Dolphins see limitless role for refined version of RB Kenyan Drake

Drake can do it all, but will he? (AP)

DAVIE — Adam Gase has always envisioned Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake as a player who could be an overwhelming threat in his offense if he could get his act together. Now that he has, apparently, it’s time for him to live up to that.

Drake, in his third year, is taking over as Miami’s primary running back with an eye on making his name as one of the most versatile and dangerous skill players in the NFL. Based on the progression Gase has seen, that’s a realistic aspiration.

“I think we just have a guy that’s really looking to bust out,” he said today.

Gase has never spoken this confidently about Drake. He’s been far more measured in his words until now.

Why the change? Drake’s changed. He’s no longer an easily distracted rookie with a slipshod approach to practice. The mental side has caught up to the ever-impressive physical repertoire, according to Gase, and that’s a huge gain for a Dolphins team that needs some fireworks offensively.

“I think he’s matured a lot, whether it be (with) the playbook or just him personally,” Gase said. “When you’re in this league, after you get through that first year, in the second year sometimes there’s a little bit of a feeling out process. You’re trying to figure out who you are.

“You’re starting to get older and you really realize this is a job and it’s different than college. I see a different guy in the way he prepares (and) knowing the situation he’s coming into this year. It’s been a good process to watch his maturity level on and off the field.”

Drake spent most of his first year and a half stuck on the bench behind Jay Ajayi, then shifted into a shared backfield with Damien Williams. That was short-lived because Williams suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, setting up Drake with a precious opportunity to finish the year as the man.

He seized his chance post-Ajayi and put together a promising second half of the season. He opened with 260 total yards and two touchdowns in four games in the part-time role with Williams, then erupted for a league-high 444 yards rushing, 150 yards receiving and two touchdowns as a solo act over the final five games.

The next phase is for Drake to become a more consistent runner, something Gase thinks will be aided by the arrival of 14th-year veteran Frank Gore, and to emerge in the passing game.

Running backs — not just here but everywhere — always talk about developing into pass-catchers, but it often doesn’t happen. Ajayi was all about it last offseason, then caught 14 balls in seven games. A dozen backs caught at least 50 passes last year, led by Le’Veon Bell at 85, and the Dolphins haven’t seen one produce like that since Ricky Williams’ 50 catches in 2003.

So what determines whether all the talk about being a receiver materializes into anything meaningful?

“Well, I mean, you want to be able to catch the ball,” Gase said sarcastically. “That’s a good start for it.”

That is crucial, but pretty much any skill player who steps on the field is decent at catching a football that hits him in the hands.

“It depends,” Gase continued. “Some guys make a living just catching checkdowns and being able to get yards after the catch, some guys you’re able to flex out and get one-on-one matchups.

“I think we’ve got a guy that can do multiple things. You could put him in the slot if you wanted to. You can use him in empty, you can use him from the backfield. You just can create a lot of different matchups. He has a really good feel for a lot of different types of routes, which there’s a lot of value there, because now linebackers, when they cover him, they’re not really sure what he’s going to do. He’s not tied into one thing or two things.”

There’s little question Drake has the ability to do everything Gase described, and now that he’s taking things more seriously, it’s time to amaze.

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Damien Williams signed relatively cheaply, so why isn’t he a Dolphin?

Damien Williams is with the Chiefs now. (Getty Images)

ORLANDO—Damien Williams seemed like he’d be a tough player for Dolphins coach Adam Gase to lose, and Gase confirmed that when talking about what kind of player Kansas City is getting by signing him.

Williams, who turns 26 next week, was a big success for Miami’s player development program. He went from an undrafted free agent to the starting running back, and Gase found all kinds of ways to use him. He often portrayed Williams as his type of player and had a hint of regret about his departure.

“A tough, football intelligent, playmaker,” Gase said. “He’s just a guy that when Sundays come around, he’s going to give you everything he has. When things are going bad, you get the ball to him and he’ll make something happen.

