First of all, the fullback position has become all but extinct, and gone are the days when a running-back goes as the top pick of a draft. In fact, the last time a running back was the top pick of a draft was 1995 when Ki-jana Carter from Penn State, was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals. The gifted Carter was powerful and swift, but on the third carry of his first pre-season game, he tore a knee ligament. Carter was never the same after that and only played 59 NFL games in his career.
The last time the Miami Dolphins drafted a runner in the first round was 2005, when they took Auburn star Ronnie Brown, with the second overall pick. Brown came into the league with a similar pedigree as Carter. Though he wasn’t a bust, Brown only had one season where he surpassed 1000 yards rushing, and that was 2006. He suffered a knee injury the following season and never got more than 916 yards rushing in a single season after that.
Besides the NFL rules prompting more passing, injuries are the other reason runners have become so devalued. The 20+ rushing attempts per game, the runners say they need to “get into the flow”, simply expose them to too many hits from defenders that are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. This fact has teams trending towards picking runners later in the draft and then using a runner by committee approach, more than having a single workhorse back.
In 2016, the Dolphins head into the season with Jay Ajayi listed as the starting running back. Ajayi rushed for 3796 yards in 3 years at Boise State. He brings that experience along with the nine games he played for the Dolphins last season, when he backed up Lamar Miller. Ajayi brings good size and speed to the position, and has the reliable hands to catch the ball out of the backfield. But he also brings questions about his right knee, which he injured in college in 2011. It is speculated Ajayi has no cartilage in that knee. It is further speculated that due to this issue, his NFL career may be much shorter then it could be. This likely led to Ajayi being drafted in the 5th round, instead being picked higher.
With last year’s starter Lamar Miller moving on to Houston via free agency, it appears it will be Ajayi taking the lion’s share of the carries in the Dolphins running game. But there are a committee of backs behind him, led by this year’s 3rd round draft pick, Kenyan Drake, from Alabama. Drake can run and catch the ball equally well, and he also returns kicks. The Dolphins also have third year veteran Damien Williams and Daniel Thomas, a former 2nd round pick in 2011, who has been on and off the team’s roster over the course of his career. According to Head Coach Adam Gase, Ajayi has “separated himself” from the other running-backs in camp.
There is however, speculation the Dolphins will still sign a proven veteran running-back. They certainly tried when they offered a contract to Denver Broncos runner C.J. Anderson. But the Broncos matched Miami’s offer, and Anderson went back to the Mile High City.
So the question is will the Dolphins still try to find a veteran runner to join their backfield or will they roll with Ajayi and company? There is still a lot of time before training camp opens so we will have to wait and see. But no matter who the Dolphins may sign, I look for Jay Ajayi to be in the backfield on the first play of the first game at Seattle, on Sept 11.