Miami Dolphins’ new cast of skill players starts strong in training camp

Ryan Tannehill is back as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Adam Gase believes the Dolphins have an ideal mix of skill players in the passing game this year and the right quarterbacks to make the most of that group. After about four months of formal and informal workouts together, that element of the offense looked sharp on the first day of training camp.

[RELATED: Exclusive photos from opening day of Dolphins training camp]

The passing attack starts with Ryan Tannehill’s return, and regardless of whether he can get back to the way he played in 2016, he’ll automatically be an upgrade over Jay Cutler. Tannehill has tested his surgically repaired left knee as much as possible, saying he took it beyond what was necessary to be cleared for football, and practiced most of the offseason without a brace on it.

He was in a brace this morning and is certain to wear one on game days. Now that Miami is in camp, he has no choice but to get himself reacclimated to playing with it even as the team works without pads the first two days.

His most proven weapon is Kenny Stills, who continues improve as he hits what should be the prime of his career. At 26, he’s already a six-year veteran and put up 100 catches, 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

The rest of the crew is somewhat unknown, though Gase’s confidence runs counter to the outside perception. He sees a dynamic, multi-faceted playmaker in new acquisition Albert Wilson and a technician with plenty left in the tank in former Patriot Danny Amendola. Tannehill hit Amendola over the middle a few times in 11-on-11 work.

They’re still hopeful that DeVante Parker will finally find his breakthrough, but they’re not depending on it as much as they did last year. It’s almost thought of as a bonus if he’s able to give them more than he did in 2017.

The three starting receivers at this point figure to be Stills, Parker and Amendola, plus the Dolphins have second-round pick Mike Gesicki at tight end.

Then there’s Kenyan Drake, who has a chance to be the most productive offensive player. Everything is lining up for him to have a big year, and Gase is enthusiastic about settling in with exactly his type of running back. Drake shined when he got the chance late last year, but has yet to do it over an extended period. He showed his speed — he’s faster than Jay Ajayi, though not as much of a bruiser — on several outside runs and short passes today.

Behind Tannehill, the Dolphins gave Brock Osweiler and David Fales snaps with the second team, though it still seems Fales is at least a slight favorite to win the backup job. Osweiler threw an interception early in those drills on a ball that bounced out of Jakeem Grant’s hands.

Gase declined to name either player as the leader for the job at the end of Organized Team Activities last month, but his comments going back to January have indicated a strong belief in Fales. New York Jets castoff Bryce Petty is also in camp.

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Five problems the Miami Dolphins need to solve in training camp

Kenyan Drake needs to be a Pro Bowl-caliber running back this season. (Getty Images)

As much as Dolphins coach Adam Gase loves his roster, he’s repeatedly painted it as a work in progress. There’s still plenty to figure out personnel-wise, and that process kicks into high gear when training camp opens Thursday morning.

As Gase approaches the start of a critical third season with Miami, here are five problems he has to solve over the next few weeks:

1. They need a backup quarterback.
It’s fine for the Dolphins to be optimistic about Ryan Tannehill’s knee, and there appears to be good cause for that, but they know better than to assume he’ll make it through all 16 games. They actually came out and said that in January, which made it perplexing that they did not secure a proven backup in the offseason. Gase says he’s supremely confidence in David Fales and/or Brock Osweiler as the backup — he seems to favor Fales — but both of them come with question marks.

2. Their linebacker corps must improve.
As a former linebackers coach, defensive coordinator Matt Burke must have been exasperated by how underwhelming the Dolphins were at that position last year. They’ve got a good start with Raekwon McMillan in the middle and Kiko Alonso on the outside, assuming they stay healthy, but there’s no certainty beyond those two. Stephone Anthony’s had an up-and-down career, Mike Hull and Chase Allen haven’t proven themselves as NFL starters, and it might take a while for draft picks Jerome Baker and Quentin Poling to materialize into contributors.

