Thursday, January 19, 2012

Miami Dolphins 2011 Position Grades: Running Back

For the first time since 2001, the Miami Dolphins' backfield did not feature either Ricky Williams or Ronnie Brown, as the two veteran free agents moved on and the team was left to rebuild their running game through the draft and trade.

The Dolphins began by taking Daniel Thomas in the second round of last April's draft. In need of a veteran, the team waited until the lockout ended and sent an undisclosed draft pick and special-teamer Jonathon Amaya to the Saints for former No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush.

Despite a questionable offensive line and a backfield that didn't have a proven NFL feature back, the ground game succeeded largely on Bush's shoulders and ranked 11th in the NFL in total yards

Here are how I graded each of the Dolphins' running backs individually:

Reggie Bush

2010 grade: n/a
2011 grade: A

All the talk after the acquisition of Bush was how he couldn't handle a feature back role. While I considered the trade to be a nice value for the Dolphins, I too was in that camp and felt Bush couldn't hold up over an NFL season unless he split time with someone else.

Although he got off to a slow start due in large part to an ineffective line and offense around him as well as play-calling that didn't utilize him correctly, Bush finished the season on an extreme high note. Despite missing Week 17 with a knee injury, Bush topped 100 rushing yards in the final four games he played and set a career high with 203 yards against the Bills in Week 15.

Not only did Bush impress on the stat sheet, totaling 1,086 yards and six touchdowns on the ground while averaging five yards a carry (the NFL's only 1,000-yard rusher to do so in 2011), but the way he played was impressive a well. He was a good receiver as he always had been; he used his elite athleticism to bounce things outside and break big runs; and he ran with toughness and power that Saints fans would hardly recognize.

It's impossible to know if luck didn't play some part in Bush staying healthy in 2011, and I think he's still best suited a part of a tandem. (Though who wouldn't be?) But Bush did show more than he ever had this season and proved to be well worth a special-teamer and a draft pick (which was not conditional based on his performance), so it's safe to say he'll deservedly enter camp as the feature back in 2012.

Daniel Thomas

2010 grade: n/a
2011 grade: D+

As Dolphins fans down on Thomas will remind you, the team traded up to get him, and they took him a round before DeMarco Murray went to the Cowboys. Thomas certainly didn't have a great rookie campaign, missing time on multiple occasions with nagging hamstring injuries and totaling just 581 yards on a 3.5 average.

That being said, I would advise all to not give up on Thomas just yet. Although his final numbers don't show it, I saw a lot of promise from Thomas in his rookie season. He topped 100 yards in his first NFL game against Cleveland in Week 3, and every time he was in the game he ran with impressive power and instincts. With more time and a good line in front of him, Thomas has all the talent to be an NFL starter.

Lex Hilliard

2010 grade: n/a
2011 grade: D

With three backs above him on the depth chart in 2010, Hilliard was limited to a special teams role and failed to register a carry. In Brian Daboll's offense in 2011, Hilliard replaced Lousaka Polite as the team's primary fullback.

While the fullback under Daboll wasn't really tasked with being a lead blocker often, Hilliard struggled in the role and graded out as the No. 15 blocking fullback by Pro Football Focus with a negative overall grade on the season. He also wasn't much of a rusher, carrying the ball 10 times for 21 yards.

As most of us have known for some time, Hilliard is little more than a special-teamer and doesn't have the talent to be a consistent producer on offense. He should be back as a restricted free agent in the offseason, but he's a candidate to face some serious competition for a roster spot next year.

Steve Slaton

2010 grade: n/a
2011 grade: n/a

A 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie in 2008, Slaton quickly fell out of favor in Houston and was waived less than a month into the season when the Dolphins picked him up. He saw a handful of carries when Thomas was out with an injury, but was inactive between Weeks 9-16 as Bush and Thomas carried the load. He did rush for 55 yards on a 5.0 average in the season finale with Bush out, but more than half of that was on a 28-yard run.

I wasn't surprised the Dolphins claimed Slaton because their backfield wasn't entirely settled and he'd had an impressive rookie season a few years back, but he was unable to carve out a role for himself and really didn't do enough to grade him.

As an unrestricted free agent, Slaton could be on the outside looking in and might have a hard time finding a playing role with the Dolphins or anyone else in 2012.

Richard Medlin

2010 grade: n/a
2011 grade: n/a

An undrafted free agent out of Fayetteville State, Medlin spent camp with the Patriots before joining the Dolphins' practice squad in late September. He earned a promotion to the active roster and played in the season finale, although he didn't record any statistics.

Medlin wear Patrick Cobbs' old No. 38, and he'll have to do his best Cobbs impression to make the Dolphins' roster. He isn't particularly fast or athletic for an NFL running back, so a role on special teams is his best (and perhaps only) way of survival.


2010 overall position grade: C+
2011 overall position grade: B

How surprising is it that this grade is higher without Ricky or Ronnie on the team? I certainly don't blame either one of those guys for the running game's struggles in 2010 (that would be the offensive line's fault), but it's also just a credit to how good Bush was this season and how much better he got as time went along.

While Bush was a pleasant surprise, it's safe to say he was really the only one that did anything of note out of the team's backfield in 2011. Bush has a questionable injury history and would be better off not carrying the entire load himself, so someone else (Thomas, in particular) is going to have to step up in 2012 to increase the ground game's overall productivity and reliability.

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