Duke Johnson deserves first crack at Dolphins' starting running back job

Over the final four games of the regular season, Duke Johnson rushed for 312 yards and three TDs for Miami. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

MIAMI -- It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the Miami Dolphins' offensive identity was in 2021.

They threw the ball at the 10th-highest rate in the NFL yet ranked 17th in passing yards per game (214.8) this season. They were the 10th-best run-blocking team in terms of run block win rate according to NFL Next Gen Stats data but finished 30th in rushing (92.2 YPG).

"We want to be able to establish the run to set up a lot of our [play]-actions," quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "We just want to be able to control the game that way. Some games were like that. Some games weren't. I would say that's kind of the identity we tried to set as an offense."

The Dolphins were not an efficient running team, but did average 134.5 rushing yards over their final four games of the season (11th-most in the NFL), which represents a marked improvement over their season average. Coincidentally, those four games featured midseason signee Duke Johnson as the team's lead back. The pending free agent did enough with the opportunity that the Dolphins should re-sign him in 2022.

Johnson, 28, grew up down the street from Hard Rock Stadium and played for the University of Miami. He was the lone Dolphins rusher to eclipse the 100-yard mark in a single game this season, doing so in Week 15 and again in Week 18. He punctuated his first stint with his hometown team with 117 yards on 25 carries -- both career-highs -- in the season finale, a 33-24 win against the New England Patriots.

Signed to Miami's practice squad on Oct. 26, Johnson was happy just to be on the field, let alone as a feature back.

"No one was giving me the opportunity just to play," he said. "Whether it was third down, special teams, no one gave me the opportunity. And the Dolphins did."

Over the final four weeks of the regular season, he ranked No. 8 in the league with 312 rushing yards on 67 carries (4.7 YPC) and No. 2 with 11 runs of 10 or more yards. He infused life into a rushing attack that failed to complement Miami's passing game in 2021 -- particularly with the way he ran through contact.

Typecast as a third-down, receiving back throughout his career, Johnson was targeted only five times in five games played with Miami. Instead of being asked to contribute as a receiver, the Dolphins gave him the first two 20-carry workloads of his career.

"Since Duke has been here, he's done everything that I and we have asked of him, which is come in, learn the system, get prepared to contribute in games," offensive playcaller George Godsey said. "I'm very happy with what he's contributed and what he's brought to the room -- his energy, his positivity, his work effort, everything that we're looking for."

Johnson said after the season finale that he hopes to return to the Dolphins. His contributions were enough to earn him the first carries of OTAs and training camp if Miami re-signs him this offseason; those contributions should not, however, keep the Dolphins from drafting a running back in the early rounds of the 2022 NFL draft -- something general manager Chris Grier has preferred not to do during his tenure with the franchise.

Johnson has been in the NFL since 2015, and while it's possible he was misused in previous stints with the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans, this is the first of his seven NFL seasons that he has averaged more than 50 rushing yards per game.

For a team that needs to drastically improve offensively next season, the smart move would be for the Dolphins to hedge their bets and add a potential difference-maker in the backfield to either spell Johnson or take over for him if he regresses.