3. Kenyan Drake has to establish himself as a top weapon.
The Dolphins’ collection of skill players has a lot of good talent, but is there a great one among them? Drake’s speed and versatility, combined with Gase’s inventiveness, gives him a chance to stand out. When he took over as pretty much the only healthy running back available late last season, he closed the year with a league-best 444 yards (4.9 per carry) over the final five games. He also caught 17 passes for 150 yards during that span. But the jump from there to becoming a premier weapon is a big one, and it’ll take more than just physical ability.

4. There’s a big vacancy at kicker.
Kicker and punter are positions that fans (and teams, for that matter) sometimes take for granted, and that could hurt the Dolphins this season. They regret losing Cody Parkey in free agency and now move forward with seventh-rounder Jason Sanders competing against undrafted local product Greg Joseph. Neither seems to have an edge after their first three months in the organization, so training camp decide it.

5. Defensive end has to be an absolute strength.
The Dolphins’ salary cap ledger makes one thing undeniably clear: They value pass rushers above all else. It’s fine to spend big at that position, but they have to get results there. Robert Quinn and Andre Branch are the two biggest salary cap hits on the roster this year, combining for $21.4 million, and Cameron Wake is fifth at $9.6 million. Those three are eating up about 17 percent of Miami’s total spending, according to Spotrac. With a first line of Quinn and Wake followed by a second wave of Branch and Charles Harris, Miami needs to be in the top 10 in sacks this year.

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All grown up, Kenyan Drake primed to ‘bust out’ for Miami Dolphins in 2018

Kenyan Drake could be the Dolphins’ best hope for a breakout season in 2018. (Getty Images)

(Note: Today begins our summer-long series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting key members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018. We begin with a vital part of the offense who I think will have a big year, running back Kenyan Drake. — Hal)

[RELATED: Don’t miss our exclusive photos from Dolphins OTAs in Davie]

RB Kenyan Drake

Height, weight: 6-1, 211

College: Alabama

Age: 24

Experience: Third NFL season, all with Dolphins

Acquired: Third-round pick in 2016

Contract: In third year of four-year, $3.3 million rookie contract

In 2017

Stats: Started six of 16 games; had 133 carries for 644 yards (4.8 average) and three TDs; also caught 32 passes for 239 yards and 1 TD

Notable moments: Ran 66 yards for TD vs. Panthers. … Had 120 yards vs. Broncos. … In home victory over Patriots had 114 yards rushing and 79 receiving.

Straight talk: Adam Gase probably meant it. Then again, maybe he was just trying to light a fire. Either way, while talking about Drake this spring, Gase said he was “a guy that’s really looking to bust out.”

If the Dolphins are going to improve over last year’s 6-10 record, it’s a must.

Drake knows it, too. You can tell by the way he’s carrying himself compared to when he arrived as a luxury third-rounder, a guy behind Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams on the depth chart whose primary contributions were going to come on special teams.

Now?

“Honestly, it was just about growing up one day,” Drake said. “Everybody has to take that step necessary to be the man that they want to be. Obviously, I’m nowhere near where I want to be, obviously, as a man, as a football player, because I feel like the sky’s the limit for me and for this team in general.”

Gase once half-jokingly said there were times he wanted to hurt a young Kenyan Drake, who might take a handful of steps forward and then “test me.” Thankfully, a couple of years of growth, added responsibility and the arrival of one of the true professionals in this sport, Frank Gore, give the Dolphins a wise choice as one of the NFL players primed for a breakout year.

“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 is fully aware of the big picture, acknowledging there are “people looking up to me.” Given his obvious physical gifts — speed and elusiveness chief among them — he’s in perfect position to stake his claim toward a handsome second contract with a solid 2018.

Prospects for 2018

Over the final five games, he rushed for a league-best 444 yards and averaged 4.9 per carry. He also had 150 receiving yards.

For what it’s worth, that projects to roughly 2,000 all-purpose yards.

