DAVIE (CBSMiami) – When looking at the Miami Dolphins offense as we make our way through the offseason, the obvious focal point is on the quarterback position.
Any time there’s a competition to be the starting QB, it’s going to garner a fair amount of attention.
But there’s another key position on Miami’s offense that could have a fun battle brewing for playing time.
Last season, Kenyan Drake turned a lot of heads when given the opportunity to lead the Dolphins backfield. He was exciting, explosive and provided one of the top highlights in the NFL:
That being said, those assuming the majority of the snaps in 2019 will go to Drake would be wise to keep an open mind.
The reason for that is 23-year-old Kalen Ballage.
READY FOR A BIGGER ROLE
A 2018 fourth round pick out of Arizona State, Ballage has been working his tail off throughout the offseason both on and off the field.
He has hit the ground running (literally and figuratively) and has caught the eye of more than a few people, including his new head coach.
“I’ve been very impressed with him,” said Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. “He’s smart, he’s talented; but he has a humility and a work ethic that I really like.”
Ballage was rarely used during his rookie year, with 28 of his 36 rushing attempts coming during the final three weeks of the season.
The majority of his playing time came on special teams, where he was used consistently and did not stand out for any of the wrong reasons.
Things changed after Frank Gore suffered a season-ending foot injury during Miami’s Week 15 visit to Minnesota.
Ballage stepped in and immediately made an impact, showing great vision and speed on a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half.
He finished the year averaging 5.3 yards per carry, though that number drops to 3.3 if you remove the big run.
The bottom line is that there is still a lot of unknown, and perhaps yet-to-be-achieved potential, when it comes to Ballage.
LOVE THE DRAKE
Getting back to Drake, his 2018 season was full of ups and downs as he became the latest starting running back under former coach Adam Gase to see limited usage out of the backfield.
It was no secret that Gase’s offense leaned very heavily on the passing game, which led to questions and some criticism about the lack of touches for the backs.
In his first full year as Miami’s featured back, Drake ran for 535 yards on a 4.5 yards per carry average while reeling in 53 receptions for another 477 yards.
Of his nine touchdowns, four came on the ground.
He enters 2019 as the veteran in Miami’s backfield and someone who coaches should be looking at as a potential leader in that room.
“Working with [Drake] has been good,” said Flores. “He has a lot of skill and he’s working hard and he’s doing a lot of the things we’re asking him to do. Again, [it’s] still a work in progress, still very early, but I’m happy with where he’s at right now.”
A FRESH START
Drake may have 286 career carries to Ballage’s 36, but both Kenyan and Kalen are starting with a clean slate under Flores.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Drake will end up receiving the bulk of the carries, even if he is named the starter.
“Every position, there’s competition,” said Flores. “I think we can’t push our players to that next level if they don’t feel competition. That’s just my opinion on competition. I think there’s competition at every position and if the guys don’t feel that way then we’re going to try to make them feel that way, one way or another. I think the guys who thrive with competition are the guys we’re going to want on this football team.”
Miami could very well end up using a similar approach to what Flores saw utilized during his time in New England, where several backs could be used in multiple situations and playing time could vary week-to-week.
Whether Ballage puts himself in position to take the next step in his career and be featured in a committee backfield will be the question, but if the offseason is any indication, he is certainly off to a good start.
“He’s doing everything he can to really try to improve on a day-to-day basis, and you see the improvement,” Flores said of Ballage following the first OTA practice. “You’ve seen it from when we started on April 1st through yesterday’s practice, and he’s continued to improve every day. I’m looking forward to working with him. [He’s a] good, young player.”
Should Ballage start balling, the first person to congratulate him will probably be Drake.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more win-hungry guy than Kenyan Drake, and if Ballage is out there making things happen and helping Miami put notches in the win column, you won’t see Drake sulking on the sideline about losing touches.
When asked if he’s hoping to get more carries this season (he averaged just 7.5 per game in 2018), Drake had a quick answer.
“I would like to win a lot more games, that’s my most important thing,” he said. “Whether I get the ball five times or 25 times, if we’re winning games, everybody is going to get the accolades that they want.”
One thing that should be a safe bet is that the Dolphins will be running the ball more under Flores than they did under Gase.
Look at last month’s draft; not only did Miami use two of its six picks on the backfield, but they also selected Chandler Cox, who plays the growingly endangered position of fullback.
There’s no guarantee that Cox, a seventh round pick out of Auburn, will make the team, but the pick shows that Miami likely plans to utilize a fullback, in some way, shape or form, in its offense.
Will running the ball at a higher clip lead to more success for Miami as a team? As far as Drake is concerned, the only success he’s interested in comes in the form of victories.
“All in all, we went 6-10 last year,” said Drake. “People had good stat seasons. I had over 1,000 [all-purpose] yards and almost double-digit numbers in touchdowns [but] whoop-dee-do. We didn’t go to the playoffs; we didn’t win enough games.”