“He’s got passion for the game. He’s one of the guys I loved being around, whether it be practice or game day. Just seeing him grow over the time that we’ve been together, it was a great experience.”

The retooled backfield of Williams and Kenyan Drake had success after the Jay Ajayi trade last year and looked like an ideal combination for the offense Gase wants to run. Williams had 202 total yards in three full games as the starter.

The confusing part of this situation is that seems like it would have been easy for the Dolphins to keep Williams.

He likely would’ve been headed toward a larger, multi-year contract had he not needed shoulder surgery after last season, but ended up signing with the Chiefs for one season at $1.5 million.

Miami, meanwhile, signed 34-year-old Frank Gore to a one-year deal at the veteran minimum. The team did save about $750,000 in salary cap space by going with Gore compared to the contract Williams signed.

Gase’s answer as to why one of his favorite players got away was that Williams initially was looking for a bigger deal than the Dolphins were willing to do. By the time they could have revisited, the team shifted its attention to veterans like Gore and DeMarco Murray.

“I think when he really entered this process, they were thinking more than what we were really at,” Gase said. “By the time it circled back around, we were already kind of moving on. I was looking for what we ended up getting with Frank. I wanted that veteran guy that had a lot of experience and really could help Drake take his game to the next level.”

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Miami Dolphins: RB Frank Gore more than just Kenyan Drake’s mentor

The Dolphins don’t think Frank Gore is done yet. (Getty Images)

ORLANDO—Adam Gase was just a low-level assistant for the 49ers in 2008, not even a position coach, but what he saw from running back Frank Gore that season stuck with him for a decade.

Gore was in his early prime then, plowing through defenders for one of his nine 1,000-yard seasons, and already had the professionalism of a veteran. That, along with the technical mastery and studious approach he remembered, is why he wanted to bring him to the Dolphins despite being almost 35 years old.

“Seeing Frank Gore, that gets me going,” Gase said. “It’s been 10 years since we were together. I mean it seems like forever. The guy looks exactly the same. Just everything about him. I’m excited to see what he can do to help us.”

That role will be multi-pronged. He’s on the team to mentor 24-year-old Kenyan Drake, but this is more than a symbolic signing. While Gase believes Gore is the right guy to “help Drake take his game to the next level,” he also views him as the ideal power back for the Dolphins’ offense.

They signed him to a one-year, minimum salary contract as opposed to bringing back Damien Williams, who signed for $1.5 million on a one-year deal with the Chiefs.

In an era where running backs are thought to be obsolete once they hit 30, Gore is one of the NFL’s greatest anomalies.

In 13 seasons, he’s played 196 of a possible 208 games and hasn’t missed one since 2010. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler who ranks No. 5 in NFL history in rushing, and the numbers he’s posted in his 30s are impressive: five seasons, 5,187 yards (3.9 per carry), 52 rushing touchdowns, plus 1,041 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches

At arguably the most violent position in sports, he’s somehow ageless. Just last season, playing for a brutally bad Colts team, he was a mere 39 yards short of 1,000. That’s promising for the Dolphins, who fully intend to give him a solid share of the carries in order to keep Drake’s workload reasonable.

“I wouldn’t doubt Frank with anything,” Gase said. “I know a lot of people are looking at his age but with him, it’s irrelevant. He’s a different dude… When you watch him run, the physicality he plays with, pad level, the way that he’s able to drive defenders when they’re hanging on him and carrying them still, he’s a good fit for us.

“I think he’s a great guy for us to have in that locker room and that running back room. I think he’s a great guy for Drake to see work day in and day out, and those two guys kind of being able to do their thing together. That’s going to be a fun thing to watch.”

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2018 NFL free agents: Damien Williams’ curious departure from Miami Dolphins

Damien Williams made some plays for the Dolphins, and they might miss him. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

The departure of running back Damien Williams seems like little more than a footnote on the Dolphins’ busy offseason. Considering they’ve dumped Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh and Mike Pouncey over the past month, that’s no insult to Williams.

