Kenyan Drake ready to fill void, bring star power to Dolphins

Kenyan Drake was among the most productive running backs in the league in the second half of the 2017 season, and he's picked up where he left off this summer. Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

DAVIE, Fla. -- Not a single Miami Dolphins player made ESPN's ranking of top 100 players of 2018. Ndamukong Suh and Jarvis Landry each made it, at No. 51 and No. 82, respectively. Of course, both Suh and Landry were jettisoned from Miami this offseason for a combination of financial and cultural reasons.

The Dolphins were one of three teams, along with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, to be shut out. That alone doesn't mean doom and gloom. Miami had three on ESPN's top 100 players of 2017 (Suh, Landry and Cameron Wake), but it didn't prevent them from going 6-10.

The list does make one thing clear: There aren't any in-your-prime stars on this Dolphins team. Wake and Frank Gore have national name recognition, yet neither is among the top players at their positions. It's hard to answer who the Dolphins' best player is, but that might be about to change.

Enter running back Kenyan Drake, the Dolphins' best hope to fill their star void. He's ready to be that type of player and all the pressure that comes with it.

"I want to be a player that can be relied on to make big plays and spark the offense when we might be in a little bit of a stall," said Drake, a 2016 third-round pick out of Alabama who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2017. "Playmakers make plays. It is what it is."

Drake is their most exciting player and best big-play weapon. The most apparent glimpse of this came in the final five games of the 2017 season, when Drake paced the NFL in rushing (444 rushing yards on 75 carries and 150 receiving yards on 17 catches). But he's tired of hearing about those five games. He believes it's a flawed stat because several top backs sat out Week 17. He'd rather discuss the next 16 games of the 2018 season.

Leaning on Drake might be the Dolphins' best chance to make a surprise push for a wild-card spot in a weak AFC.

Despite worries that Gore will steal half of Drake's touches, the Dolphins are aware of Drake's talents and will allow him to be the lead back if he proves he can handle it. Dolphins coach Adam Gase's breakdown of an ideal workload for Drake should be music to the ears of Drake, Dolphins fans and smart fantasy football owners.

“You’d love to get in that 70-75 plays per game [range] as a unit. If that happens, then you’re looking at hopefully anywhere from 15-20 carries and 6-8 targets," Gase said of Drake.

Gase might be a little optimistic on play count. Even with an expected increase of no-huddle under Ryan Tannehill, no team has averaged 70-plus offensive plays per game since Philadelphia in 2014. The Dolphins averaged a little over 62 plays in 2017.

But even looking at numbers just outside of Gase's low-end projection, Drake getting 18-20 touches a game -- which would be a workload similar to what Jay Ajayi had in his breakout 2016 season -- would allow him to expand upon what he flashed last season. Ajayi had 287 touches in 15 games in 2016, a little more than 19 per game, for 1,423 total yards. Plus, Drake is a better receiver than Ajayi ever was.

As a receiver is where Drake's star potential can be unlocked. In an offense that gave Landry 112 catches last season, the Dolphins will use Drake to make up some of the difference.

"My versatility is a weapon for me, so catching the ball out of the backfield, lining up in a wing set, in the slot or out wide against linebackers or safeties, I feel like I have an advantage," said Drake, who has a 36-yard reception, a 34-yard rush and a 30-yard rush already this preseason.

In his last seven games of 2017, Drake had five plays of 30-plus yards -- four rushes and a reception. Some people will say this isn't sustainable, but Drake has proven throughout his college and NFL career that this is his game. He's the Dolphins Mr. Big Play and he's also their lead back.

"He really makes us dynamic whenever you have a guy that can take it the distance at any point," said Tannehill, who has been manning an offense primarily built around the short pass this summer.

The key for Drake will be health. That's the big "if" in his quest for a full breakout year. Among Drake's injuries, he suffered a broken and dislocated ankle in 2014, then a broken arm in 2015 at Alabama. He hasn't been a three-down workhorse back in college or the NFL.

That's where Gore comes in. Gore will get a lot of playing time on the goal line, in short yardage and in a rotation that will prevent Drake from being a 25 carries-per-game back. It's the kid's time to produce the big numbers, but Gore will protect the Dolphins from having to run Drake into the ground.

An ideal balance would be Drake getting 18-20 touches per game and Gore getting 8-10. Kalen Ballage has some catching up to do, but he might earn a few reps as the season goes on.

Gore said he sees Drake's potential.

"Drake is a great kid. I want him to have success. He works hard. He loves the game. He listens. He's real humble. His skill set is crazy. He can do everything," Gore said. "As long as he stays healthy, works hard and keeps being humble, he will have success and be special. The only thing he got that I don't have is the long speed. I wish I had that."

The Dolphins currently have a dearth of stars, but Drake is in line to have a season that makes him a national name.