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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