Going Deep: What to Do with the Miami Backfield
Muddled backfields are ripe for fantasy picking. It gives us an opportunity to take later stabs at rushing production, hoping someone in the backfield works out. Occasionally, this approach turns to gold. You might find a running back like Philip Lindsay, who came in as the third back on the depth chart only to explode for 1,000 yards. You might end up with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who coexisted to produce fantasy points together.
Or it could go the other way. Neither player ends up producing any value at the cost to acquire the player. You are mad at yourself for the rest of the season for drafting them.
When I originally pitched this Going Deep piece, it was supposed to be only about Kenyan Drake. I thought he was a talented running back and was finally going to have the chance to receive the lion’s share of the touches.
Unfortunately, Kalen Ballage has been working with the first team per Miami beat reporters. Per Cameron Wolfe at ESPN, the touches will likely be split Drake with 45%, Ballage with 40%, and the rest of the backs with 15%.
So now the question and this article have changed. What are we and the Dolphins getting out of this backfield? Do we want to invest at all? Let’s try to work it out:
Drake broke onto the fantasy scene at the end of the 2017 season. The Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi to the Eagles, so there was a void to fill. Drake and Damien Williams (now the Chiefs starter) began splitting the workload until Williams got injured. Over the last 5 weeks of that season, Drake averaged 21.6 touches per game and 118.8 yards from scrimmage. He was a league winner down the stretch and looked like a strong back for 2018.
Then Miami brought in Frank Gore. Most thought this wouldn’t affect Drake. But, most were wrong. Drake ended up as the RB21 overall last year. That’s nothing to sniff at, but it was a maddening ride. Gore split the rushing attempts with Drake, while Drake handled most of the passing work.
Drake had 53 receptions, which was 13th for RBs, and 477 receiving yards, which was 12th. He also added 535 yards on the ground on only 120 carries, though it seemed like less. Simply put, Drake was productive whenever he touched the ball. Per Player Profiler, Drave averaged 5.8 yards per touch, which was 10th for all RBs. He also had 6 breakaway runs (runs over 15 yards), which on only 120 carries puts him at a rate of 5% (26th in the NFL).
Drake has great vision behind the line and uses it to his advantage. He is shifty enough to evade tacklers in tight spaces. Check out this run below:
Drake is able to cut on a dime and make three defenders miss.
This ability shows up in the numbers, it’s not just on film. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Drake’s efficiency (EFF) was 4.07. EFF measure how many actual yards a player ran opposed to the yards gained. The smaller the number, the more downhill a rusher is. Drake averages a higher number of actual yards ran because he is running to avoid tacklers. He also had an average time behind the line of scrimmage (TLOS) of 2.79, which is slower for a player of his speed. Drake had 60 evaded tackles (13th among RBs) and his juke rate (forced tackles missed per touch at Player Profiler) was 34.7% which was 7th. As I said in my Dalvin Cook piece, evaded tackles and juke rate are the best stats for evaluating an RB because it isolates the rusher’s capabilities. Drake clearly can make defenders miss.
As you can see, I think Drake has rushing upside if he was ever given the opportunity. I think he is also a natural fit for new offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea, which I will discuss later.
How can I talk about Drake and not show the Miami Miracle?
Kalen Ballage is a tougher study. There really isn’t much to go off last year. He only had 36 rushes for 191 yards and 9 catches for 56 yards. Not a whole lot of work. He does not qualify for most efficiency metrics due to the lack of sample size. So, what can we use? The limited tape we have and his college work.
At Arizona State, Ballage played all four years but never had more than 157 carries. He had one season over 20 catches (44 to be exact) during his time in Tempe. It appears that the Sun Devils coaching staff never trusted Ballage to handle a full workload. When I watched Ballage for the 2018 draft, I never felt that he had strong enough vision. He would run into clogged holes or just immediately try to bounce runs outside.
For college, that approached worked. Ballage is an excellent athlete. Check out his spider chart from MockDraftable.
In the NCAA, Ballage was basically a better athlete than anyone he had to face. Bouncing runs to the outside when you are faster and bigger than everyone makes sense. But in the NFL, athletic ability can only get you so far. Ballage needs to read the field to improve as a rusher. A lot of his runs were out of the wildcat in college, so he doesn’t have a ton of experience in an NFL scheme.
Despite his flaws as a rusher, I think there is a role for him in the passing game. If you get Ballage in space, he can use his traits to gain chunk yardage. Use him in screens or swing passes and just let him go. That one season with over 44 receptions, Ballage averaged 10.7 yards per catch. He showed some of that last season as well:
Would it be crazy to say that the big back should take the receiving work here, while Drake rushes the ball? It seems counterintuitive, but I think that might be the optimal way to use both backs (if they are dead set on using both).
Most of you might not recognize that name. O’Shea is the Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator and he comes over from New England with Brian Flores. O’Shea was the receivers coach during his time with New England and was tabbed as an upcoming offensive mind.
The expectation is that O’Shea will bring over Josh McDaniel’s scheme from New England. First, the Patriots were diverse in their scheme. They want to attack the defense where they are weakest. But second, the Patriots know how to use their RBs. Per Sharp Football Analysis, the Patriots are one of the top two teams to pass to their running backs on early downs. Sharp has shown that this is hyper-efficient, and most teams should be utilizing this more. Shocker, the Patriots are ahead of the curve. It seems obvious; on what is normally a running down, put running personnel on the field that the defense is forced to match and attack the slower linebackers with your running back. Profit.
Just think of James White. While he is excellent at receiving, a lot of his success stems from putting him in a position to succeed. Same with Sony Michel. Michel came on during the end of last year with the Patriots attacking defensive weaknesses. The Chargers were running dime defense almost exclusively by the end of the year, so the Pats ran Michel right through it.
This is encouraging stuff for Miami’s offense. If Ryan Fitzpatrick starts over Josh Rosen, things get interesting for fantasy. Fitzpatrick isn’t afraid to let it rip so points will be scored… possibly for the other team but I digress.
Like I said at the top, muddled backfields are important. Especially those where the offensive coordinator understands the NFL today. O’Shea wants to be unpredictable and attack a defense’s weakness. I genuinely think Kenyan Drake would fit perfectly for O’Shea’s every-down back. That’s why I wanted to write this article. Drake can run inside but can catch as well, allowing O’Shea to truly keep the defense guessing. But that is not what is happening at camp, so we will need to monitor this situation a little more. Hopefully, some preseason usage will clarify it a bit more. If the Dolphins truly want to use Ballage with Drake, then the White with Michel combo, their roles respectively, could work out well for Miami. I don’t necessarily love Drake at his price since we have no idea what the roles will actually look like. But Ballage will likely end up a nice late-round target.
(Photo by Richard C. Lewis/Icon Sportswire)