First in a position-by-position series with final Dolphins metrics, nuggets about each position and a glimpse into the future:
Of all the decisions Adam Gase made in use of personnel this season, the fact he gave Kenyan Drake just 7.5 carries per game might have been the most difficult to justify.
And it’s something that needs to change under the new coach, because the Dolphins - barring a trade - must determine whether Drake can be, over a sustained period, the same guy who led the NFL in rushing over the final five games of the 2017 season.
He never really had a chance to prove that this past season, though Gase did give him a significant role in the passing game.
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Does Drake need 18 carries per game? Absolutely not. But the 10 to 15 range would be warranted.
For that to be achieved, the Dolphins must get more offensive plays. Because of their inability to sustain drives - the Dolphins had their worst third-down conversion rate in franchise history - they ran the fewest plays in the league this season.
So why didn’t Drake run the ball more? We know Gase was worried that Drake was more likely than Frank Gore to lose yards on rushing attempts (which is statistically true), and Gase was petrified about being in third-and-long.
Of Drake’s 120 rushing attempts, 19 lost yards, which is 15.8 percent.
By comparison, 10 of Gore’s 156 rushing attempts lost yards, which is 6.4 percent.
Drake also had eight carries that went for no gain, while Gore had 13.
But beyond that, Pro Football Focus metrics point to two other areas where Drake must improve:
▪ Drake allowed six sacks – most among NFL running backs – in 107 pass blocking snaps. In fact, nobody else relinquished more than three. No wonder his pass blocking grade ranked fourth-worst among all NFL backs.
(Meanwhile, Kalen Ballage allowed one sack in just 11 pass blocking snaps, which explains why he had the NFL’s worst passing blocking grade for any NFL running back, according to PFF.)
▪ Drake dropped five passes – fourth-most among NFL running backs.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that Drake is a skilled receiver out of the backfield. He was second on the Dolphins in receptions (53), third in receiving yards (477) and second behind Kenny Stills in receiving touchdowns with five.
So here’s what the new coach must reconcile: Does he give a heavy workload to Drake knowing that his 4.7 average per carry (on 286 career attempts) is among the best among active running backs? Among active backs with at least 750 carries - and Drake is well short of that figure - only Adrian Peterson, at 4.7, is at that impressive average per carry threshold.
Or does the new coach get spooked by the sacks allowed, the high percentage of runs for losses and the occasional dropped passes?
Or do the Dolphins trade Drake with a year left on his contract and use a draft pick to select a young, under-team-control-for-four-years running back to pair with Ballage?
I would want to explore heavy doses of Drake before determining whether he’s capable of being a lead back, because his work late in 2017 suggests that he is, and his big play ability (the Miami Miracle and beyond) is an enormous asset.
Remember, Drake – during the final five games of the 2017 season – ran for 444 yards (4.9 per carry) and averaged 18.2 carries per game.
The onus will be on Drake to improve in pass protection and curtail the number of runs that lose yards.
If Gase hadn’t been fired, nobody would have been surprised if Drake would have asked for a trade. But he now gets a fresh start with a new coach and he also deserves a fresh opportunity to prove he’s a lead NFL back.
Other running back notes:
▪ If the Dolphins are serious about rebuilding with a younger roster, it would be a contradiction to re-sign Gore, despite his good work this season. Miami must make determinations on Drake and Ballage, and keeping Gore would run counter to the objective of building a roster for the future.
▪ Pro Football Focus rated Gore 10th of 63 qualifying backs this season and Drake 49th. Ballage would have been 57th if he had enough snaps to qualify.
▪ Here were the final running back snap counts on offense for this past season: Drake 545, Gore 331, Ballage 94, Brandon Bolden 26 and Sinorise Perry 2.
▪ Contract status: Gore is an unrestricted free agent. Drake has one year left on his contract at $810,000. Ballage is set to make $570,000 next season in the second year of a four-year contract.
Bolden is an unrestricted free agent. Perry, who was very good on special teams, is a restricted free agent, leaving him under team control.
This series will continue with other positions over the course of the next month, in addition to other unrelated Dolphins pieces.