Don’t underestimate the arrival of Gore, who might see more action than fans expect despite Drake being the featured guy. That actually should be beneficial for Drake — just picture him, with his quickness, being fresh in the fourth quarter as visiting teams are wilting at Hard Rock Stadium.

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Miami Dolphins rookie RB Kalen Ballage leveling out after tough start to OTAs

Dolphins fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage has high potential to be an explosive playmaker. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Even in the lower stakes of offseason practices, it’s a bad feeling to line up for a play and not be entirely certain where you’re supposed to go. It’s especially unnerving when you’re in the process of trying to prove you belong in the NFL.

Dolphins rookie Kalen Ballage battled that early in Organized Team Activities when Adam Gase hit the accelerator and had the offense running quicker than he’d seen before. He struggled to keep everything straight as Miami called play after play, and it illuminated how much work he still needs to do.

“I’m from a no-huddle offense at Arizona State, so I’ve been in the no-huddle stuff, but going really fast and not knowing all the plays is completely different,” he said after practice today. “There was a few times where my mind was running 100 miles an hour trying to figure things out.

“It’s not that I don’t know, but am I 100 percent sure? You kind of have an idea of what you’re supposed to be doing, but maybe you aren’t fully sure about it. Just being consistent and knowing what I’ve got so I can be very decisive and play fast.”

The Dolphins, who took Ballage in the fourth round two months ago, hope he’ll be a quick learner. He’s got the combination of a bruising 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame, great speed and the versatility to hurt a defense as a runner or receiver and aspires to reach the level of dual-threat stars like Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson.

If he’s ready to contribute right away he’ll be a significant weapon for Gase as he tries to revamp the offense. He’s settled in since those first few days, working on memorizing plays with fellow rookie running back Buddy Howell of Florida Atlantic, and has looked more comfortable in the offense this week.

“He’s progressing quickly,” Gase said. “He’s consistently been one of those guys that’s trying to find a way to get extra (work) and spend time with other players, just trying to really nail down the offense.

“We’re trying to do as many things as possible in the spring to get him used to things, because once you hit training camp you don’t have a ton of time to spend on one specific thing. A lot of things are going to be flying at him once we hit training camp.”

Ballage believes he was underutilized at Arizona State, where he still managed to run for 669 yards and six touchdowns last season. Over three years as a regular part of the Sun Devils’ offense, he totaled 1,858 yards rushing, 620 yards receiving and 25 total touchdowns.

The upside is he did all of that without taking much of a beating physically because he had only 450 carries in his college career.

As he tries to master the playbook before next month’s training camp, Ballage has been learning from future Hall of Famer Frank Gore and third-year running back Kenyan Drake. Both have gone out of their way to help him acclimate. Gore and Ballage hang out and scour film of other running backs around the league to pick up new moves.

All the on-field reps and off-field study sessions are helping make things run more smoothly for Ballage, who prides himself on being reliable.

“I’m not a guy that makes a lot of mental errors,” he said. “There’s gonna be stuff here and there because I’m learning a new playbook and it’s a lot of information to learn, but I’m just trying to be the most consistent football player I can be right now.”

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Miami Dolphins believe they could have three RBs who can play all three downs

Dolphins running back coach Eric Studesville and Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake speak to the media during Dolphins OTAs. (Miami Herald)

DAVIE — The Dolphins are entering the home stretch of their offseason workouts, days away from R&R, but already, a common thread is emanating from the training facility that could have a major impact on what we see this fall.

Kenyan Drake will be the featured back, veteran Frank Gore is the No. 2 man and behind them is Kalen Ballage, a fourth-round pick out of Arizona State. No news flash there. But put your ear to the ground and you’ll recognize a theme developing that can be labeled this way:

Three backs, three downs.

More and more, Dolphins coaches have been pointing out that all three of these guys can run, catch and block. While it would be unrealistic to think the Dolphins will roll their backs the way they’ll roll defensive linemen, it’s a huge benefit to Adam Gase, who likes versatile backs, to know he won’t be tipping his hand by putting any particular back in on any given down.

