The Miami Dolphins are nearly a week into their 2019 training camp, with a lot of focus on the offensive line and the quarterbacks. Another interesting situation is happening, however, as Kalen Ballage continues to take the first-team snaps at running back, while Kenyan Drake - the presumed starter - is working as the second runner. It is not the order in which the running backs were expected to see work, and it is happening each day, meaning this could become the way we see the two runners on game day.
But, does it matter who is the “starting” running back? Does who takes the first snap in an early training camp practice matter?
“We’re early on in this thing and we’re doing everything we can to be prepared to come out on the field because if you don’t know what to do, you can’t perform on the field,” running backs coach Eric Studesville said this week. “We’re all working at that and coming out here, and they’ve done a great job with that. That’s creating competition, which is what we want.”
He continued, looking at Ballage’s role early in camp. “We’re trying to figure out everybody’s role on here, so we’re going to move people around,” he explained. “There’s going to be people moving around and doing things at different times. Sometimes there’s plays on the script. We want guys to go in and compete. We’re going to put them in positions to compete and it may be a play here, it may be two plays there, I don’t know. It changes every day. There is no set rotation of what we’re doing.”
In three seasons with the Dolphins, Drake, Miami’s 2016 third-round Draft selection, has recorded 1,358 yards rushing with nine touchdowns on 286 carries, along with 762 yards and six touchdowns on 94 receptions. Ballage, a fourth-round pick last year by Miami, carried the ball 36 times for 191 yards and a score last season, as well as recorded nine receptions for 56 yards.
“I think he’s working hard,” Studesvills said of Ballage. “He’s done a great job in the classroom and he’s bringing it out onto the field. He’s putting himself in a position to compete and that’s what we want them all to do. I think all the guys are doing a good job at that.”
As for Drake and what he needs to do to be more than a “third-down” back, Studesville explained, “Play on first and second down. We played him a bunch on first and second down last year. I don’t think he’s [only] a third-down back. He’s going to determine what that role is by what he does out here. We’re not pigeonholing him and saying he only does this. We’re going to put these guys out here and they’re going to show what they can do. They’ll show us what they can do and then they’ll determine what the roles are and how they do everything.”
Last year, the Dolphins started the season with Frank Gore leading the running back group, carrying the ball 156 times for 722 yards over 14 games. Drake carried the ball 120 times for 535 yards with four touchdowns, while Ballage had his 36 carries for 191 yards and one touchdown. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was fourth in carries and yards, picking up 145 yards on 32 attempts - both scrambles and designed runs - with one touchdown. From there, Brandon Bolden (91 yards, 1 TD), quarterback Brock Osweiler (21 yards), and wide receiver Albert Wilson (16 yards) all carried the ball eight times, with wide receivers Leonte Carroo, Jakeem Grant, and Danny Amendola each carrying the ball one time.
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea both come to Miami this year after lengthy stints with the New England Patriots. Last season, New England saw Sony Michel carry the ball 209 times in 13 games with 931 yards gained and six touchdowns. They also had James White carry the ball 94 times for 425 yards with five scores, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson record 42 carries for 186 yards with one score, Rex Burkhead pick up 186 yards on 57 carries, wide receiver Kenjon Barner with 71 yards gained on 19 attempts, and various carries after that. While the team clearly used Michel as the number one back, they were not afraid of creating mismatches and sharing the running duties.
Will we see a workhorse or will we see a platoon system with the Dolphins?
“Put the best players on the field that give us the best chance to win,” Studesville said of his, and the rest of the coaching staff’s, philosophy for running backs. “That’s a fact. Whoever gives us the best chance on Sunday, that’s who we need to have out there to give us a chance to win. Then we have to do things around them to make them successful, whoever that is.”
When asked if that could change from week to week or even play to play, Studesville expounded, “There’s so many things that could change. It could be week to week, it could be injury situations, this and that. But somebody has to be out there and somebody has to give us the best chance to win, so we have to get them prepared. They have to demonstrate that we can trust them, that they’re accountable. We have to put them in positions to be successful and that’s what we’re all doing out here. We’re trying to establish all of those things now. That’s what these practices are for.”
Those practices could be opening the door for Drake to reclaim a position most people believed was his prior to the start of camp. Ballage left Tuesday’s practice with an injury - though the severity was not known, as well as the location of the injury. Drake could use the extra reps, if Ballage has to sit out, to reassert himself as the top running.
But does that really matter? Other than in fantasy football, where many people will look to Drake as a starting running back option, does it matter who is on the field first? Miami could look to have both of them start - as they did early in the 2018 season with both Gore and Drake on the field. They could choose to situational starts for either. They could start one, then give the majority of the carries to the other.
Does it matter who is the starting running back? If the Dolphins are really worried about getting the best player in the best situation on the field at the best time, it really seems that the answer to that question is no.