He leaves after becoming quite a success story for general manager Chris Grier and the organization after making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and putting himself in position to take over as the starting running back last season. Kansas City signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract Thursday.

Things really took off for Williams when he met a coach who knew how to use him. One of Adam Gase’s first undertakings after taking over the Dolphins in January 2016 was to sift through the roster for hidden gems. At Ryan Tannehill’s suggestion, he explored whether Williams had been underutilized by the previous coaching staffs.

He played a career-high 17 percent of the offensive snaps that year and had 115 yards rushing, 249 yards receiving and a career-high six total touchdowns. That was third on the team behind Kenny Stills (nine touchdowns) and Jay Ajayi (six).

Gase spoke of Williams as one of “his” guys and was drawn to his confidence and enthusiasm.

“That’s a guy who loves this sport,” Gase said in November 2016. “He loves competing. He loves practice. When you find a guy who practices the way he does, it’s hard to find that.

“Practice gets monotonous, especially at this point in the season, but he’s always the same guy. He’s always competing, always talking, gives a hard time to the linebackers. He’s a fun guy to be around every day.”

Williams’ relationship with the organization grew complicated in the ensuing offseason, when he wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of playing on the team tender of $1.8 million coming off what he felt was a promising season.

He visited the rival Patriots as a restricted free agent that offseason, but did not come away with an offer sheet. When the deadline passed for other teams to get involved, he deliberately put off signing his tender in protest of the Dolphins not giving him a better deal.

He eventually moved on, though, signed the contract and reported for all of Organized Team Activities, minicamp and training camp. Williams said last season any frustration about the way things went in Spring 2017 were behind him.

“We’re all good,” he said in December. “I’m all good.”

He took it another step by saying he had every intention of remaining with the Dolphins, though at the time he declined to delve too deeply into that because it was during the season and all his attention was on trying to come back from a separated shoulder.

That wasn’t surprising from Williams, who was a frequent recipient of the team’s War Daddy t-shirts. Those are awarded for team-first, gritty performances in games.

When Miami traded Jay Ajayi at the end of October, Gase installed a two-man backfield of Williams and Kenyan Drake that looked like the ideal combination of running backs he wanted. Both are fast and both are better receivers than Ajayi.

Williams, who still worked on special teams as well, was the starter and had 202 total yards and a touchdown in three full games before suffering the shoulder injury against New England on Thanksgiving weekend.

He wanted to return as quickly as possible, but was unable to do so. The Dolphins held him out of the final game of the year, which was meaningless because they’d already been eliminated from the playoff race.

Drake was tremendous once he took over the bulk of the snaps at running back and closed the year with 594 total yards and two touchdowns over the final five games. During that run, Williams was one of his biggest supporters in the locker room and on the sideline.

Williams also appeared to have a good relationship with Gase until the end. A month ago, he pointed back to Williams’ consistent support of Drake, and vice versa.

“Both those guys did a really good job,” Gase said. “They fed off each other. They were happy for each other when they had success.”

Williams had surgery on his shoulder after the season and could miss Organized Team Activities and minicamp for the Chiefs this offseason. While that almost certainly lowered his market in free agency, he is expected to be fully recovered in time for training camp.

Whatever the reason, the Dolphins opted to sort through cheaper running backs near the end of their careers this offseason rather than re-sign Williams. They brought in DeMarco Murray for a visit and ultimately signed Frank Gore yesterday. Gore turns 35 this spring, which is 10 years older than Williams.

While this might not have been the only factor, Gore is a bit cheaper for the cash-strapped Dolphins than Williams.

Even with him taking a pay cut from $1.8 to 1.5 million from last year in signing with Kansas City, that’s a bigger salary cap hit than paying Gore the veteran minimum. Gore will get $1 million in salary, but his cap hit will be even smaller. Last year’s cap hit for the veteran minimum on players with 10 or more years of experience, for example, was $615,000 with the possibility of an $80,000 bonus.

