The Miami Dolphins, one of the most exciting and polarizing teams this offseason, were expected to make a big splash at RB in the NFL Draft. Considering Ryan Fitzmagic led the team in rushing (with 243 yards), Patrick Laird flashed zero upside, and a garden snail could’ve produced a higher YPC than Kalen Ballage, a backfield makeover was beyond necessary. Miami made it known how much they were in love with JK Dobbins, and If Jonathan Taylor fell to them in the second round, he was a lock to be drafted… right?!
Yet Miami took a surprisingly smart, if “unsexy” route. Given their roster was riddled with numerous holes across the board, the team pivoted away from RBs and instead invested their early draft capital in the QB of the future (Tua), much needed offensive line reinforcements, and crucial defensive pieces. This leaves Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, two underappreciated runners, with the backfield essentially to themselves.
Dare I say: the Dolphins backfield, last year’s most barren wasteland, actually drips in some serious fantasy appeal?
Both backs are being selected after the RB30 and right around 100 overall. This discount creates enormous unsexy upside, but who’s the one to own?
Why care about either Dolphins RB?
But Duckling, you may ask, why should I care about either? No team rushed for fewer yards (72.2 per game), and this offense was puke worthy (25th in points).
Great question, Gerald. Let’s dig in.
A) Offensive Line Investment
The 2019 Dolphins offensive line was an abomination, among the worst we’ve ever seen. As described by PFF, who deservedly ranked them dead last:
“The Dolphins created a comfortable cushion for themselves at the bottom of the league in 2019 in nearly every metric you could use to evaluate offensive line play.” Comforting.
Their 47.3 overall line grade was almost 6 points lower than the next closest team, and they were even further below in run-blocking grade.
Simply put: they had nowhere to go but up.
First, the team added G Ereck Flowers (19th of 39 among guards in PFF grade) and C Ted Karras (20th of 38) to fortify their interior. Neither were “world beaters,” but even just reliable, average play is a huge step in the right direction.
They then spent first and second round picks to bring in two behemoths, Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt. Jackson (18th overall) may be considered a “project,” but he’s exceptionally athletic for his size and excellent at getting to the second level. Meanwhile, Hunt was lauded for his punishing run blocking.
In short: after a historically poor performance, the Dolphins line should feature new starters at every position. Though this might not be enough to jump them into the top-half of lines, they still land as PFF’s second most improved line, and should pave far more open lanes in 2020.
B) Improved Defense = More Run Centric Game Scripts
The Dolphins were constantly trailing in 2020. In fact, the defense was so bad they allowed 494 points and 6,364 yards total — both in the bottom 30. Constantly trailing led to Ryan Fitzpatrick having to sling the rock around the yard most of the season.
However, the team added cornerback Noah Igbinoghene and signing free agent cornerback Byron Jones to pair with Xavien Howard, giving the Dolphins a talented secondary. They added a centerpiece and leader in Kyle Van Noy, who’s very familiar with Flores scheme from their New England days together. Edge rushers Shaw Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah can only help a pass rush that mustered a measly 27 sacks. Factor in the drafting of Raekwon Davis from Alabama to help shore up the defensive line, the Dolphins are clearly trying to address these issues.
With improvements all over, the Dolphins should be able to put up more respectable showings. That will allow the offense to remain on the field with more friendly or neutral game scripts, setting up Howard and Breida for better situations than any saw in 2019.
C) Best of all… Chan Gailey’s Run Game Usage & Success
Although Chan Gailey loves to spread the field, the spine of his offense has long been the run game.
Across eight play-calling gigs from 1989-2001, Gailey fed his lead RB at least 312 touches. In fact, 6/8 (75%) topped 340 looks, while none finished below 12000 yards from scrimmage.
Indeed, that was a different era. Still, in his most recent stints with the Bills and Jets, Gailey similarly schemed up strong RB totals:
Under Chan Gailey
Fred Jackson paced for 334 tch (62 rec), 2202 YFS, 10 TDs (2011)
CJ Spiller = actually a thing – 250 tch (43 rec), 1703 YFS, 8 TDs ('12)
Chris Ivory lead AFC in rush yds – 1287 YFS, 7 TDs on 277 tch (30 Rec)
Do Jordan Howard & Matt Breida have sneaky upside?
— Wolf of Roto Street (@RotoStreetWolf) June 4, 2020
Hell, even old Matt Forte and Bilal Powell were both Top-24 RBs in FPPG, largely due to large target shares. His RBs averaged a 27.5% target share in New York, near the Saints-level of usage. The Bills weren’t far off, with 24% target share.
