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For the past few seasons, Dolphins fans have had gripes with the front office’s reluctance to select some of the top-rated running backs in recent drafts and the 2021 season didn’t do much to quell their frustration. The Dolphins’ running game was non-existent for much of the season, one of many recurring issues for the offense. By the end of the season, the Dolphins were relying on a pair of veterans who didn’t even begin the season with the team.
In the second of a series of position reviews, the Miami Herald will examine the team’s running back situation. Next up is wide receiver.
2021 in review
The Dolphins entered the 2021 season with a running back room of Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed and Malcolm Brown but only one, Gaskin, was active for the team’s season finale against the New England Patriots. Underwhelming performance in the backfield forced the Dolphins to turn to Duke Johnson and Phillip Lindsay in the middle of the season.
The running game showed a bit of life in the second half of the season, culminating in a season-high 195-yard rushing performance in the season finale against the Patriots. The Dolphins, however, ranked 30th and 31st in yards per game and yards per attempt, respectively.
Skinny: Gaskin led the team in rushing yards (612) but ranked 49th of 50 qualified rushers in yards after contact per rush. He had just nine rushing attempts in the final three games of the season.
Contract: Gaskin, 24, is entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $986,695.
Skinny: Johnson was signed to the practice squad in October and made his team debut a month later. After rushing for over 100 yards and two touchdowns against the New York Jets in December, the Dolphins signed the Miami native and University of Miami alum to the 53-man roster. Johnson started the last four games of the season and finished second on the team in rushing yards (330).
Contract: Johnson, 28, is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: Lindsay was claimed off waivers after his release from the Houston Texans in December. He rushed for 119 yards on 36 attempts in four games.
Contract: Lindsay, 27, is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: Ahmed set expectations high when he ran for 122 yards against the Patriots late in the 2020 season and then impressed during training camp. But like Gaskin, Ahmed was ineffective early in the season and then surpassed on the depth chart by Johnson and Lindsay. Ahmed didn’t play or was inactive for five of the Dolphins’ last seven games.
Contract: Ahmed, 23, is an exclusive rights free agent. If the Dolphins offer him a one-year contract at the league minimum, he cannot negotiate with other teams.
Skinny: Brown was signed to a one-year deal to be the team’s power back but rushed for just 125 yards and missed the last nine games of the season with a quadriceps injury.
Contract: Brown, 28, is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: Laird began the season on the practice squad but was signed to the 53-man roster after Brown’s injury. He appeared in six games and ended the season on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Contract: Laird, 26, is headed for restricted free agency.
1. Will any of the midseason pickups stick?
Both Johnson and Lindsay gave the Dolphins a power element that was severely lacking in their running game in the first half of the season. Johnson was one of the top feel-good stories of the season for the Dolphins, a local product shedding the label of only being a pass-catching back. Lindsay spoke glowingly of his time in Miami and Johnson said he would like to remain with his hometown team. Neither may be the team’s top back in 2022 but could be a key piece of the rushing offense.
2. Will the Dolphins finally invest in the position?
The last time the Dolphins drafted a running back in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft was 2016 when they selected Kenyan Drake with the No. 73 overall pick. Since then, the team has mainly relied on modest signings and late-round or undrafted finds to power their running game. Many will say that selecting a running back with a high pick is a low-value selection and that they can be easily replaced but the Dolphins’ track record suggests investing more in their backfield might be worth it.
3. Can the young backs regain their mojo?
Gaskin and Ahmed both had bright spots in 2020 and seemed primed to lead the team’s backfield in 2021 but were never able to regain the form of the previous season. They might be better suited for limited roles but can still be effective, whether working in a timeshare or exclusively in passing situations. Gaskin’s 10-reception, two-touchdown performance in Week 5 suggests there is something to be salvaged.
The Dolphins will once again have their pick of options to upgrade their backfield, whether in free agency or the draft. The Denver Broncos’ Melvin Gordon and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Leonard Fournette are slated to become unrestricted free agents. Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III and Iowa State’s Breece Hall should also be available within the Dolphins’ first two picks.