Perhaps that savings was worth it to Miami’s management now, but during the season, Gase might lament that one of his favorite weapons slipped away when it wouldn’t have taken much to keep him.

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Breaking: Veteran RB Frank Gore returning home to join the Miami Dolphins

Frank Gore of the Colts rushes for a 37-yard touchdown against the Dolphins in 2015. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

Erase Damien Williams. Add Frank Gore.

The Dolphins’ running back corps underwent swift change inside of a couple of hours Thursday as Williams agreed to join the Kansas City Chiefs and Gore decided to return home and join the Dolphins, a league source confirmed.

Gore soon will turn 35, long after most running backs have no legs left, but as South Floridians know, Gore isn’t any running back.

Originally from Coral Gables High and the University of Miami, he went on to have a Pro Bowl career with the San Francisco 49ers, who made him their third-round pick in 2005.

Gore has spent the past three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, never failing to rush for at least 950 yards despite playing behind a suspect offensive line and often without the benefit of quarterback Andrew Luck to keep defenses honest.

Last season, Gore ran 261 times for 961 yards (a 3.7 average), with three touchdowns. He also caught 29 passes for 245 yards and a TD.

At one point last week, Gore was thought to be nearing an agreement to join the Detroit Lions.

Gore is expected to be a change-of-pace power back to support Kenyan Drake on the Dolphins.

Gore is one of the most accomplished running backs in NFL history and fifth on the all-time rushing list at 14,026 yards. He could surpass No. 4 Curtis Martin (14,101) this season and is about 1,200 yards behind Barry Sanders for third.

He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection with San Francisco, last making the game in 2013, and has topped 1,000 yards in nine of his 13 seasons.

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Miami Dolphins lose RB Damien Williams to Kansas City Chiefs

Damien Williams is joining the Kansas City Chiefs. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

The Dolphins have lost running back Damien Williams to the Kansas City Chiefs, according to his agent, Ian Greengross.

Williams will receive a one-year deal reportedly worth $1.5 million.

The Dolphins plan to start Kenyan Drake next season but have only untested Senorise Perry and Brandon Radcliff at running back behind him.

The are hosting a visit by veteran Frank Gore this week.

Williams, soon to turn 26, was an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma who made the Dolphins in 2014 and went on to appear in 58 games with four starts. He finished his Dolphins career with 477 rushing yards and 85 receptions for 733 yards. He also had a total of nine touchdowns from scrimmage.

Williams was limited to 11 games last season because of a separated shoulder.

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2018 NFL free agents: Dolphins RB Damien Williams undergoes shoulder surgery

Damien Williams has a minor injury concern heading into free agency. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

INDIANAPOLIS—Dolphins running back Damien Williams was willing to play through a separated shoulder late last season even knowing he would risk it popping back out without surgery.

The team never cleared Williams, who missed the final five games, and he opted to have his left shoulder operated on after the season in order to tighten it up and lessen the possibility of a recurrence, a source said. The good news for Williams is that the recovery won’t keep him out of much. He could miss the beginning of Organized Team Activities, but it’s likely he’ll be back by minicamp and there’s no doubt about him being full strength for the start of training camp in July.

The real question is what team he’ll be playing for at that point. Williams, 25, will become an unrestricted free agent next month and is sure to draw significant interest. When the Dolphins had his rights as a restricted free agent last year, the Patriots brought him in for a visit.

Williams said last December he hopes to be back with Miami and added that any bad feelings about how things went in the 2017 offseason were behind him.

“I’m confident this is where I want to be,” he said. “They understand that. I’m just thinking about my shoulder right now… This is where I want to be. I’ll leave that up to the guys upstairs.”

He had a breakout year under Adam Gase in 2016 with 364 yards rushing and receiving and was third on the team with six total touchdowns.

