Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Miami Dolphins lose Ronnie Brown for season

The Miami Dolphins were able to come away with a victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10, but it was not without a steep price.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Dolphins have placed starting running back Ronnie Brown on season-ending injured reserve, just three days after the Pro Bowler suffered a foot injury in the third quarter against he Buccaneers.

Brown finishes the 2009 season 648 yards and eight touchdowns on a 4.4 average in nine starts.

Brown joins Patrick Cobbs, who suffered a torn ACL in early October, as one of two Dolphins running backs in injured reserve.

With the injury, Ricky Williams will see an increase workload and will become the feature back in Miami. Second-year man Lex Hilliard should see extended playing time as well, while October signing Kory Sheets could see his first playing time as a Dolphin.

To take Brown's room on the roster, the Dolphins promoted safety Nate Ness from the practice squad.

An undrafted rookie out of Arizona, Ness signed with the Dolphins on Oct. 28 after spending time with the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, and Seattle Seahawks in the offseason and preseason.

You can find out more about Ness, who will wear No. 31 and likely play special teams for the Dolphins, in my article on his initial signing here.

Analysis

With all due respect to Chad Pennington, this is about the toughest blow the Dolphins could have suffered this season.

The second overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Brown was having another impressive year, not only as the ever-hyped wildcat quarterback but also as simply one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL.

With Brown now finished on the field in 2009, it's worth taking a closer look at his somewhat complex contract situation.

Essentially, if a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached, Brown will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

However, if there is no new CBA and the league goes into an uncapped year, Brown will have a $5 million contract in 2010 and will then become an unrestricted free agent in the 2011 offseason.

(This benefits Brown anyway, because with no new CBA, a player will need six years of NFL service to qualify for unrestricted free agency. If Brown's contract were to expire after 2009 with no new CBA in place, he'd only be a restricted free agent with five years of service.)

Regardless of whether Brown hits the market this year or next, the Dolphins would be wise to retain him assuming the price is reasonable. His injuries to date have been more of the fluke variety rather than the result of a lack of durability, and there is no question Brown is a rare complete back that is not easily replaced.

In the mean time, the Dolphins should still be able to put together a productive running game with Ricky Williams taking over and a strong group of run-blockers up front.

One thing that remains to be seen, however, is how the Dolphins will utilize the wildcat offense in Brown's absence. Williams has looked uncomfortable and slow in accelerating when he's taken snaps out of formation.

There have also been reports that 2008 sixth-round pick Lex Hilliard could take snaps out of the wildcat, though Hilliard's a questionable talent at best and will struggle to produce anything close to what Brown could no matter what formation the team is in.

More Pat White is yet another possibility, but I'm still not behind that draft pick and I don't believe the spread option can be a productive offensive strategy in the NFL. I also question whether White has the body to take the kind of pounding—especially at the NFL level—he would in that role.

There is no question the Dolphins will certainly miss Brown, and at 4-5 the team can ill-afford to lose a star player. It was the reliable running game (for the most part, anyway) that had eased second-year quarterback Chad Henne's transition from backup to NFL starter.

Youth movement coming?

With a climb out of the cellar and into the playoffs highly unlikely even before Brown's injury, I expect to see a handful of younger players get extended looks in the second half of the 2009 season.

I'm not saying the team should mail it in the rest of the way, but I also don't see the harm in taking a look at some younger prospects over players that are declining and unlikely to be around much longer after the season.

Brown's situation opens the door for Lex Hilliard and Kory Sheets, while Joey Haynos and Kory Sperry could continue to phase out Anthony Fasano. We also should get an extended look at third-round pick Patrick Turner at some point in the near future.

On defense, Paul Soliai will likely spell Jason Ferguson often when he's healthy again; Cameron Wake will cut into Joey Porter's playing time at outside linebacker; and Chris Clemons should continue to push free agent bust Gibril Wilson at free safety.

The Dolphins certainly have some holes after the season, and they will do their due diligence in seeing if any young players already on the team are potential long-term answers.