“You really like a guy that can play on all three downs,” new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.

Assuming all three stay healthy, there can be no doubt Drake will get the majority of the carries, but do not assume that just because Gore is 35 and did little in OTAs, the equipment guys won’t need to wash his No. 21 jersey on Sunday evenings. Hardly. Gore ran for 961 yards before a talent-challenged offensive line in Indy last year, had 245 receiving yards and is two years removed from a 1,025-yard rushing season.

Frank Gore had 1,206 yards from scrimmage for Indianapolis last season. (Sam Riche/TNS)

“Frank Gore set the standard of what backs do in (pass) protection,” coach Frank Reich said as the Colts were preparing to part ways with him. “I remember hearing stories when I’d be coaching for other teams that Frank Gore could run the protection meetings, that he could make the protection calls for the quarterback.”

A pretty valuable guy to have around if your QB has been on the shelf since the Obama administration, wouldn’t you say? The Colts somehow overlooked that, but don’t think the Dolphins will make the same mistake when it comes to keeping Ryan Tannehill healthy.

“He shall be missed,” tweeted one guy on the Colts who’s feeling the loss of Gore: QB Andrew Luck.

Ballage has room for growth in this department. All rookies do. At 6-feet-3 and 230 pounds, he’s the tallest and heaviest back on the team. So the tools are there.

“He’s a guy that shouldn’t have a lot of limitations,” Loggains said.

Ballage’s background backs that up. In addition to running back, he grew up playing quarterback, receiver, safety and linebacker.

Dolphins running back Kalen Ballage. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

“I did everything,” Ballage said. “I am a running back, but I consider myself a football player. I feel like I’m somebody that can do everything pretty well.”

He added, “I don’t think they would’ve picked me if I didn’t fit that mold” of an Adam Gase running back.

The Dolphins in recent seasons have wrestled with run-pass balance but should achieve it in 2018. Not all passing plays are created equal, though, because Gase can treat short tosses as extended handoffs, which is where this trio’s skillset also comes in.

Gore caught 29 passes for 245 yards last year and in his career has had as many as 485 receiving yards in a season. Drake caught 32 for 239 yards and two scores last year. In 2017, Ballage had odd totals of 20 catches for 91 yards, just a 4.6 average, but in 2016 he caught 44 passes for 469 and a 10.7 average.

“Drake is a guy that can play all three downs,” Loggains said. “I think Kalen fits that vision as well. He can catch the football. He can be a weapon out of the backfield, but he’s also big enough in pass pro. Where he needs to grow is the NFL game and nickel protections and learning that stuff, because that’s obviously the biggest transition in the NFL is going in there and you’ve got odd defenses and you’ve got spinners and floaters and trap blitzes and all of those things. He’s got to master that stuff.”

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Miami Dolphins believe they’re rich with passing targets

The Dolphins are counting on Kenny Stills to be a homerun threat, but they have other weapons. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Dolphins coach Adam Gase has said a few times that this roster is built the way he wants it, particularly when it comes to receivers, and he’s brimming with confidence about how the passing game will look this season.

With Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker staying on as starters, plus the addition of Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson, the receiver room has undergone significant change. The team is also intent on using running back Kenyan Drake as a pass-catching threat and has a potentially dynamic tight end in second-rounder Mike Gesicki.

Those are six quality options without mentioning the threat of Jakeem Grant, rookie running back Kalen Ballage and tight end A.J. Derby.

“I feel right now that we legitimately have two groups of receivers that can play at a high level for us,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said today. “So if we want to sub somebody out and keep fresh legs in there, or if someone goes down — whatever the case may be — I don’t feel like there’s really going to be much of a drop off (in) production or ability with the group that we have.

“We have a really deep room right now. They work really hard. You see them every day out there grinding. Nobody’s complaining. They’re trying to get better each and every day and that’s what we want.”

