Could Kenyan Drake be the next workhorse back to break out? His first two years of NFL experience where he has averaged just 126 carries per year as well as his injury history dating back to his playing days at Alabama seem to say no, and his current ADP of the 50th player off the board has this built in.
He’s been in a timeshare since coming into the league, first with Jay Ajayi and then with Kalen Ballage. Complicating matters further, neither Drake nor Ballage were drafted by the new coaching staff, although relatively new GM Chris Grier drafted them both. New head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea OC both came from New England, a franchise notorious for a Running Back By Committee (RBBC) approach.
So, why in the world would I, or anyone, believe Kenyan could potentially break out in 2019 with all of these things stacked against him? The front office and coaching staff aren’t as big of a limitation as they may appear, there is precedent for backs jumping from such a small amount of carries to stud level, and lastly his competition isn’t as strong as a typical RBBC.
The Organization and Coaching Staff
Drake was drafted in 2016 by then new GM Chris Grier and has survived Adam Gase’s tenure as coach and weathered the selection of Ballage in 2018. Grier started as an intern for the Patriots in 1994 and remained with them until 1999 as a regional scout before moving to the Dolphins.
Chris’s father is Bobby Grier, a former player himself, who coached with the Patriots from 1981-1992, most notably as the running backs coach from 85-92, and was an executive with the team from 1993-1999 before moving to the Texans from 2000-present. He’s most widely known as the only scout to do a deep dive in to Tom Brady and the one who pushed Houston to draft J.J. Watt.
The web back to the New England Patriots runs deep with the additions of Flores and O’Shea to the coaching staff. Flores had been with the Patriots since 2004 and O’Shea since 2009. Both witnessed the bulk of the Belichick era and the various shifts in philosophy throughout the years, adjusting based on personnel and the strengths of his players.
There is this lingering idea that Bill Belichick hates your fantasy football team, and more importantly, bellcow backs opting for RBBC to divert more of the salary cap to key positions.
The argument, while partially true, is somewhat unfounded. In looking back at the Patriots history under Belichick, as far back as 2001 Belichick has successfully used a workhouse back when presented with the right personnel. In fact, he’s tried to draft that very back on several occasions:
With a deep coaching tree stemming from Belichick which has personally witnessed 4 of these 5 running backs there’s no reason to believe they will continue to place Drake in a RBBC if they feel he can be a bell cow back. Both of these coaches watched Drake dominate the Patriots in 2017 and with a GM with a family history of deep scouting you have to believe Grier had done his research on Drake before drafting him in 2016.
Drakes split carries work out to just 120 times last year and 133 the year before. That type of workload doesn’t scream workhorse but it doesn’t negate it either. While at Alabama he played behind Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, and Derrick Henry limiting his touches there, similar to 2019 prospects Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders.
Researching feature backs I came across several who made the leap from sub-200 carries to workhorse numbers after several years in the league.
Frank Gore came into the league in 2005 and carried the ball just 127 times. In 2006 he jumped to 312 carries and we all know what happened next as Gore is one of the steadiest backs to ever play as he continues into his 15th year in 2019.
LeSean McCoy is another who had just 155 carries in his rookie year of 2009 before jumping to 207 in 2010 and 273 in 2011. McCoy never relinquished his role until injuries curbed his output in 2018.
And finally there is C.J. Anderson, arguably the best comp of the three backs listed here. He came i to the league in 2013 and saw just 7 carries, where Drake saw just 33 in his rookie year of 2016. From there Anderson saw split carries from 2014-2016 in Denver with Ronnie Hillman and Devontae Booker, posting 179, 152, and 110 respectively. In 2017 he was finally given his opportunity rushing 245 times for 1007 yards and 3 touchdowns while also seeing 40 targets.
Drake has had a similar arc so far in his career but with a much sharper increase in targets year over year, seeing 73 in 2018. For those who can see past his somewhat slow start to his career there could be a big reward around the corner. Given the Dolphins seeming approach to 2019 to rebuild this should increase Drakes target share further.
Kalen Ballage and RBBC
Kalen Ballage is believed to be the next back in Miami and has been assumed by the fantasy community to be in a solid committee, however in his rookie year he only had 36 rushing attempts and 11 targets.
Neither Ballage nor Drake are your prototypical plodding runner or scat back type to give them defined rolls. In other RRBC’s teams have tried to utilize pairs of backs that complement each others skill set. When the Patriots did not have a stud running back like Dillion they had complementary pairs like James White and Sony Michel last year or Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney or Sammy Morris. Other current pairings include Jordan Howard/Tarik Cohen, Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram, and Derrick Henry/Dion Lewis.
Ballage also struggles to hit that second level and make people miss. As I was finishing this article I came across this excellent montage created by @JMoyerFB on Twitter which illustrates it perfectly:
My biggest concern with Kalen Ballage is a striking inability to win collisions. Despite his size, he runs with little power, and often stops his feet or even jumps backwards in tackles. The result is high tackle rates and frequent awkward landings. pic.twitter.com/DB27GoXH4b— J Moyer (@JMoyerFB) July 3, 2019
Ballage seems to lack the ability to make defenders miss. While he may steal goalline touches from Drake, if Drake does break out, those touches may be a mute point based on the increase in volume.
The Dolphins have one of the best strength of schedules for running backs per Pro Football Focus this year and Kenyan is currently coming off the board as RB24 which is in that same range as other wild cards like Derrius Guice, Lamar Miller, or Rashaad Penny, This puts him right on that RB2/RB3 line and makes an excellent target with high upside in that Round 4/Round 5 range.