The impending departures of Dolphins running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown leaves a gaping hole in Miami's backfield. There is a fairly good chance that the 'Fins will try to retain Brown, but unless the 29-year-old, injury prone running back with steadily declining performance is willing to accept a modest contract proposal, he may have to find work elsewhere.
Whether or not Brown returns, the Dolphins must scour the draft and the free agent market for a young, speedy running back who can carry a significant workload now and grow into a feature back role. Fortunately for Miami, the 2011 off-season features a stockpile of talented backs who could fulfill such a role.
Bengals running back Cedric Benson was the biggest comeback story of the 2009 season. Benson, a former top five overall pick by the Chicago Bears, was a complete bust and encountered multiple run-ins with law. Fed up with his poor performance on and off the field, Chicago parted with Benson prior to the 2009 season. Naturally, the Bengals acquired the legally troubled back, and in '09 he rushed for 1,251 yards and six touchdowns.
Despite a promising 2009 campaign, Benson was quietly awful in 2010. Although he posted solid statistics -1,111 yards, seven touchdowns- he averaged a dismal 3.5 yards per carry. And Benson averaged less than 2.6 yards per carry in a whopping seven games this season.
Benson is slated for free agency and some have pinned him as a target for the Dolphins, but Miami should steer clear of the 28-year-old running back whose career is declining once again.
Two years ago, Darren Sproles was headed for NFL superstardom. The Chargers' 5'6" running back became everybody's favorite "little guy that could" while spelling LaDainian Tomlinson in 2008. Sproles recorded seven touchdowns, showing unbelievable speed and agility, as well as a nose for the end zone.
Despite his past success in San Diego, Sproles has become an afterthought in Norv Turner's offense. The team seems completely faithful in Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, making Sproles expendable.
If Sproles hits the free agent market, the Dolphins should make a run at him. He will likely come at a low price due to his age (27) and overall lack of production last season. Sproles is nothing more than a third down back, but he provides the breakaway speed that Miami's offense lacked this season. He is also one of the most lethal return men in the NFL, which allows the Dolphins to hit two birds with one stone.
If the Dolphins choose not to pursue Darren Sproles, they may pursue another Chargers running back. In relief of an injured Ryan Mathews, Tolbert had a breakout campaign in 2010, rushing for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns.
At 5'9", 243 pounds, Tolbert hails from the "bowling ball" breed of running backs, a family which includes the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, and Michael Turner. Tolbert is headed into restricted free agency this summer, but San Diego will likely do their best to retain him even though Ryan Mathews is bound to breakout. If the Chargers make Tolbert a restricted free agent, the Dolphins might not be willing to part with more draft picks; but if the price tag is not too high, Miami might inquire.
Without a second round pick, (Traded to DEN in the Brandon Marshall trade) Cal running back Shane Vereen could be a very enticing option for Miami in the third round. Vereen has drawn comparisons to former backfield mate Jahvid Best, and averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry this past season. Although he does not possess the electrifying speed that Best does, Vereen is praised for superior rushing in between the tackles, something that will boost his chances of landing in Miami.
Vereen provides a versatile player who could fill a scat-back and Wildcat role, but eventually grow into a feature back. Either way, he would bring a bolt of electricity to an offense lacking speed and a home-run threat.
At a slim 5'9", 198 pounds, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was enjoying a relatively productive career as a complement to behemoth Brandon Jacobs. But when Jacobs encountered serious struggles at the beginning of 2010, Bradshaw proved he was more than capable of handling a full workload.
Bradshaw rushed for 1,235 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2010, also catching 47 passes for 314 yards. Even though Bradshaw has some troubling fumble issues (coughed up 7 in 2010), he brings a unique blend of electric speed and vision that could make him a target for the Dolphins. Between his stellar production and Jacob's decline, it is tough to imagine the Giants letting him slip into free agency.
Despite the weak crop of running backs available in the 2011 NFL Draft Class, Kansas State's Daniel Thomas continues hovering below the national radar. Thomas an unbelievable season for the Wildcats in 2010, rushing for 1,585 and 19 touchdowns (Yes, 19).
One would think that between his ridiculous 2010 season, 6'2", 228 pound frame, and workhorse mentality, Thomas would be heralded as a first round prospect. Although that may change in the coming months, Thomas is currently projected as a second or third round pick, which could leave him in striking range for the 'Fins in the third round. If by some chance Thomas is available when Miami picks in the third round, he could instantly step in and shoulder a full workload, effectively curing the team's running back woes.
Before the 2010 season, many predicted Michael Bush would usurp a struggling Darren McFadden as the Raiders' primary running back. However, McFadden finally realized his potential and enjoyed a breakout season, relegating Bush back into a back up role and into free agency.
Bush has been on the cusp of the NFL radar since he entered the league in 2007. Some of you may recall that Bush was touted as an elite prospect with the Louisville Cardinals before he suffered a demobilizing leg injury during the first game of his senior season. Bush's draft stock plummeted and the Raiders scooped him up with a fourth round pick. He proceeded to sit out the entire 2007 season on the PUP list, but saw action in 2008 and began to make some noise in 2009 when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 123 rushes.
Bush was pinned as one of the league's biggest sleepers for 2010, and had it not been for McFadden's career revival, he could have easily fulfilled those expectations. He still managed to rush for 655 yards and 8 touchdowns in a back up role. Bush will probably demand a smaller contract than some of the bigger names on the market, and his bruising running style suits the Dolphins style of play the best. Do not be surprised if Bush is the top running back on the 'Fins radar this summer.
Due to the current CBA chaos, neither free agency nor trades may take place until a new agreement is installed. This could complicate Miami's search for a running back considering many potential candidates would be acquired through free agency. Regardless of how negotiations between the owners and the union transpire, the 2011 NFL Draft will definitely occur.
If the two parties are still in disagreement on April 28th, the Dolphins might decide to play things safe and draft a running back. This guarantees them a quality running back just in case a new CBA is not agreed upon until late into the summer.
Alabama's Mark Ingram left a legendary footprint during his tenure with the Crimson Tide, collecting a Heisman Trophy and a National Championship ring. Ingram might not have breakaway speed, but he is renowned for his complete game, hence his rating as the top running back in the 2011 Draft Class.
If the uncertainty surrounding Miami's running back corps is not resolved by April, Ingram becomes a very likely target for the Dolphins with the 15th overall pick.
A mysterious ankle injury sidelined Saints running back Pierre Thomas for most of the 2010 season. In his absence, undrafted rookie Chris Ivory stole the spotlight and may have asserted himself as the team's primary running back for next season.
With Ivory in line to absorb a feature role, Thomas becomes expendable for New Orleans. The 26-year-old has only 411 career carries, and discounting 2010, has maintained a rather clean bill of health. The severity of Thomas' ankle injury that caused him to sit out 11 games last season is still a bit shady, and that will cause all potential suitors to proceed with caution.
However, Thomas' production, age, and likely discounted price tag makes him a hidden gem of the 2011 free agency class who could land in Miami.
The Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams headlines the list of potential 2011 free agent running backs. While splitting time with teammate Jonathan Stewart, Williams still managed to rack up a combined 2,632 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009.
However, Williams, like Ronnie Brown, struggles with durability. He missed 11 games in 2010, missed three in 2009, and missed the entire 2007 season. Williams' injury issues cold scare Miami away, but he is two years younger and significantly faster and more elusive than Brown. Assuming the Panthers do not re-sign him (and he does not demand an outlandish contract), DeAngelo Williams could shoulder the bulk of Miami's workload next season.