by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist
On a periodic basis between now and the 2006 NFL Draft, I will take an in-depth look at the Dolphins. This week: Offensive Backs
Current State: What a difference a year makes.
In 2004, Miami’s starting backfield was a shambles. It started with the “retirement” of Ricky Williams, continued with injuries to starters Travis Minor and Rob Konrad, and ended with the misguided trade for Lamar Gordon. Various combinations at halfback and fullback yielded very little success.
In 2005, Nick Saban rebuilt the backfield. He began by convincing Williams to return to the Dolphins. He then spent a first round pick (2nd overall) for Ronnie Brown. Some new faces at fullback, first Heath Evans and then Darian Barnes, made up for the free agent loss of Rob Konrad (he would later retire).
The results were extremely positive. Between Brown and Williams (a.k.a. R&R), Miami rushed for 1,650 yards (4.4 average) and 10 touchdowns.
Brown started the season slowly, creating early concern that the Dolphins had drafted the wrong Auburn running back (Carnell “Cadillac” Williams being the other man in question). Given that Cadillac ended up winning the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, such speculation is bound to continue. Nevertheless, Brown’s performance proved that the Dolphins picked an excellent player in his own right; a rare combination of size, speed, power, and receiving ability. Although Cadillac took most of the spotlight last year, it could be Brown who ends up being the better player over the long term.
As for Ricky, his 2005 return following a mandatory four game suspension was an all around success. Off the field, Ricky was a model citizen and did everything the team asked. On the field, a slimmer and faster Williams proved that he can still carry the rock with the best of them. It is very unfortunate that Ricky’s latest alleged violation of the league’s substance abuse policy could result in a one year suspension and, perhaps, the effective end of his career. While it has been suggested that Williams may not have used an illegal substance but rather an herbal supplement as part of his holistic medicine, his fate is still very much in doubt. A recent appeal to the NFL has been heard; a decision is forthcoming.
Should Williams lose his appeal, Brown would become the exclusive feature back and the Dolphins would need to identify a back-up. Amongst players currently on the roster, Travis Minor and the recently re-signed Sammy Morris would be the leading candidates.
Minor, relegated mostly to special teams last season, would have a tough time holding up in a full-time role should Brown go down. Minor’s style is that of a chance-of-pace player, a guy who performs very well in open space. He is also effective as a receiver out of the backfield, especially in the flats.
Morris, a very good special teams player, saw some light duty at RB with16 attempts for 58 yards (3.6 average) and a 9 yard TD run. He is also versatile enough to play FB. Players like Morris don’t get a lot of recognition but are vital to the success of a championship football team. The Dolphins are fortunate to have him.
Fullback Darian Barnes was strictly used a lead blocker. As such, he didn’t really get an opportunity to show off his receiving or rushing skills. He will be challenged by the newly acquired Fred Beasley (49ers) who has been productive over the years as a receiving threat.
Halfback Kay-Jay Harris, an excellent player at West Virginia University, will once again have a chance to make the team.
Strengths: Ronnie and Ricky, the best one-two punch in the NFL. Will there be R&R in 2006?
Weaknesses: None as of this writing. The imminent judgment from the league regarding Ricky’s fate looms large here.
Offseason Priority: TBD. Obviously, the Dolphins would prefer to know the league’s decision before the draft. If Ricky is absolved of the failed test, the Dolphins are in great shape here. If he is suspended for the season, strong consideration must be given to drafting a back-up to Ronnie Brown. Given that the Dolphins are now in position to draft the best player available, they can afford to consider players like DeAngelo Williams, Laurence Maroney, and LenDale White should the need arise.
Current State: This is another position where Saban has completely cleaned house. At the start of last season the three protagonists were A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, and Sage Rosenfels. All are now elsewhere.
Today, there is only one leading man: Daunte Culpepper. He is set to become the next great franchise QB in team history, following in the footsteps of Hall of Famers Bob Griese and Dan Marino. What great fortune it was for the Dolphins to have been able to acquire Culpepper for the relatively cheap price of a mid-level second round draft pick.
In seven NFL seasons, Culpepper has thrown for over 20,000 yards and 135 TD passes. His career QB rating of 91.5 easily surpasses Griese’s (77.1) and Marino’s (86.4). Culpepper has also amassed almost 2,500 rushing yards and is a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
The major questions regarding Culpepper will be how long it will take him to recover from major knee surgery and, when he does, will he be the same player he was prior to the injury.
If things go as hoped, Culpepper will prove to be a major piece of the championship puzzle.
Other quarterbacks on the roster include the intriguing Cleo Lemon, acquired in a trade with San Diego for Feeley and a 6th round pick, and Brock Berlin. Berlin played very well last preseason and is now doing a stint in NFL Europe with the Hamburg Sea Devils.
Strengths: A franchise-caliber quarterback (Culpepper).
Weaknesses: Lack of a proven back-up. The Dolphins must be prepared for the possibility that Culpepper won’t be ready to play on opening day (September 7 @ Pittsburgh).
Offseason Priority: High. Even though they have Culpepper, the lack of a proven veteran presence on the bench who can start and win games when needed is a big risk. Talks continue with the Lions regarding a trade for Joey Harrington, though both sides have stalled over the price; the Lions are believed to want a 3rd round pick while the Dolphins are offering considerably less. The draft may present an unexpected opportunity to acquire another young QB. Should Vince Young fall to the Dolphins at #16, will Saban draft him?