Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins 2018 running back options come into better focus

When the Miami Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi (who blocked me on Twitter) it was obvious to anyone with eyes the team could use its final seven games as a proving ground to test how much to rely on Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams in the future.

And that test, an organic and unmentioned exercise by club officials, is going to matter next offseason. It’s going to be a very big deal because the Dolphins will measure what happened after Ajayi was traded to decide how many running backs must be added to the roster and at what priority the additions have to come.

Well, Drake was presented with these fact then and decided to take the, “I’m just here to win games, not make roster decisions” route, which was genius because whatever happened, he was going to be one of the running backs on the team next year. After all, he’s a third-round pick and next year will be his third season.

So he’s a valuable investment and he’s not a salary cap hindrance.

Drake, by the way, repeated the same approach on Thursday.

“Like I said, I’m just here to help this team win games,” he said.

Told you.

“At the end of the day,” he added, “whatever assessment they decide to make with my body of work or the team’s body of work in general, that’s them. I’m here to play football and help this team win games.”

And I’m just here to analyze what’s going on and suggest to you what it means. And what the past few weeks have meant is that Drake’s value has risen significantly. And if he keeps the current course, he might get an opportunity to be the lead back next year.

But the Dolphins nonetheless will be in the market for a couple of running backs in the offseason.

Let’s address Drake first: He doesn’t look like a bell cow back. But then again, neither did Chris Johnson. And neither does Mark Ingram Jr. And NFL teams don’t care about bell cow running backs anyway because they figure they need at least two guys worthy of playing time.

The Dolphins seemingly have one in Drake. He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry now. He’s scored two rushing touchdowns for a team that had none when Ajayi (who blocked me on Twitter) was traded. And Drake’s tied for the NFL lead with three carries of 40 yards or more, including a 66-yard touchdown run.

So that’s worthy stuff. Granted, it is a small sample size. And only time can tell if Drake can stay healthy enough and diligent enough (yes, diligent as in taking care of his body every week so that he can maximize performance on game day) to factor over a long span of games.

But if he keeps the current course Drake is earning a spot in next year’s running back competition.

Damien Williams is a different matter. No, I’m not saying he’s out. I’m not saying he’s not earning a spot.

But the fact is Williams has not been quite so consistently dynamic as Drake. He’s averaging 3.9 yards a carry despite a 69-yard run. And he got hurt. Williams injured his shoulder and missed last week’s game and Thursday’s practice. Coach Adam Gase said his status basically depends on how well he can manage his pain, which sounds like he’s not going to be healed but rather will have to grind through the injury for the foreseeable future.

In other words, Williams for multiple reasons is not faring quite as well with the added responsibilities since the Ajayi trade as what Drake has.

Also a factor in Williams’ future is the fact he’s unsigned for next season and scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Now, I know Gase thinks Williams hung the moon. The coach loves him for his attitude and intangibles.

But I remind you Williams held out last offseason when he had zero leverage because he wanted more than the $1.797 million the Dolphins gave him as a restricted free agent.

So is Williams worth more than that amount next year? Obviously, he’s going to think so. And if he doesn’t get more from Miami, he’ll likely go into the free agent market looking for more because that’s what he did as a restricted free agent when he visited the New England Patriots.

But here’s the thing: Williams is good for the Dolphins because he plays special teams and has a good attitude and is a Gase favorite when he’s not making a ton of money. But is Damien Williams worth $2.5 million per year?

I don’t see it. Maybe the Dolphins -- flush with a ton of salary cap room next offseason (not really) -- will spend on Williams.

Or they can draft a running back and find another as an undrafted free agent for the price of one Williams contract.

Speaking of the draft and free agency ...

The Dolphins may be able to find an upgrade backup running back for about $2 million per season next spring. Did I mention Dion Lewis of the Patriots is scheduled to be a free agent in 2018? He’s making less than Damien Williams this year.

And, yes, he’s better.

Can you imagine a running back room that includes that kind of speed (Drake) and quickness (Lewis)?

Also, I don’t expect Miami to pick a RB in the first round of the draft. I’m thinking third-, fourth-rounder maybe although we are way too far out from next April to be anywhere close to specific and accurate.

The point is running back is going to be a thing next offseason. The Dolphins basically guaranteed that when they traded Ajayi (who blocked me on Twitter).

Kenyan Drake is going to factor significantly in that Miami running back dynamic next season. Damien Williams, may or may not factor.

But the Dolphins will be adding at least one and perhaps two playing-time-worthy running backs in the offseason.

Follow Armando Salguero and find out why Jay Ajayi blocked him on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero