Back, back, back! Dolphins in no rush to clarify intriguing, crowded backfield | Habib

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post

MIAMI GARDENS — If there’s such a thing as making up for lost time in the NFL, the Dolphins are doing it.

We knew from the moment Mike McDaniel was hired that he was committed to the run. 

Now, the Dolphins are, too.

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Chase Edmonds joined the Dolphins in free agency from Arizona.

They said it when they signed Chase Edmonds at the start of free agency, reinforced it when they added Raheem Mostert two days later, then — in case anybody had forgotten — gave us a reminder Monday when they picked up Sony Michel. That doesn’t even include returning veterans Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, nor Alec Ingold, the fullback brought in to block for them.

After years of treating running back as an afterthought, the Dolphins made a run on them.

“We’ve just got to get a bigger room,” joked Eric Studesville, the assistant coach in charge of the run game.

Sorting out seating assignments is the least of Studesville’s concerns. Luckily, it’s only May, meaning he has time to sort out more pressing items, starting with the most basic question: Who’s the best back on this team, anyway? For many teams, this isn’t even a question, but most teams haven’t overhauled the position like this.

Once that’s settled — actually, if that’s settled and it’s not running back by committee — the Dolphins can determine a rotation, roles for each man, how much to rely on throwing to backs and how often to dust off that long-forgotten position, fullback. (We hear your cheers, Larry Csonka.)

One thing must be clear up front: The Dolphins insist they aren’t entering this with preconceived notions. Even when training camp opens in July, any pecking order they might have in mind would be just that — in the coaches’ heads and certainly not set in stone.

Bottom line: This ought to be the most intriguing, hard-fought battle on the team for both a roster spot and playing time. Yes, there is evidence to sift through for clues on where each player stands today, but how they perform in late summer will speak loudest.

“We’re still in the installation phase,” Studesville said. “And we’ve got these guys out moving around, but we haven’t seen ‘football’ yet.”

The addition of Michel stands out because of the timing. Is it a sign that the Dolphins were unsure they had what they needed or is it a case of a hometown discount making this an offer they couldn’t refuse? Michel, who attended American Heritage in Plantation, helped the Rams go all the way last season, rushing for 845 yards, but signed a one-year deal for $1.75 million.

Sony Michel, running against the 49ers in January at SoFi Stadium, helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl last season.

Many Dolphins fans are asking if the smarter move would have been to re-sign Duke Johnson, the former Hurricane who wanted to remain a Dolphin but instead ended up joining the Buffalo Bills for $1.27 million — less than Michel’s price.

Johnson won over fans with two 100-yard rushing performances in four starts to end the 2021 season. His 4.6 average led the team.

So add whether Michel or Johnson was the correct choice to the long list of items that will be answered in the fall.

“You create a competitive environment and you let those guys go sort it out,” Studesville said. “They’re going to sort it out as to who contributes and where and how and how much.”

The one certainty is McDaniel’s determination to see vast improvement over the team’s No. 30 ranking in rushing last year.

“He sees it as an integral part of offensive success and we all do and we’ve all bought into that and we understand that,” Studesville said. “And so that’s going to be on us to make sure that we uphold that.”

Taking a closer look at the factors in play:

Experience

Michel, Mostert and Edmonds have all played 55-60 games in their careers. Michel has a major edge over the field in games started with 35. Though he started half of the Rams’ games last year, his playing time dwindled in the postseason when Cam Akers got healthy.

So if you’re looking for a player who nailed down a featured role and stayed healthy enough to keep it an extended period of time, you’re in the wrong place. Mostert has started only nine of the 59 games played and Edmonds 15 of 57.

Gaskin and Ahmed have dealt with injury issues, resulting in a combined 21 starts.

Speed

Ah, yes. That thing McDaniel — and by extension, the Dolphins — just love.

