Miami Dolphins Backfield Battle: Kenyan Drake vs. Kalen Ballage
For most of the summer, the general consensus in fantasy circles was that fourth-year pro Kenyan Drake was the tailback to draft from the Miami Dolphins this year. Some fantasy experts went so far as to beat the drum for Drake as one of this season’s biggest potential values in the backfield. The name Kalen Ballage was nothing more than an interesting after-thought.
What a dope.
However, Drake’s ascension to fantasy football stardom may have hit one whopper of a snag—maybe. On the first few days of training camp, it was second-year pro, Kalen Ballage, and not Drake, who took the opening reps with Miami’s first-team offense.
Folks who had already invested significant fantasy draft capital in Drake took the news about as well as can be expected.
So, what happened? Did fantasy drafters overestimate Drake’s importance to the new coaching staff in Miami? Did they underestimate what Ballage was capable of in Year 2 of his NFL career? Or is everyone just over-reacting to the first few days of training camp?
Miami Dolphins RB Battle
This whole brouhaha started on the first day of training camp when it was Ballage who garnered the first rep with the starters. It was a development that caught many folks off guard, but while speaking with Evan Petzold of the Colorado Springs Gazette, Ballage didn’t mince words.
He wants to be the guy in Miami.
“I want to be a starter on this football team,” said Ballage. “I’m taking the steps to get better at what I’m doing to the point where they don’t have a choice but to make me the starter and put me on the field all the time. Every time I had the opportunity to be the guy in college when the other running back was injured or couldn’t play, it so happened to be that I got all the carries. It was usually a special night for the team.”
A fourth-round pick out of Arizona State a year ago, Ballage didn’t get a lot of opportunities to showcase his skills as a rookie—just 36 carries and one touchdown. But Ballage also averaged a robust 5.3 yards per carry, and in his biggest game touches-wise of the season (a Week 15 loss to the Vikings), he piled up 123 yards on the ground and peeled off a 75-yard touchdown.
In case you were wondering, Ballage ranked 15th in PPR fantasy points among running backs that week.
At 6’2″ and 232 pounds, Ballage has the look and reputation as a between-the-tackles bruiser. But he also peeled off an impressive (for his size) 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine.
Given that skillset, it’s not exactly stunning that Brian Flores would want to take a long look at what he has in Ballage.
If Ballage is looking to prove himself heading into Year 2, then Drake’s goals are a little less esoteric. You see, heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Drake’s made it no secret that he wants to get paid next year.
“I’d obviously be lying if I said that it wasn’t on my mind,” Drake said, via Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald . “But the thing that I’m focusing on, I’m not looking too far ahead. How I control the future is how I control the present. Every day I’m in here, I’m in my playbook, I’m trying to lead by example. … It’s still early out here. It is what it is. I’m excited for the opportunity to come out here and help this team win a lot more games.”
More than a few pundits were predicting a breakout season for Drake in 2018 after he came on strong down the stretch a year ago. And to the former Alabama standout’s credit, Drake went over 1,000 total yards for the first time in his career and finished as a top-15 fantasy option in leagues that award a point for receptions. But Adam Gase seemingly forgot that Drake was on the team for long stretches, so consistency was hard to come by.
The Dolphins actually got quite a bit of flak when they selected a player many viewed as a glorified scatback in the third round of the 2016 draft. But while Drake been as advertised as a pass-catcher (including a career-best 53 grabs in 2018), he’s been better than expected as both a runner (4.7 yards per carry on average) and a pass-protector.
As Beasley reported, almost as soon as fantasy drafters started freaking out about Ballage running with the ones, Flores did what he could to downplay the significance of it.
“You can expect us to put guys in positions to do things that they do well,” Flores said. “If we’ve got a guy who can do everything well, then you might see that guy on every day. If we have guys that are better at one role and not as good at another, we’ll try to put those guys in those positions. Sometimes guys get tired. We need all of our guys to be versatile.”
There’s also the matter of us not being even a week into camp. It’s possible that this will wind up being tinkering and nothing more. But even if this holds and Ballage winds up the “starting” tailback, it really wouldn’t be all that surprising.
Talented though Drake may be, he’s also never had 175 touches in a season. He’s carried the ball 15 or more times in a game all of twice—both in 2017. Even if he saw a sizable bump in touches under Flores, he was never going to be a 20 carries a week bellcow—especially with a back Ballage’s size on the roster.
However, before you surrender yourself to the idea of Ballage getting the first carry in most games and reach for the liquor cabinet, consider this take from Heath Cummings of CBS Sports regarding Drake’s fantasy prospects in 2019.
“I’m not saying I don’t believe Ballage is going to get the first carry in Week 1,” Cummings said. “I won’t even argue that Drake is a better runner (he is) and will eventually earn the lion’s share of the carries. But I do still expect Drake to be the back on the field for passing downs, and I expect the Dolphins to spend more time trailing than just about any team in the league.”
Everything Cummings said is 147 percent spot-on.
Drake may not have run with the starters over the first few days of camp, but he was the tailback in the third-down set. He’s both a better receiver and blocker than Ballage. That puts Drake on the field when the Dolphins are playing catch-up. And man oh man are these Dolphins going to be playing a lot of catch-up.
I do so love the smell of garbage-time fantasy points in the morning.
It’s also worth remembering that Flores is a Bill Belichick disciple, so the notion of him spreading the work in the backfield should hardly be a shock. More often than not over Darth Hoodie’s tenure, it’s been the third-down back who has emerged as the preferred fantasy option.
It’s entirely possible that Ballage will carve out a role that at least gives him “flex” value, and if you were able to acquire him at his previously non-existent ADP, you may well have landed a nice bargain. What kind of value he presents moving forward will depend on how much his draft cost spikes. And Drake’s chances of surging all the way into the top-10 took a hit with this news.
If that asking price drops due to concerns about this “battle,” so much the better.
A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Davenport has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications, including the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization’s Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. He knows football. Or so he’s heard.
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