Thursday, March 17, 2011

Miami Dolphins 2011 Offseason Preview: The Running Backs

The time has come to begin previewing the Dolphins' position by position entering the offseason (whenever that eventually begins). This article focuses on the running backs.


The Dolphins' personnel at running back didn't do anything but get better in 2010, as Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Lex Hilliard all returned in their respective roles and Patrick Cobbs recovered from the torn ACL that cost him much of his 2009 season.

What did change, however, was the offensive line, as Richie Incognito, Joe Berger, and John Jerry replaced Justin Smiley, Jake Grove, and Donald Thomas/Nate Garner as the Dolphins' starting left guard, center, and right guard, respectively.

While the Dolphins did save tens of millions of dollars with those moves, the results on the field were disastrous, as the team's run blocking efficiency took a nose dive. This killed the Dolphins' ability to produce yards on the ground, and in turn didn't make the job of quarterback Chad Henne any easier.

The Dolphins are facing massive changes this season, as their top three running backs are unrestricted free agents and seem unlikely to return. Hilliard and Kory Sheets should be back, but neither has much upside or starting experience.

In this article, I'll look at the team's strengths and areas of need, who is under contract, who are the free agents and their prospects for being re-signed, and who they might look at via trade, free agency, and the draft.


Under Contract
  • FB Lousaka Polite (through 2011) —Polite continued to find great success converting short-yardage situations as a ball carrier in 2010, but his run blocking significantly dropped off. It didn't help that he got less support from the offensive line or tight ends, but he wasn't the same blocker the Dolphins had in 2009.

Free Agents
  • RB Ronnie Brown (unrestricted) — The oft-injured Brown started all 16 games for the first time in his six-year career in 2010, but his overall production suffered due to the offensive line. He churned out 734 yards and five touchdowns, but averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry.
  • RB Patrick Cobbs (unrestricted) — Highly regarded by his peers for his work ethic and special teams prowess, Cobbs was eased slowly back onto offense after his torn ACL last year. He didn't carry the ball once in 2010, but he caught eight passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns while recording seven tackles on special teams.
  • RB Lex Hilliard (exclusive-rights) — A sixth-round pick in 2008, Hilliard languished as the fourth-string running back in 2010, failing to carry the ball once while totaling nine special-teams tackles.
  • RB Kory Sheets (exclusive-rights) — A speedy undrafted running back out of Purdue, Sheets was picked up off the 49ers' practice squad in 2009. He missed the entire 2010 season with a torn Achilles' tendon suffered in August.
  • RB Ricky Williams (unrestricted) —Williams fared a bit better than Brown behind the Dolphins' poor line, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. He rushed for just 674 yards and two touchdowns, however, and may not be back after publicly criticizing Tony Sparano and his coaching tactics following the season.

Strengths

The Dolphins literally have no strengths at running back right now because they don't have any under contract. ERFAs Hilliard and Sheets will be easy to retain, but they are merely special-teamers at this point that aren't ready for featured roles on offense, and may never be.

Polite remains a serviceable fullback even after a down year in 2010, and he should have a much easier time if the big guys up front can give him more help. He also remains highly effective converting short-yardage situations, adding to his value.


Areas of Need

The Dolphins need help at running back more than any other team in the NFL, because both Brown and Williams are unrestricted free agents likely headed elsewhere and wouldn't even be long-term answered if they were to be re-signed.

More than just a single starter, the Dolphins really need two capable running backs to share the load as so many teams do now, and they could even need three new running backs if the team doesn't deem Hilliard worthy of a larger role than he had in 2010.


Free Agency Outlook

The creme of the crop at running back in free agency is sure to be DeAngelo Williams (Panthers), who racked up an incredible 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in 2008. Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants) isn't flashy, but he churns out yards and has been highly productive at times.

They are is joined by guys like Clinton Portis (Redskins) and Joseph Addai (Colts) as running backs with productive starting experience, but those guys, while cheaper, will also be much less effective.

If the Dolphins opt to go the cheaper route for a starter with more potential than past production, they could look to players like Kevin Smith (Lions), Jerome Harrison (Eagles), Jason Snelling (Falcons), or Brandon Jackson (Packers).

Free agency could also be where the Dolphins look for a specialist kind of running back, like small speedsters such as Darren Sproles (Chargers), Garrett Wolfe (Bears), or Jerious Norwood (Falcons). Sproles and Norwood, in particular, are players that couldn't carry a load themselves, but could be extremely useful splitting time with a bruiser.


Draft Outlook

Almost every mock draft around has the Dolphins taking Alabama's Mark Ingram at No. 15, and considering his talent and the Dolphins' need, it's not hard to understand why so many people on the outside see this as a perfect marriage.

The Dolphins would probably be better served using that first-round pick elsewhere, and it all could be a moot point if the Dolphins trade down as they are expected to do. It's possible the team could target someone like Ingram or Illinois' Mikel LeShoure in the late first if they trade down, but it might not even be worth addressing at that point over other needs.


More likely, the Dolphins will utilize at least one and probably two picks on running backs, but not until the second round or later. The Dolphins will have a handful of mid-round options, including but not limited to Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State), DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma), Jordan Todman (Connecticut), Delone Carter (Syracuse), Bilal Powell (Louisville), Roy Helu, Jr. (Nebraska) and Stevan Ridley (LSU).

Additionally, the Dolphins will probably look to add another body at the position late in the draft or in undrafted free agency, with players like Da'Rel Scott (Maryland), Evan Royster (Penn State), Anthony Allen (Georgia Tech), Noel Devine (West Virginia), Dion Lewis (Pittsburgh), and Mario Fannin (Auburn) among those worthy of consideration.


Conclusion

With zero players at the position under contract, the Dolphins are sure to address running back in the draft, free agency, or possibly both. It's possible the team will have no familiar faces at running back aside from Hilliard once the 2011 season rolls around, and he's certainly not guaranteed a roster spot after his lack of progress in three seasons.

But while running back is one of the Dolphins' needs heading into the offseason and one that needs plenty of attention before the 2011 season, it's not one of the Dolphins should throw millions of dollars at in free agency, nor is it one the team should use a high first-round pick on to acquire a good, but not great, prospect like Ingram.

Instead, the Dolphins would be best served picking up a change-of-pace, dynamic back like Sproles for decent money in free agency, and adding a quality prospect in the middle rounds like Helu or Powell.

If the Dolphins fix the offensive line, they'll be just fine with the players I've suggested. If they don't, it won't matter if it's Royster, Helu, Ingram, or DeAngelo Williams carrying the ball, because they won't have anywhere to run in front of them.


Discuss this article on the forum here!