Last year, with Miami enduring trouble at quarterback and on the line of scrimmage, plus Parker struggling, Jarvis Landry was by far the most targeted receiver. Almost 27 percent of the Dolphins’ pass attempts went his way, and the trio of him, Stills and Parker accounted for 60.1 percent.

The distribution should be a little more widespread this season. Gase believes he has more maneuverability, too, and has been enjoying the chance to move Wilson all over the place in offseason practices.

He’s a multi-talented threat. Stills has versatility. Amendola is one of the most trusted slot receivers in the league. Drake is the fastest running back Miami’s had in a while. Gesicki is the highest-drafted tight end on this team since the 1970s. Parker, the No. 14 overall selection in 2015, likely still hasn’t peaked.

“If we stay healthy,” Gase said, “we should have a lot of guys that can make plays.”

The other benefit to Gase is that he believes he’s reshaped the receiver corps into a group that won’t be derailed by ego. If no one has a great year statistically, but most of them have a good year, he doesn’t see that being a problem.

That takes some pressure off Tannehill, too.

“They’re not complaining,” Tannehill said. “They’re not griping about not getting the ball.

“But when you do have talented guys, you want to get them the football. I think it’s a balancing act… trying to get guys involved, finding them rhythms in the game and help them be productive.”

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Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

New WR Albert Wilson playing everywhere for Miami Dolphins

Albert Wilson offers the chance for a big play every snap. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — One thing Adam Gase and the Dolphins love about their reconstructed group of skill players is how pliable it is. The offense can move pieces wherever it wants them, opening up limitless creativity for Gase, and it’s likely no player embodies that more than new receiver Albert Wilson.

Wilson became a prime target for Miami in free agency primarily for his speed, and he’s expected to get a more prominent role in the offense than he ever had in Kansas City. He’s been all over the place during Organized Team Activities.

“He’s really done a nice job the past two weeks,” receivers coach Ben Johnson. “It’s really triggered us to say he’s not limited in the slot, he’s not limited outside. He can line up in the backfield. He can do so many different things for us. His versatility is really, really showing up.”

There were times last season when Gase felt somewhat constrained by having to keep DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry on the field without a ton of flexibility, but he seems intent on opening things up more this season. Stills can play inside or outside, running back Kenyan Drake can line up at receiver, he’s got a very promising tight end threat in Mike Gesicki and wide-ranging versatility with Wilson.

The most common way he’s likely to be used is on short passes, like bubble screens, that present opportunities for big yards after the catch. That won’t be it, though. At 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, Wilson is a shade on the small side, but he showed great athleticism down the field last year with the Chiefs.

“When we looked at Albert on film, we were intrigued, obviously with the speed,” Johnson said. “We were intrigued with the run-after-catch ability. I think all of that has been there. It’s been impressive to me to see him come in, pick up this system and learn these fundamentals (when) he wasn’t really doing the same thing in Kansas City.”

He posted career highs in Kansas City with 42 receptions, 554 yards (13.2 per catch) and three touchdowns. That tracked with the steady progress he’s made since breaking into the league as an undrafted free agent from Georgia State in 2014. He was a multi-talented threat there, too, after playing quarterback at Port St. Lucie High School.

Wilson has eight rushes in his career, and the Dolphins seem particularly drawn to that untapped part of his game.

“When you have the kind of athletic ability he does, the speed he does, the playmaking ability, you just try to find ways to get the ball in his hands and let him do his thing,” Gase said.

Wilson is also one of a few candidates to work at punt returner.

The Dolphins needed a slot receiver once they traded Landry to the Browns and they opted to replace him with Wilson and Danny Amendola. Landry would’ve cost about $16 million this season, and Wilson came in at half that price.

Miami picked him up on a three-year, $24 million deal with $14.5 million guaranteed. The team can get out of the contract after the 2019 season for a small dead cap hit of $1.3 million.

