusher and providing his quarterback a throwing window.

Phillip Lindsay’s block opens up the throw to Waddle.

The Tuscaloosa Connection

Throughout college, Tua Tagovailoa found success in getting the ball out quickly in the RPO game, typically to his track team at wide receiver. The Dolphins, after drafting Tua thought that the best way to maximize the young quarterback was getting his collegiate teammate, Jaylen Waddle.

Through the first few games of the season, it was apparent that Tua and Waddle had chemistry, the level of which was unknown.

Now, however, as the season progresses, we can see that the 2nd year quarterback is significantly more comfortable with Waddle than any other receiver.

Throughout the game vs the Panthers, Tagovailoa targeted Waddle on a variety of looks, including several tightly contested looks, which contradicted notions on Tua coming out of college that he was unwilling to make risky throws.

Tua and Waddle connect on an out route.

More impressive, however, was the ability that Tua and Waddle have to know when the ball is coming out, and where. Tua, through repetition and natural chemistry, consistently throws the ball to Waddle before, or as, he’s coming out of his break. A prime example of this is the touchdown between the two.

Excellent Anticipation

When Tua releases the ball on a curl route, Waddle has yet to turn around and has three defenders near him. The ball was not only thrown early, but also put in a perfect spot for the rookie to make the play. That anticipation was a trait Tua was praised for at Alabama, and it seems Waddle is bringing it out now.

Tua’s throw to Waddle was out FAST.

This was not the only instance of this chemistry, however, as the aforementioned 57-yard play showed the duo’s promise as well.

Following the Lindsay block, Tua put the ball right in the middle of the field as Waddle made his break. Knowing his ability to move after the catch, his throw gave Waddle ample room to work, even with a safety coming down.

Tagovailoa and Waddle connected nine times for 137 yards and a touchdown, and this game looked promising for the duo.

Jaelan Phillips is Legit

This year, after a rough start, had been largely dominated by rookies Jevon Holland and Jaylen Waddle. Their ability to make impact plays has certainly been noticed, and both have flashed in crucial moments.

However, Dolphins fans and media alike had seemed to forget about the first-round pick, Jaelan Phillips. Coming out of UM, Phillips was regarded as a potentially elite pass rusher with a deep bag of tricks. This left Miami fans excited when he fell to them at the 18th pick.

Despite the hype, however, Phillips had failed to produce by all simple counting stats. While it seemed that he was getting close, he was rarely able to get home. Dolphins fans became frustrated, and it seemed that the optimism for Phillips faded as it grew for Waddle and Holland.

When the Dolphins took on the Panthers, all of it started to come together.

Coming out Party

Against an offensive line ranked among the worst in the league, Phillips was able to tally three sacks, a pass deflection, and a pressure leading to an INT.

Jaelan Phillips creates a pressure leading to an INT.

The numbers, however, weren’t as impressive as the tape on the plays themselves.

In particular, his work from the inside, with Emmanuel Ogbah on the edge, was spectacular. With Ogbah taking an outside route, Phillips was often left 1-on-1 with a guard. His combination of size and speed left these guards in the dust, and him in the backfield at will. With a skill-set as refined as Phillips’, it will be very difficult to stop him without tackle help.

Jaelan Phillips gets a sack vs a guard.

It’s clear that Miami has something special with Ogbah and Phillips, and I suspect they will use that pairing on the same side more often.

Improved Play Calling

Going into this season, Miami knew their offense needed to improve from the 15th ranked scoring unit. Thus, when they opted to make in-house coordinator hires, many were confused. A staff that was unable to produce a consistent offensive scheme would now be led by play-callers with limited experience.

These concerns lingered into the season, as Miami’s offense was dwelling near the bottom of the league. Many were calling for the jobs of Studesville and Godsey, and Miami had lost seven straight.

However, they seemed to have found their stride in the winning streak, both of which continued on Sunday.

Operating out of heavy pistol sets with lots of pre-snap motion, Miami was able to create misdirection. The threat of motion-man Albert Wilson stressed defenses to his side, while Jaylen Waddle and Durham Smythe were able to find soft spots in coverage.

Miami goes underneath to Waddle off the Wilson motion.

Miami also used these looks to create counters from a play they love to run: the wheel to Albert Wilson.

Against both the Jets and Ravens, Miami teased this formation, running a deep wheel route to Wilson in both games. It was clear Miami wanted defenses to pick up the idea, and I had clamored on Twitter for counters.

Those wishes came to fruition on Sunday, as Miami ran almost their entire offense out of this formation. This base set led to several different runs, short and intermediate passes. With the Panthers expecting the wheel route, Miami was able to catch Carolina off guard and tear them apart underneath.

Miami runs their motion based pistol offense and gets a first down.

The offense will still need to improve over the coming weeks, but they are trending up during the most important stretch of their season.

Area Of Improvement

Even in a 23-point win, there were areas of the team that were less than ideal. One that stuck out was the offensive line.

On three separate occasions, Miami’s offensive lineman gave up pressures or bad snaps that ruined potential scoring drives.

On separate drives, Jesse Davis and Liam Eichenberg were beaten badly, leading to crucial sacks on Tua and then punts.

Liam Eichenberg gets beaten by Brian Burns.

The other drive, before the half, contained one of Austin Reiter’s several bad snaps. After going too low, Tua was unable to recover the snap, and Carolina turned a potential Miami FG into one of their own.

Here’s one of Austin Reiter’s bad snaps.

If Miami is to continue their streak, eliminating drive-ending mistakes is crucial, and those start with the OL.

The Bottom Line

The Miami Dolphins are showing signs of life, and are only two games below 500. With games against the Giants and Jets upcoming, Miami has a chance to contend for a playoff spot.

Whether it’s too late is yet to be determined, but Miami has continued to improve over the last month. The tape continues to get better, and Miami looks like the team we envisioned back in August.

The coming weeks will be the most telling, and it will be exciting to see if Miami can complete the miraculous comeback season.

Follow Tyler DeSena on Twitter

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