A long time ago in what now seems a galaxy far, far away, I sat down with recently retired quarterback Dan Marino for a career-retrospective interview. Few details I recall better than this awkward exchange:
Me: “Dan, who was the greatest Dolphins running back you ever handed off to?”
Marino: “Aw, [bleep], why you wanna ask me that!?”
I just smiled. There was a long pause, maybe 10 or 12 seconds of silence. Finally, having to say something, Marino said, “I guess, Tony Nathan.”
The point: Miami’s lack of a star running back and prominent ground game during his time (1983-99) is one reason the great Marino retired sans Super Bowl ring.
In his 17 seasons Marino handed off to 10 different leading rushers (Andra Franklin, Woody Bennett, Nathan, Lorenzo Hampton, Troy Stradford, Sammie Smith, Mark Higgs, Bernie Parmalee, Karim Abdul-Jabbar and J.J. Johnson), none of whom ever sniffed a Pro Bowl that season.
Miami built solid blocking lines for Marino, and Marks Brothers Clayton and Duper always gave him top targets … but it seems ever more clear in retrospect that neglect or mediocrity at running back led to offensive imbalance that really hurt.
Fast forward to 2016 and find that the Dolphins, with Ryan Tannehill now pitching and the NFL Draft at hand, have a chance to continue repeating that same mistake or — perhaps — to finally correct it.
Miami, which won its two Super Bowls with a run-first offense back in the day, has sought a remedy before, sporadically. In Marino’s time the Fins spent first-round picks on running backs in 1985 (Hampton, 27th overall), in 1989 (Smith, ninth) and in 1998 (John Avery, 29th). None justified the draft status. Post-Marino they have gone with a runner in the first round only once, with Ronnie Brown in 2005. He was decent, but you need much more than OK from a No. 2 overall pick.
Time to finally prioritize that position again, 11 years later.
His name is Ezekiel Elliott, the running back from Ohio State. He is the only first-round-quality back who figures to be picked Thursday night, and he’d be perfect for Miami at 13th overall — capable of being an every-down back from the get-go.
Elliott is a 6-foot, 225-pounder who the past two college seasons totaled 3,699 yards rushing and 41 touchdowns with a 6.7-yard average. He’s a great blocker, too.
The Dolphins lost Lamar Miller in free agency because they evidently didn’t think he was good enough to pay big to keep. They then tried and failed to sign a quality back to replace him. That leaves unproven second-year man Jay Ajayi the starter as of today. Not good enough.
The problem: Elliott has been projected to go as high as No. 4 overall to Dallas, and two or three other teams picking before Miami also might covet him. But other respected mock drafts, including that of ESPN’s Todd McShay, have Elliott being available to the Fins.
The Dolphins, barring a trade-up, might need some luck to get him, but if he is there, there is zero doubt in my mind he should be the pick.
Sometimes we over-think the draft. And by “we” I mean everyone from personnel mavens like Dolphins roster boss Mike Tannenbaum to media blowhards like me to fans.
Keep it simple, I say. A really good player at a “need” position is a better pick than a slightly higher-rated player at less of a need position. That may not be true for great teams with deep rosters. But it’s true for Miami coming off a 6-10 season. Fins have major holes — “We’re not one player away,” Tannenbaum admitted Friday in the team’s obfuscating pre-draft news conference — and had better fill one of them in the first round.
With that in mind and the pipe dream of getting Josh Norman dissipated, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III of the Florida Gators would be a logical pick if they miss on Elliott. The need is glaring, with Brent Grimes and his Evil Wife gone, and Hargreaves is the best man-to-man cover guy in this draft. (Yes, he’s listed as only 5-11 and may be 5-10. Bulletin: Grimes, the Fins’ first Pro Bowl CB since Patrick Surtain in ’04, also was 5-10.)
Door No. 3? If Miami misses on Elliott and Hargreaves, pass rush might be a logical target, with Olivier Vernon gone in free agency and Cameron Wake winding down. In that case, Shaq Lawson from Clemson, consensus All-American, would make sense for Miami and could be there at 13. He led all FBS schools in tackles-for-loss with 25.5 last year and would neatly fit Miami’s 4-3 scheme. He is better at run stopping than pass rushing, yet had 12 1/2 sacks last season.
A pass rusher is a distant third need, though, behind running back and cornerback.
That’s why Elliott and Hargreaves are the names Dolfans should be hoping are available to Miami.
Either would be a very lucky No. 13 for the Dolphins.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at miamiherald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.