This post is part of a series of posts that will break down and evaluate the Miami Dolphins position by position. If you haven't read up on how players are being classified (the number and letter that follow each player's name), you can read this post explaining the evaluation system.
If the quarterback position isn't at the very top of their list of needs, then there's a good chance that the running back position is. Two years ago, the Dolphins had one of the best rushing attacks in the entire NFL. But now? This team is a shell of what they used to be on the ground. While the struggles along the offensive line are certainly to blame as well, Miami's running backs just didn't look like what we had grown used to seeing.
Time to grade...
Ronnie Brown (2-B). I'm still willing to put Ronnie in the second tier simply because I think this past season was way out of character for him. He never averaged below 4.2 yards per carry in his career until last year's 3.7 ypc figure. But I still feel like he wasn't being used as he should be and was really hurt by the struggles of the offensive line. He's 29 now, though, so his best football is probably behind him. I'd still like to give him one more chance behind an improved line before officially declaring Ronnie a declining running back whose career has suddenly gotten late real fast.
Ricky Williams (2-B). He'll be 34 in May and recently publicly criticized Tony Sparano in the media. But the man can still play. His numbers in 2010 were nearly identical to his '08 numbers. However, he's only human and is going to hit that running back wall sooner rather than later. He still has that impressive initial burst through the hole and still has a place in this league. I just don't know if it'll be in Miami.
Lex Hilliard (3-E). Lex is much older than his number of career carries - only 23 - would make you think. He'll be 27 in July and has already been in the league three seasons, though he spent all of his rookie season on Miami's practice squad. Despite his age, Hilliard is very much an unknown. But the fact that he's survived three years worth of "churning" by this front office makes me think the staff does see something in him. However, if the staff does believe he's worthy of a larger role, wouldn't he have seen an expanded role by now?
Patrick Cobbs (3-E). Cobbs is known as a favorite of head coach Tony Sparano thanks to his versatility and special teams contributions. But as a true running back, this 28 year old is probably nothing more than a bottom of the depth chart guy. He's the kind of role player good teams have. But he'll likely never be more than that - a role player.
Kory Sheets (3-E). Sheets is an anomaly because he has the characteristics of a guy who should be in group 3-D. After all, he's really an unknown as to what he can contribute to this team. But he'll be 26 next month, putting him in the 3-E category. He spent all of 2010 on Injured Reserve after suffering an Achilles' injury in August. He possesses the kind of speed and explosiveness that this offense (and return game) lacks. But it's anyone's guess as to the kind of contribution Sheets will make in 2011 and beyond.
Lousaka Polite (3-E). Polite has become a fan favorite thanks to his short-yardage prowess. There may not be a better back in the league when it comes to converting 3rd or 4th & 1s. But his lead blocking really left something to be desired this past season. And that is the number one job of any fullback. His struggles blocking quietly was a big factor in the ground game's struggles in 2010.
Contract situations: As we all know, both Ricky and Ronnie are unrestricted free agents. Hilliard and Cobbs, meanwhile, are restricted free agents. And Sheets is an exclusive rights free agent - meaning he's likely a lock to make it to camp and battle for a roster spot.
Outlook: This unit could look very different in a couple of months. GM Jeff Ireland said that it's not out of the question that one of the big two (Ricky or Ronnie) could return to Miami. In light of his recent comments, I don't see how Williams could come back and look Tony Sparano in the eye. Ronnie has said he wants to come back to Miami. But if he can get more money elsewhere, I wouldn't blame him for leaving. Regardless, the Dolphins will address this position either in the draft or in free agency...or both.