Friday, January 28, 2011

Mark Ingram: Why The Miami Dolphins Should NOT Draft Bama's Star Running Back

Let me get this out of the way right now: I'm an Auburn Tigers fan. I hate the Crimson Tide with a passion. I cringe at their every victory, and joyously celebrate their every defeat. But that has nothing to do with why I do not want Mark Ingram holding up a Dolphins jersey this April.

More than an Auburn fan, I'm a Dolphins fan, and I absolutely do not care what college a guy went to when it comes to the Dolphins. I would have been fine with the Dolphins drafting Terrence Cody in 2010. Rolando McClain the guy I wanted most in the first round last year before Oakland took him. Give me DeMeco Ryans or Jarrett Johnson any day.

My distaste for the Tide as an Auburn fan has nothing to do with why I don't want the Dolphins to draft running back Mark Ingram. Quite simply, it's because running backs are rarely worth first-round picks, and Ingram just isn't a special enough player to warrant drafting so high when the team has other needs.

That is not to say the Dolphins aren't in need of a running back. Ronnie Brown is slated for free agency, as is Ricky Williams, who spent the early part of the offseason trashing the Dolphins and their head coach on the airwaves. Neither is a lock to return to the team in 2011, and neither would be a long-term solution if they did.

Patrick Cobbs is also a free agent, though he doesn't have starting talent, anyway. Lex Hilliard is an exclusive-rights free agent and should be back, but he hasn't shown anything in three pro seasons and failed to register even one carry in 2010. Kory Sheets spent all of 2010 on injured reserve with a torn Achilles' and has just one career carry.

The Dolphins need not just one, but probably two new running backs for 2011. They could desperately use a Darren Sproles-type, who can catch the ball out of the backfield, as well as a bruiser that can run between the tackles and churn out yards the way Brown and Williams did the past few years.

But Ingram is not the answer. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound back was a stellar producer, setting the school record for rushing yards in a season as a sophomore. He has excellent vision and natural rushing ability, taking good care of the ball and catching out of the backfield. Quite simply, Ingram is a damn good running back.

I do not, however, consider Ingram to be on the level of a Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson coming out of college. He doesn't possess the standout speed or athleticism, and doesn't blend all the physical tools you look for in an elite NFL back. He's a solid, physical running back that can only hope to have the kind of success someone like Marion Barber III has.

If you came up to me and said, "Here's Mark Ingram. Take him, no cost. He can be your starting running back," then I would be on board in a heartbeat. I will flat-out tell you right now that I believe Ingram has all the talent in the world to be a starting NFL running back, and a productive one.

But the important thing to remember is that in most cases, when you exclude the Barry Sanders and Walter Paytons of the world, the offensive line makes the back in the NFL.

It's not really that way for the best running backs at the college level. The lines help, sure, but the backs are just better than the defenders they are going up against nine times out of 10. They are often trying to be tackled by guys that won't ever sniff the NFL.

But in the pros, things are different. Every defense is a million times better than any you'd face in college, and no matter how talented a running back you are, you aren't going anywhere without a productive offensive line.

We learned that much with the Dolphins in 2010, when Ricky Williams rushed for just one touchdown and Ronnie Brown averaged a dismal 3.7 yards per carry just one year after combining for one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL.

The Dolphins used the uncapped year to shave off more than $50 million in the contracts for injury-prone veteran linemen Jake Grove and Justin Smiley. And in the long run, that was probably a good decision.

But the team suffered for it in 2010, as free agent left guard Richie Incognito, journeyman center Joe Berger, and rookie right guard John Jerry spent the season seemingly holding a contest to see who could be the least effective lineman on the team.

Until the Dolphins fix these problems and replace those that need replacing, it doesn't matter who fills the Dolphins' backfield.

But even when they do fix the offensive line, they also won't need a running back drafted as high and paid as much as Ingram. They can just as easily find one in the middle rounds of the draft

Just look at two of the best running backs in all of football this year: NFL rushing leader Arian Foster and broken-tackles leader LeGarrette Blount. Both went undrafted, and both had stellar seasons in 2010 thanks to good blocking up front.

Look how Peyton Hillis and Mike Tolbert tore up opposing defenses in 2010. Note that a seventh-rounder and a fourth-rounder have given the Giants a terrific one-two punch in recent years. Look at the backfield of the 14-2 New England Patriots, which probably consists of as much combined talent as Ingram when he was in Pop Warner.

Will Mark Ingram go high in the 2011 NFL Draft? Probably, and understandably so. I don't think he'll necessarily crack the top 15, but I do expect him to go in the first round, probably to a team like the Patriots that has the luxury of not too many glaring hopes (plus two picks in the first round).

But the Dolphins, picking at No. 15, have too many other needs at quarterback, receivers, center, guard, linebacker, and safety to consider taking the one position that is easiest to find in the NFL if you have a good line, and the one position that isn't going to be productive without one, regardless of where he was taken or what he did in college.

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