In the season’s final month, Kenyan Drake will not just compete against the Broncos, Patriots, Bills and Chiefs.
He will also be battling Saquon Barkley, Kerryon Johnson, Damien Harris and Derrius Guice.
The year’s final five games are an audition for Drake, who will try to prove to Dolphins decision-makers that they need not use a high draft pick on a running back in April.
Drake was the last man standing at his position after Damien Williams (separated shoulder) and Senorise Perry (concussion) left the Patriots game because of injuries.
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And while help might be on the way — the Dolphins on Tuesday placed defensive end William Hayes on injured reserve, freeing up a roster spot — Drake will presumably be the featured back for as long as Williams is out.
Jay Ajayi is not going to be walking through that door.
Instead, his backup to start the season, Drake, will get the chance to reward the organization’s faith when the Dolphins took the Alabama reserve in the third round of the 2016 draft.
Drake has just 75 carries in his two-year career, but has made the most of them. He is averaging 5.1 yards per run as a pro, supersized by a number of long runs, and five all-purpose touchdowns. The knocks on Drake: He’s been prone to fumbling (he has done it twice since the Dolphins traded Ajayi) and he is a boom-or-bust runner.
He will need to fix both if he wants to convince Adam Gase that he can be Miami’s bell cow next year.
“I think we need to clean some things up — the ball security, for one,” Gase said about Drake on Monday. “I look at that fumble and it was completely avoidable and he knows it. I think he takes a lot of pride in what he does. He wants to be what we expect him to be, which is a guy that can help us move the chains in the run game, be extremely effective in the pass game and knows what to do in protection.
“He’s a second-year player and we need him to come along as quickly as possible,” Gase continued. “The good thing is when he does get a crease and he hits one, it can be an explosive play. He’s one of those guys. The whole reason we drafted him was he came from a program that a lot of us in our building know who he was coached by and know the kind of work ethic that he had. We liked it and we felt like it fit our culture. We’ve just got to keep pushing him to get better every week.”
If he does, the Dolphins will be more inclined to use their first-round selection — which, if they cannot pull out of their recent slump, will be a premium pick — on a more pressing need.
But if not, the Dolphins could be in the market for a first-round running back for the first time since taking Ronnie Brown in 2005.
The most prominent options:
▪ Barkley, Penn State: He probably will not get the Heisman, but Barkley (5-11, 223) is still expected to be a top-10 pick. Some even think Barkley, who has 49 offensive touchdowns in three collegiate seasons, could go No. 1.
“Barkley has devastating quickness to hit the hole and accelerate down-field,” according to Charlie Campbell of WalterFootball.com. “Along with great speed, he has tremendous balance, vision, cutting ability, elusiveness, and power. Barkley looks like a better prospect than Ezekiel Elliott, and is proving that he is a prospect of similar caliber to players like Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley.
▪ Johnson, Auburn: He has all but willed the Tigers to the SEC Championship Game, and gutted out injury in Auburn’s win over Alabama on Sunday.
“21 [Johnson] is a 1st rd [round] talent,” former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah wrote on Twitter during the Iron Bowl.
▪ Harris, Alabama: Would the Dolphins go with an all-Tide backfield? Drake was a junior when Harris (who has averaged an absurd 7 yards per carry in college) was a sophomore.
▪ Others to keep in mind: Guice, LSU; Bryce Love, Stanford; Ronald Jones II, USC; Nick Chubb, Georgia; and Josh Adams, Notre Dame.