As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In this case, the closer we get to training camp practices, the more the national media sleeps on the Dolphins.
This week on NFL.com, a game theory ranking of every team’s running back room was posted and as you might guess, the Dolphins didn’t fare too well. Ranked only ahead of the Washington Football Team, Miami’s projected backfield duo of Jordan Howard and Matt Breida came in behind teams like the Bucs, Rams, and the Jets. The Bucs have a running back that has underwhelmed so far in Ronald Jones and a past-his-prime version of LeSean McCoy, the Rams’ most proven back is Malcolm Brown, and while I’d never bet against Frank Gore, he’s the Jets’ only depth at the position behind Le’veon Bell and his abysmal 3.2 yards per carry last season.
Feeling like the Dolphins might have been shorted a few spots? Imagine how Howard and Breida might feel if they heard. But that’s the thing — this duo will have to prove their worth just like the rest of this young Dolphins roster. Nothing will be given to this new, untested team, and there’s a chance Howard and Breida will fall flat and show that 31st is where they belong on a ranking of NFL running back rooms.
However, there’s evidence to suggest that they might surprise some people, just as Dolphins fans would likely suspect. Between Brian Flores’ physical football philosophy, several Dolphins receivers opting out, new additions on the offensive line, and a fresh offensive coordinator calling the shots, a perfect storm could be brewing.
We at @DolphinsTalk.com are proud to partner up with @TriumphBooks to offer you this opportunity to SAVE 25% off the soon to be released book by @ArmandoSalguero 100 THINGS DOLPHINS FANS SHOULD KNOW & DO BEFORE THEY DIE. Use Promo Code: DOLPHINSTALK https://t.co/nhefBHYFxe
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) August 1, 2020
Coach Flores has emphasized toughness and physicality since being hired by owner Stephen Ross, and a key part of that philosophy could be an improved — maybe even punishing — running game for 2020. Even if the offense remains more-pass centric with either Tua or Fitzpatrick under center and Chan Gailey drawing up the offense, the Dolphins will undoubtedly work to improve on a run game that was ranked dead last in total yards last season. In addition, the Dolphins added a variety of options along the offensive line this offseason to shore up a unit that struggled mightily for all of 2019. Free-agent acquisitions Ted Karras and Ereck Flowers, paired with draftees Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, and Solomon Kindley, could fill out a starting O-line by themselves. Paired with holdovers from last year like the ever-reliable Jesse Davis, the new line should have a lot more beef and a whole lot more talent up front to open holes for the running game compared to last year.
Another factor pointing to an increased emphasis on the run game at least early in the season is the fact that both of the Dolphins’ primary slot receiver options have decided to opt-out of the 2020 season. While absolutely no one can fault them for their decision, the loss of both Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns is a blow to the team’s inside passing game. While the team evaluates its options at the slot position with people like Isaiah Ford, Malcolm Perry, or late free-agent addition, the run game could be something the team tries to lean on more heavily for consistent production.
Perhaps most importantly, the introduction of Chan Gailey as the team’s new offensive coordinator will have major effects on the run game. Gailey is coming out of retirement for this stint with the team and thus could have a few surprises up his sleeve (at least, I’d be excited if he did), but using his five years of coaching between the Jets and the Bills we can get a pretty good picture of what his tendencies are. During that timespan, Gailey ran the ball exactly 43% of the time. That averaged out to roughly 23 carries per game, with those totes tending to be split between two primary running backs. What that means for this season is something we likely would have expected already — that Howard and Breida will split carries fairly evenly unless a hot hand emerges over the course of a game.
Gailey also likes to keep his backs involved in the passing game, with roughly a quarter of his offense’s receptions being made up of catches from the running back position. Neither Breida nor Howard have been heavily involved in this element thus far in their careers, so unless Gailey can expand their skill set in this regard the door may be open to occasional receiving work for someone like Myles Gaskin, Patrick Laird, or Malcolm Perry (I refuse to mention Kalen Ballage and his 1.8 yards per carry last season). On the flip side, however, both Breida and Howard have career catch rates right around 75 percent, meaning should those reps come their way they may be able to capitalize. Breida has the speed and elusiveness to be a receiving threat, and NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein said that Howard “showed potential in the screen game as a receiver” during the 2016 pre-draft process, so perhaps there’s some untapped ability that Gailey can unlock within this Fins’ RB duo.