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Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

How Frank Gore is already influencing Miami Dolphins’ Kenyan Drake

Miami Dolphins running back Frank Gore at training camp. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — Kenyan Drake has only known Frank Gore for a few months now, but he’s already learned the most important thing.

“He’s definitely one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known,” Drake said Tuesday.

[RELATED: Our exclusive photo gallery from Dolphins OTAs]

Gore is 35 years old. And Drake is 24 years old.

“We both have the same almost type of personality where it’s laid back, not really too flashy type of deal,” Drake said. “I feel like we definitely feed off each other and I can see how he’s been the way he is for so many years, with just the way he puts his head down and works. I think that’s something I definitely want to mold into my game just because obviously of his longevity.”

No running back in the NFL had more rushing yards than Drake over the last five weeks, an impressive statistic he downplays because Todd Gurley of the Rams rested one week.

But Drake is a willing sponge for all the knowledge that he knows Gore can provide.

“He works out like he’s a first-year, second-year guy,” Drake said. “Comes in with that same attitude. I feel like if I could have just half the success that he’s had. That would be a win in my book. Because he’s definitely the epitome of longevity in this league.”

Drake said players need to listen to coaches because they’ve earned their roles. He added that players also listen directly to other players who have earned their respect.

“Obviously, seeing somebody that you grown up watching since you’re whatever old, it’s kind of like, when you get into the same room as him at the same time, it’s like you’re kind of like caught up in yourself,” Drake said. “But when they come to your team, you’re like, ‘This is Frank Gore, who has done this and has done that,’ you see he’s a regular guy. Then he goes out and puts the work in and he’s diligent with everything he does.”

Drake laughed about the idea that when Gore came into the NFL, he was in the fifth or sixth grade.

“He obviously looks at me and he wants to compete with me too, because we’re on the same team but he’s like, ‘You’re young, man. You run around fast. I can’t keep up with you,'” Drake said. “He’s 35, but he goes out there and he’s right behind me if anything. Obviously, he’s not as fast as me, but at the end of the day, he does what he does. I’m like, ‘You’re 35. I don’t even know if I’ll have that drive or that will to keep up with some 24-year-old. It’s cool just to see it for myself.”

Drake does believe he can sustain his late-season success over a long period, and be one of the top rushers in the league.

“Yeah,” Drake said. “I feel like with the people I have around me. And how coach Gase and everybody calls the game on offense. With the receivers, the o-line revitalized. I feel like the sky is the limit. Me and the rest of my guys we’re going to take it one day at a time and when that comes that comes. But we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Drake has taken significant steps in the area of maturity since entering the NFL in 2016, according to his coaches.

“I mean honestly it’s just about growing up,” he said. “Everybody has to take that step to be the man that they want to be. Obviously I’m nowhere where I want to be as a man and as a football player. I feel the sky is the limit for me.”

And all involved think Gore’s presence is only going to help Drake be even better.

“It’s interesting to see how long he’s really been the back he is,” Drake said. “And you know just to have him on this team is going to help not only the running backs. But everybody on this team. If you could see if you take the right steps. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player, especially at this position. To have this type of wear and tear. But he does it right every day. I feel like he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

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Miami Dolphins’ Kenyan Drake: Kalen Ballage is one ‘smooth’ ‘freak’

Miami Dolphins running back Kalen Ballage is a prototype. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — Kalen Ballage is the tallest player in the Miami Dolphins’ running back room and he’s also the heaviest.

Ballage is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and he’s also really, really fast. It’s hard to understand how Ballage lasted until the fourth round of the last NFL Draft, but he did, and you can count running back Kenyan Drake among those happy he did.

“He’s a freak,” Drake said Tuesday. “(Ballage) runs so smooth that it doesn’t really seem like he’s running fast. For him to be as tall. Obviously, me being a long, tall back, I always had trouble running behind my pads. He always seems to have a natural bend, a natural ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.”

[RELATED: Our exclusive photo gallery from Dolphins OTAs]

Drake knows it’s very early in camp, as only four practices are complete.

