Barry Jackson

What Dolphins fans should know as Miami figures out roles for Drake and Ballage

A six-pack of Dolphins notes on a Monday:

We wrote in May how Kenyan Drake might be the most underutilized back in Dolphins history. Apparently, we’re not alone in the belief that he deserves more work than the 7.5 carries per game he averaged last season.

Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle said Drake “is hands down the best rusher on the Dolphins’ current roster (and has been for the past three years). Kalen Ballage has done enough at the college level to warrant him earning the nod on passing downs and taking on a primary receiving role in the offense over what has been an underwhelming showing from Drake as a receiver.”

PFF makes some good points on Drake, expanding on the factoids I mentioned in my piece a week earlier in May:

“Rushing for 1,358 yards, 47 first downs and nine touchdowns across his 286 career attempts, Drake ranks tied for fifth in yards per carry (4.9), tied for second in forced missed tackles per carry (0.22) and is in sole control of second in yards after contact per attempt (3.4) among backs with 250 or more carries in the three-year span (2016-18). His career rushing grade (80.4) ranks ninth among the same group of backs, as well.

“Driving Drake’s success is his ability to win after early contact and forced missed tackles, as evidenced by the metrics mentioned above. Among the 54 NFL backs with 100 or more carries where they’ve been contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage since 2016, Drake ranks tied for first with the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb ... in yards after contact per attempt (3.7). And the average for the group was just 2.3.”

So that’s more compelling evidence why Drake warrants 12 to 18 carries a game, not 7.5.

But here’s why PFF says Ballage should play ahead of Drake on third downs:

“Though capable of having a considerable impact after the catch, Drake’s receiving efficiency has been plagued by drops. His three-year drop rate is the fifth-worst of any running back with 100 or more targets since 2016, and his receiving grade (59.2) and yards per route run average (1.18) have suffered as a result.

“That’s not to say an increase in targets wouldn’t lead to improved production from Drake, but Kalen Ballage’s skill set gives Miami every reason to save Drake for early downs and push the second-year Arizona State running back into a primary receiving role.

“In his final two years with the Sun Devils (2016-17), Ballage caught 64-of-84 targets for 560 yards, 17 first downs and one touchdown, earning the ninth-best receiving grade (75.0) among qualifying Power 5 backs in the process. He also ranked tied for seventh in yards after the catch per reception, 10th in yards per route run and fourth in forced missed tackles per reception (0.36) among the same group of backs.”

But here’s the issue: Ballage seemed unnatural as a receiver out of the backfield at times during the offseason program, struggling with several balls thrown in his direction. Nothing done without pads in May and June should be overstated, but this will be worth monitoring in training camp and preseason.

Though the metrics might suggest it, I am not convinced Ballage is the better third-down option than Drake.

In fact, Mark Walton could emerge as Miami’s best receiving back if he makes the team, but getting him snaps could be the challenge.

The best way to use Drake and Ballage? Perhaps give them each full series and decide, over the first half of a game, who has the hot hand and ride that hand in the second half. And potentially get Walton a few third-down snaps each game — potentially more than that — if he warrants that.

What’s more, seventh-round rookie Myles Gaskin could still emerge as a factor.

All this is among many issues to be sorted out in training camp.

Even though Jesse Davis played right tackle during mandatory minicamp, the Dolphins are still very open to playing Jordan Mills or Zach Sterup at right tackle and keeping Davis at guard, where he played last season.

Davis could end up at tackle if Mills and Sterup struggle in preseason and guards Chris Reed and Michael Dieter are very good. But Miami is hardly giving up on Mills after a couple of uneven weeks of the offseason program.

One thing that should be encouraging to the young cornerbacks, especially undrafted players like Jalen Davis (2018) and Montre Hartage (2019), is that New England kept and developed several undrafted defensive backs with some of these same coaches.

“They just go on the fact that if you can play, you can play,” Davis said. “If you can play, you’re going to be out there. I’d say we have a lot of talent over here in the cornerback room. We’re just trying to showcase it.”

Davis, who had an interception return of Josh Rosen for a touchdown during the mandatory minicamp, said he’s being used in the slot and the boundary, though he may be better suited to the slot at 5-10.

The Dolphins are hopeful that at least one of their undrafted free agent defensive linemen can stick — Georgia’s Jonathan Ledbetter or Pittsburgh’s Dwyane Hendrix.

Ledbetter, who weighs 296 pounds, said the Dolphins used him at both defensive end and tackle in the offseason program. Pro Football Focus said he graded out among the nation’s best defensive ends against the run last season.

“They’ve been giving me pointers on the pass rush so I’m not just a [stop-the]-run guy,” Ledbetter said. “Playing in the SEC made the transition easier.”

Jason Taylor and Hendrix spoke recently at a Taylor charity event, and Taylor told Hendrix to call him anytime.

The Dolphins have become somewhat more secretive under Brian Flores. (One example: Asked about injuries during May practices, Flores reminded reporters that he doesn’t need to release an injury report until September.)

But credit the Dolphins for being fan-friendly and continuing to open a bunch of training camp practices to fans (10 of them, plus a public scrimmage at Hard Rock Stadium), while some other teams are drastically reducing fan access to camp.