****NEW**** @DolphinsTalk.com Podcast as @ian693 and Mike talk about the Dolphins WR's with 2 players opting out, they open up the mailbag on what jersey's to buy, horrible stadium experiences, and debate on Raekwon McMillian. https://t.co/fzmrh2Knb9
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) August 6, 2020
Looking at these two primary runners specifically, optimism around Howard is easy to find. Since his rookie season in 2016 where he was named to the Pro Bowl and was second in the NFL in rushing, Howard has the third-most rushing yards in the league and the seventh-most rushing touchdowns. In addition, he’s one of just five players to find paydirt at least six times in each of the past four seasons. A model of consistency, Howard is phenomenal at picking up first downs with a conversion rate on third- or fourth-and-short (three yards or less to go) of 74 percent and is generally good at churning out yardage after initial contact. He’s also a skilled pass blocker, something that a somewhat old-school coach like Flores will likely appreciate. Graded by Pro Football Focus as a top performer at his position in this area, Howard has allowed only nine QB pressures on his 255 career pass-blocking reps for an impressive allowed pressure rate of less than four percent.
Howard’s greatest limitation is his lack of shiftiness compared to other backs. Standing at six feet but weighing in at 230 pounds, he’s an imposing figure and a physical runner but was ranked 25th out of the 32 starting running backs headed into the 2020 season by PFF regarding elusiveness. According to the ranking, since 2016 “Howard has broken a tackle on just 13% of his carries… ranking ahead of just two other running backs on this list with 250 or more carries in the same time frame.” With Howard, you’re getting a consistent producer who doesn’t do anything extraordinarily well but is reliable and can be counted on as a contributor and a chain-mover.
If Howard is the thunder of the ground game, then calling Breida the lightning is an accurate statement. A former UDFA, the latter scorched his 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds and just last season ripped off 18 runs of 10 yards or more for an eye-popping big-run percentage of 14.6 percent. Breida is an impressive all-around athlete who turned heads with his jumping ability at the NFL scouting combine and also put up an impressive 23 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds while only weighing 190 pounds himself. That kind of compact, sawed-off strength is difficult to find and is a calling card of Breida’s game. According to Travis Wingfield, only two RBs have recorded a better vertical jump or 40-yard dash time in the NFL Combine since 2000.
Also helping Breida’s case as a running back who could impress this season is the fact that he’s averaged five yards per carry over his career. For reference, this mark is barely edged out by premiere backs like Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb but tops other big names like Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, and Saquon Barkley. Like Howard, Breida has also seen success when tasked with picking up short-yardage first downs. He’s seen only seven carries on third- or fourth-and-short situations (this time two yards or less), but has converted all but one of those opportunities. Breida has never had the opportunity to be a volume back in terms of his carries like Jordan Howard but is an extremely efficient runner who makes the most of his opportunities.
With his long speed and change-of-direction ability compared with Howard, I’m actually more excited to see Breida operate in Gailey’s offense especially once Tua sees the field and the RPO game becomes a point of emphasis. Breida’s one-cut acceleration could be a fantastic thing to watch this season any time the read dictates that the QB hand the ball off instead of looking to pass.
As of now, this Dolphins running back duo has done nothing to earn a spot above the 31st mark they received on the NFL.com ranking. Considering all the factors surrounding this team, however, there’s reason to believe that this Dolphins running game will wake people up once the season starts. Like the rest of this 2020 squad, nothing will be given to this duo — they’ll have to earn every yard they get, but there’s reason to believe they’ll be racking up plenty.
(all stats according to MiamiDolphins.com, Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, and CBS Sports)