Mostert hit the accelerator better than anyone in the league back in 2020, hitting 23.09 mph on an 80-yard touchdown run to lead all ball carriers, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He also had the second-fastest play, 22.73, on a 76-yard reception that included 71 yards after catch, another must-have in Miami’s offense moving forward.

“What we have with Raheem is we have a really, really smart guy who’s been in this system before,” Studesville said of Mostert, who played for McDaniel on the 49ers. “He’s had production in this system. His skill set is he can run and he makes good decisions with the ball in his hands, and for a running back, that’s good criteria.”

What about receiver Tyreek Hill, you’re asking? His best in 2020 was a mere 21.91, but relax. In 2016, Hill trumped Mostert with a 23.24 on a kickoff return.

Although Edmonds hasn’t stunned the league’s radar gun, Studesville says don’t forget him.

“Chase and Raheem, adding to the room, that’s a lot of speed,” Studesville said.

PFF grades

First, some perspective.

Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded back last season at 87.0, followed by Green Bay’s A.J. Dillon (86.9) and New England’s Damien Harris (86.6).

What about current Dolphins?

Edmonds (66.6) checked in at No. 40, the highest of the bunch. Gaskin was 49th (64.8) and Michel 52nd (63.1). By the way, the Raiders’ Kenyan Drake, the ex-Dolphin, was 23rd (73.1).

Mostert played only one game last season because of injury, so it should be pointed out that his 2020 grade was 79.3, which is not an outlier for his career and would have slotted him 14th last season, behind Josh Jacobs but ahead of Joe Mixon and Derrick Henry.

Edmonds’ best was a 69.7 in 2019.

On their best day …

How does each back look when he gets hot and is counted on to carry the load?

Michel has the edge with a 133-yard day against the Jets in 2018, which only hints at the real stat jumping off the page. He has had seven 100-yard rushing days — by far the most of this group — and his teams are 7-0 in those games. That includes two for the Rams last season.

“Obviously he wanted to be back down here in this area,” Studesville said. “But I think the main thing is he’s a really, really good football player. He’s demonstrated that and played and contributed on very successful teams and I’d like to see that continue here.”

Mostert put up the biggest singular number, 146 yards for the 49ers against the Ravens in 2019. He averaged 7.7 per carry that game, but it was the only 100-yard game of his career.

Edmonds has topped 100 twice and Ahmed once, but Gaskins’ 91 vs. the Jets in 2020 is his career high.

On most days …

Mostert, with a career average of 5.7 per carry, has the edge here. He’s followed by Edmonds (4.7) and Michel (4.2).

That leaves the two returners (Gaskin at 3.8 and Ahmed at 3.6). But remember, they were running behind an inferior offensive line here, one that all the backs hope is much improved with the addition of Terron Armstead and Connor Williams.

For what it’s worth, Michel has rushed for the most yards of the group, 2,137.

Mr. Third Down?

By far, Edmonds has been the most accomplished as a receiver out of the backfield with 128 catches, 921 yards (7.2 average) and five touchdowns. Next is Gaskin (97 for 673, 6.9 and six TDs).

“Myles is a very humble person,” Studesville said. “His demeanor is that way and his personality is that way. He’s going to try to under-promise and over-deliver.”

Studesville said how much the Dolphins throw to backs will be determined by what they show coaches more than the system itself. Just as with receivers, the phrase "yards after catch" will be drilled into them to make this offense go.

“Can they catch the ball if we throw it to them out of the backfield?” Studesville said. “If they can run routes and catch the ball effectively and get yards after the catch, I think that’s going to be something that we would want to do.”

Finally, the fattest wallet

Sometimes it pays to forget the coachspeak and look at that hard bottom line. And this one tells an inarguable story.

The Dolphins lured Edmonds with a two-year deal worth $12.6 million, which averages out to $6.3 million per.

That’s close to what the other four are scheduled to earn this season combined: Gaskin ($2.5 million), Mostert ($2M), Michel ($1.75M) and Ahmed ($895,000).

Hal Habib covers the Dolphins for The Post. Help support our journalism. Subscribe today.