“Obviously we don’t have pads on, so blocking is a different story with pads on,” Drake said. “He definitely seems to be a three-tool type of player and I’m just looking to see his development.”

Dolphins offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains does believe Ballage will be able to protect.

“When he walks through the door, that’s what they’re supposed to look like,” Loggains said. “He’s big, he’s put together and he’s a really smart kid. We’re excited about trying to tap him out and make sure his head is hitting the ceiling. He’s got size, he’s got height, weight, speed. Doing those things, we’ve got to figure out what he does well and find out quickly with that stuff.”

The Dolphins acquired Ballage with a pick acquired from Philadelphia for Jay Ajayi. Coach Adam Gase believes the additions of free agent Frank Gore and Ballage creates an opportunity for increased competition and results.

“He’s a big man that runs fast and can catch the ball well,” Gase said. “He really has all of the things that you’re looking for in an all-around back. It’ll be fun to see how he progresses and how things go … how quick he learns everything and how he fits in with the group.”

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Why proposed changes to kickoffs could give leg up to Miami Dolphins, Jakeem Grant

Jakeem Grant returns a kickoff vs. the Patriots last season. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — When Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi was asked about scouting kicking prospects and responded by rattling off the field-goal percentages of the NFL’s top kickers coming out of college, there was no getting around that this guy spends a crazy amount of time mulling such things.

Next week, there’s a good chance that when NFL owners gather for their spring meeting in Atlanta, there’s a good chance they’ll OK changes in kickoff rules to enhance safety without compromising excitement.

And Rizzi’s special teams could stand to benefit immensely.

Without delving too deeply into the minutiae of what’s being (pardon pun) kicked around, Rizzi, part of a select committee chosen to make recommendations to the owners, believes the changes could open up the return game, which by extension could be a boon for those with speed to burn.

If you’re a Dolphins fan, you know exactly where this leads: Jakeem Grant, who has been timed at 4.38 in the 40.

“Listen, I’ve talked to Jakeem about the new rules,” Rizzi said. “ … I think a guy like Jakeem could certainly benefit from the rule. It being a more wide-open play, I know he’s excited about it for sure.”

Nor should he be the only one. Kenyan Drake (4.45) has handled return duties before, including that memorable 96-yard return for a TD against the Jets in 2016. But with his promotion into the featured-back role, it remains to be seen whether the Dolphins will lighten his special teams load in 2018.

And among the newcomers, there’s Albert Wilson (4.43), who returned some kicks for the Chiefs, and fellow receiver Danny Amendola (4.58), who handled some punt-return duties for the Patriots. And fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage (4.46), a running back, averaged 20.8 yards on kickoff returns at Arizona State last year.

Rizzi believes if the changes are approved, you’ll see more skill-position players and fewer linemen on special teams. You’ll see fewer of those high, short kicks that the Patriots like to utilize because kicking teams will have less of a running start and therefore will be hard-pressed to pin returners inside their 25-yard line. And, reversing a recent trend, you’ll see returners more likely to take it out of their end zone rather than settle for touchbacks.

So much of this could benefit a Dolphins team that needs every inch of field position for the offense that it can get. Last season, the Dolphins were seventh in the NFL with an average of 54.4 kickoff return yards a game. For perspective, the Chiefs led at 65.7. But Miami was 20th in return average at 20.9 after finishing tied for fourth in 2016 at 25.1 yards. Miami’s longest return in 2017, 37 yards, ranked 25th in the league.

Individually, Grant tied for seventh with a 22.8 average.

The impact will be felt before the season even starts. If teams are going to load up on running backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers on special teams, it’s bound to affect competition for the final roster spots.

“I’ve talked about that with our front office,” Rizzi said.

It’s only May, but of course Rizz has.

You think a guy who memorizes Stephen Gostkowski’s college field-goal percentage (76) isn’t going to get a hard start on campaigning for something like this?

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