Barry Jackson

Smart decisions and some luck save Dolphins’ backfield; Dolphins nuggets

Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) rushes onto the field as the Miami Dolphins host the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, January 1, 2017.
Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) rushes onto the field as the Miami Dolphins host the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, January 1, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

A six-pack of Dolphins nuggets on a Tuesday evening:

• For those who make the case that teams can find quality running backs in the draft, don’t need to chase pricey backs in free agency, and certainly don’t need to devote much salary cap space to them, these Dolphins provide the textbook example of how to do it.

The Dolphins are allocating only 1.2 percent of their $155.7 million in salary cap commitments to their three running backs. Those backs, all on rookie contracts, combined for 2012 rushing and receiving yards this season (37 percent of Miami’s offensive yards) and 16 offensive touchdowns (39 percent of Miami’s offensive touchdowns).

For the Dolphins, this is the intersection of smart personnel decisions and good fortune.

Here’s what was smart: Drafting Jay Ajayi in the fifth round (he finished fourth in the league in rushing at 1272 yards); selecting Kenyan Drake in the third (his 5.4 per carry average ranked sixth among all NFL backs with at least 30 carries); and signing Williams as an undrafted free agent after the 2014 draft.

Miami’s decision not to pay Lamar Miller more than $4 million a year - Houston is paying him $6.5 million – was correct in retrospect because of Ajayi. Miller was productive for Houston (10th in the NFL in rushing), but Ajayi was better, averaging 4.9 yards per carry to Miller’s 4.0.

Here’s what was fortunate: The Dolphins failing to land CJ Anderson (when Denver matched an offer sheet), whiffing on Chris Johnson, not outbidding the Jets for Matt Forte, and watching Arian Foster retire, thus removing any need to force-feed him carries. Turns out, they didn’t need any of them.

Anderson, who stayed with Denver after the Broncos matched Miami’s four-year, $18 million offer sheet, had 437 yards rushing (4.0 per carry) before tearing his meniscus on Oct. 27.

When Anderson last week noticed tweets suggesting the Dolphins were fortunate that Denver matched Miami’s offer, he tweeted: “I think Jay had a great season. If that’s how they feel, more power to them.”

Johnson had just 95 yards on 25 carries for Arizona. Forte averaged 3.9 yards per carry for the Jets. Foster averaged 2.5 per carry (55 yards) before retiring.

No wonder that offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said Miami’s three young backs have wildly exceeded expectations. That’s as big a reason as any why Miami is playoff bound.

“We all made an effort to keep Lamar here,” Christensen said. “He’s one of the few home run hitters in this league. No one really knew [what we had in the three young backs]. I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted what Jay has done this year.

“Jay has been unbelievably consistent on his run reads, on his effort, on his pounding in there physically. [Williams and Drake] give us big plays on offense, a toughness on offense – running the ball, protecting, and they’ve given us big plays in the special teams. So that’s exactly what you need out of that two and three slot out of the running back position. It’s hard to get. You’d have to watch all the film and say, ‘Man, oh man. What a year Kenyan Drake’s had. What a year Damien Williams has had.”

Ajayi, incidentally, gained a remarkable and league-leading 901 of his 1272 rushing yards after contact.

Though Williams is a restricted free agent, this trio will be cheap next year, too, with Drake and Ajayi carrying combined cap hits of less than $1.5 million in 2017.

• You see those back-to-back great plays by Jordan Phillips Sunday? The Dolphins aren’t the only ones who wish Phillips did that more. So does Phillips.

“I had a better year but not as consistent as I need to be,” he said. “I need to play better. It’s knowing I dominated the person in front of me. I didn’t do that enough.”

Pro Football Focus ranked Phillips 60th of 123 qualifying defensive tackles this season, with Ndamukong Suh third and Earl Mitchell 63rd.

The Dolphins get frustrated with Phillips’ inconsistency at times but believe he has the talent to become quality starter eventually.

They trust Mitchell more, though; Mitchell had 40 snaps against the Patriots, Phillips 26 -- the second game in a row with a sizable disparity in their snap counts.

• Among PFF’s other final Dolphins grades: Ajayi was first among running backs; Ryan Tannehill 13th among quarterbacks; Ja’Wuan James 34th and Branden Albert 65th among 81 tackles; Byron Maxwell 11th, Tony Lippett 57th, Bobby McCain 70th and Xavien Howard 103rd of 119th cornerbacks; Cam Wake 7th and Andre Branch 64th of 113 defensive ends.

Incidentally, PFF rated Jermon Bushrod as the worst run-blocking guard in football.

• The Dolphins will keep impending free agent linebacker Kiko Alonso, but they’re confident they can shift him to weakside linebacker if they find a high-end middle linebacker this offseason. Otherwise, he would stay at middle linebacker.

• According to TSN and several other Canadian media outlets, the Dolphins are signing linebacker Deon Lacy to a futures contract, taking effect as soon as Miami’s season ends.

Lacy, a 6-2, 230 pound linebacker, went undrafted out of West Alabama in 2013 and failed to make the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent.

He then joined the Edmonton Eskimos and played every game the past three years, producing 144 defensive tackles, 68 special teams tackles, 7 sacks, 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 1 touchdown. He had 87 tackles, three interceptions and a sack in 18 games this past season.

He auditioned for five NFL teams, including the Patriots, in the past month.

The Dolphins, in their ongoing search to find a CFL import who could make anything close to the impact that Cam Wake has had, signed Cleyon Laing out of the CFL last spring, but he failed to make the active roster and was cut from Miami’s practice squad on Oct. 31 and then returned to the CFL.

• If the Dolphins lose Sunday, they will draft between 21st and 24th, with UCLA linebacker Takkarist McKinley and Missouri defensive end Charles Harris potentially available in that range, according to draft projections.

If they win and lose to New England, they would draft 25th to 28th.

For my Heat and UM notes from today - including an early look at the competition to replace Brad Kaaya - please click here.... And please follow me on Twitter (@flasportsbuzz)

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