When the Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi in October, they installed Williams as the starter in aa two-back system with Kenyan Drake. In his first three games, he totaled 202 yards (5.8 per touch) and a touchdown. He separated his shoulder at New England on Nov. 26 and never made it back.

Williams made approximately $3.3 million in his first four years with Miami after making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2014. More than half of that came while playing for a $1.8 million tender last year.

With only Drake and a few unheralded young players under contract for the upcoming season, the Dolphins have the sixth-lowest salary cap total for running backs at $2.7 million. Drake is scheduled to make $910,315 this season and $1 million next year.

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New train of thought: Miami Dolphins’ Kenyan Drake can carry load for RBs

Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) breaks off a big gain against New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty at Hard Rock Stadium in December. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

SECOND IN A SERIES

What went wrong for the Dolphins this season? What went right (if anything)? We assigned letter grades to each position group after every game. So with the season over, it’s time to issue final grades and see who flunked and who gets a gold star. Today, a position that endured turmoil: running backs.


Straight talk

Whatever we thought we knew about the 2017 Dolphins when training camp opened, we really didn’t know.

It was true of the quarterbacks, obviously. And the linebackers. For sheer shock value — and forgive the terrible pun — there is one position that could give either of those positions a run.

We thought that in team MVP Jay Ajayi, the Dolphins had their running back for the present and the future, the kind of workhorse who could take over games.

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Today, the Jay Train has left the station and the Dolphins hope Kenyan Drake can be that guy. No, I did not predict the Dolphins would trade Ajayi to Philadelphia for a mere fourth-rounder, but looking back over my report cards, I was struck by a comment after the game against the Ravens, which would be Ajayi’s last with Miami. Ajayi started that game with a 21-yarder before things went south.

“The number of carries by Ajayi that fail to gain yardage (and many lose yardage) is a troubling trend, so bad that Ajayi averaged 3.27 inches on his next 11 carries,” I wrote that day.

Dolphins running back Damien Williams grimaces as he is carried from the field on a cart against the Patriots in Foxborough. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Ajayi’s penchant for swinging for the home run, along with his attitude, were too much for Adam Gase. The next man up was Damien Williams, a powerful back whose production-to-opportunities ratio would surprise you. But Williams was banged up the second half of the season, as was just about every back outside of Drake, who until then had always been told to wait his turn.

And then? A 42-yard run against the Raiders by Drake. A 66-yard touchdown on an otherwise downer of a day in Carolina. Another 42-yard run, this time for a touchdown vs. the Broncos. Most impressive: 193 yards from scrimmage in the home game vs. the Patriots.

So where does that leave us? With a couple of curious statistics about this team that really make you wonder about its offensive identity: The Dolphins ranked at the bottom of the league in rushing attempts (last), rushing yards (29th) and rushing TDs (tied for last). But they more than held their own with runs for chunk yardage, finishing in the middle of the pack in runs of 20-plus yards and among the league leaders with four runs of 40 or more yards.

What does this tell us? Two things:

1. Even without Ajayi, the Dolphins continued their boom-or-bust ways on the ground, hitting home runs or striking out, but rarely delivering the singles and doubles you need.

2. Just like in the Joe Philbin era, they continue their annoying habit of falling behind in games and either choosing to abandon the run or having no choice in the matter.

In 2018, that must change.

What it all means

Stats and league rankings: 360 attempts (last in NFL), 1,388 yards (29th), 3.9 average (tied for 22nd), 4 TDs (tied for last), 10 runs of 20 or more yards (tied for 14th), 4 runs of 40 or more yards (tied for 6th), 5 fumbles (tied for 10th fewest)

Number of times RBs received an A: 4

Number of times RBs received an F: 0

Season GPA: 2.59 (B-minus)

Analysis: I like what I see in Drake, who can catch and has a burst that scares defenses. I’ve always liked what Williams offers, especially in the red zone. On the times Miami’s backs have gotten stuffed, I tended to blame blocking more than the backs themselves.

Adjusted final grade: B

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2018 NFL free agents: Damien Williams wants 2 things from Dolphins

This was Williams’ most impressive play of the season. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE—It’s been a month since Dolphins running back Damien Williams has played in a game, and those who know him can only imagine how difficult that is for him. No player on the team seems to be constantly bubbling with energy like Williams, and he’s had no outlet for it.

As Williams recovers from the dislocated shoulder he suffered against the Patriots on Thanksgiving weekend, he’s thinking short term and long term. In the immediate future, he badly wants to play Sunday against the Bills. Beyond that, he just wants to play for the Dolphins.

Williams, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, has already conveyed to the team that his priority is to re-sign.

“I’m confident this is where I want to be,” he said. “They understand that. I’m just thinking about my shoulder right now… This is where I want to be. I’ll leave that up to the guys upstairs.”

That must have been refreshing for management to hear after last offseason wasn’t exactly smooth when it came to Williams. He was a restricted free agent, went for a visit to the Patriots, then declined to sign the team’s tender until May.

Executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum wouldn’t say publicly why Williams hadn’t signed, though it was likely because he felt he deserved more than the $1.8 million tender after finishing third on the team with six touchdowns in 2016. Regardless, any issues stemming from that situation appear to have been resolved.

“I don’t even remember last offseason,” Williams said. “We’re all good. I’m all good.”
Whether the Dolphins can afford whatever the market dictates for Williams, or whether he’s willing to take a little less in order to stay, remains a question to be answered this spring.

Williams, 25, was in prime position to prove his worth when the team traded Jay Ajayi in late October. Miami coach Adam Gase revamped the backfield with him and Kenyan Drake sharing
snaps, and they looked like a good combination. Williams said he’d love to see the team keep that duo in place.

He played three games as the starter post-Ajayi and totaled 111 rushing yards, 91 receiving yards and a touchdown. He averaged 5.8 yards per touch. That opportunity was interrupted in the New England game when he hurt his shoulder. He’s been inactive the last four games, which has been brutal for him.

“Just watching my guys go out there and battle and fight and I’m not there to fight with them—I’ve always got anybody’s back who’s wearing a Miami Dolphins jersey, so me sitting on the sideline helpless, it hurts me,” he said.

As for the particularly bad timing of the injury shortly after he took on a larger role, he said, “It comes with the game. You can’t think about things like that. You just put your head down and fight, and hopefully I get well soon.”

That’s why Williams is so eager to get on the field against the Bills on Sunday, when Gase is considering holding back some key players because the game has no stakes for Miami. There was no conversation with Williams about simply placing him on Injured Reserve this week, and he insisted to the staff he wants to play.

“It’s very important because I want to get back out there with my guys, whether it’s the last game or the first game,” he said. “I’m a football player. This is my job. This is what I love to do.”

For the season, Williams has 336 total yards, seventh on the team, and one touchdown. He’s also a factor on special teams, particularly on the kickoff return unit.

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Miami Dolphins inactives: Who’s in/out vs. Kansas City Chiefs today?

Dolphins WR DeVante Parker has been fighting an ankle injury. (Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Mo.–The Dolphins are still scrapping for the playoffs, even with the most minuscule chance of everything breaking their way.

As they go into today’s game at Kansas City, here are their inactives:

QB Matt Moore (foot)
RB Damien Williams (shoulder)
G Isaac Asiata
T Eric Smith
TE Thomas Duarte

CB Cordrea Tankersley (shoulder, ankle)
S Michael Thomas (knee)

Here are some lineup notes:

–Wide receiver DeVante Parker missed some practice this week with an ankle injury, but is good to go today.

–Andre Branch, who missed last week with a knee injury, will start at defensive end.

–Anthony Fasano is the starting tight end.

–Recently acquired tight end A.J. Derby is active and could make his Dolphins debut.

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