Since 2011, this has resulted in the RB4, RB9, RB16 & RB22 (RBBC) and RB22 & RB26 outputs in FPPG
Simply put: Gailey’s scheme has facilitated career seasons from otherwise underwhelming players (Jackson, Spiller, Ivory), and could do the same for Howard and Breida.
But which one is preferred?
The Case for Jordan Howard
Let’s play a game. Pick one of the following two running backs:
Player A – 875 rush attempts for 3,599 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Player B – 897 rush attempts for 3,888 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Which running back would you prefer to own? Okay, yeah I know. It’s close. That’s the point. One is going as the RB19 and the 32nd overall player in standard scoring. The other is going as the RB35 and as the 104th overall player.
Player A is Melvin Gordon and Player B is Jordan Howard. Yes, I know. Gordon is an excellent pass catching back while Howard has brick hands slathered in baby oil when it comes to pass catching.
The underlying point behind this game was to prove how criminally undervalued Howard is as a running back. Since joining the league in 2016, Howard ranks third in rushing yards. All of this DESPITE playing on a routinely bad offense.
He’s an absolute bowling ball, who churns through contact. More impressively, though, are his nimble feet for his size; his 4.57 forty doesn’t appear blazing, but this landed him in the 81st percentile for size-speed. Howard was at his most effective in outside zone and power situations, displaying strong vision and acceleration at his hefty size.
But he’s not eluding you. He’s running through you. He wants the contact. He wants to grind and churn. Howard wants to wear you down, saying so himself:
”I’d describe my running style as rugged, pretty physical. I like to make the defenders feel me. I’d rather hit them than them hit me. I definitely try to make them quit, that way by the fourth quarter, they don’t really want to tackle.”
He’s the definition of a better-with-a-lather runner, wearing down the defense until they don’t want to hit him anymore, and then finishing them off. Just look at his splits with even 12+ attempts:
This seems to play into grinder Brian Flores mindset of instilling toughness, and being the hammer not the nail. As such, he’s our preferred option of the two, despite Breida’s sizzling speed and sexier upside.
At minimum, Howard is in line for goal line work. Beat Joe Schad writes: “Howard is a powerful man and should be the top choice anywhere near the opposing goal line.”
The 1,000 rushing yard, 8-10 TD upside is very real here.
The Case for Matt Breida
Breida couldn’t be more of a polar opposite running back. If Howard is bringing the thunder, Breida is the obvious lightning.
Breida has elite, 92nd percentile speed, running a 4.42 40 yard dash. Pair that with a 99th percentile burst score of 138.4 and all Breida needs is an opening and he is off to the races.
This was fully evident with Breida logging the fastest MPH (22.3) speed in the entire NFL on an 83 yard TD run.
While Breida profiles as a better pass catcher than Howard, he still has never averaged more than two receptions per game. How much of his sporadic usage in San Francisco can be blamed on former play caller, Kyle Shanahan? Either way, Breida has still proven he can be explosive with the ball in his hands.
Over his three seasons in the NFL, Breida has recorded:
645 total yards and three touchdowns on 121 touches in 2017 (5.33 YPT).
1,075 total yards and five touchdowns on 180 touches in 2018 (5.97 YPT)
743 total yards and two touchdowns on 145 touches in 2019 (5.12 YPT).
The efficiency can’t be argued. The volume will be the question.
2017 and 2019 saw Breida serve largely as a change-of-pace back getting sporadic volume. This doesn’t mean he’s incapable of a larger load. However, in 2018, Breida started 13 games and put together an impressive season as the lead horse in Shanahan’s frustrating committee approach.
Just like Howard, when Breida is given volume, he takes full advantage.
Breida does a little more with his receiving work but clearly doesn’t run quite as well between the tackles as Howard. This doesn’t mean Breida can’t get up inside — he’s just more dangerous beating defenders to the edge and in space where he can turn on the jets.
Breida should profile well into the CJ Spiller / Bilal Powell style role. This could come with, by far, the most receiving work of his career, with those guys averaging 64.7 targets per game.
Ultimately, Breida has just as impressive burst, if not more, than either of those previous names. If he somehow garnered a similar 250 touches like Spiller, a matching Top-12 RB season wouldn’t be impossible.
Summary: Draft Both Dolphins RBs in Fantasy At Cost
In 14 years calling plays, Chan Gailey has had just one lead RB finish outside the Top-26 in FPPG, ever. Multiple times, he’s featured two Top-24 RBs, with plenty of Top-10 RBs to his name.
Yet, both Howard and Breida, with the fishy stink of 2019’s Dolphins still lingering, are falling to the RB38 and RB41 respectively. This is a different Dolphins team, one that’s set up for far more backfield production after offensive line and defensive overhauls, plus the ideal OC to squeeze the most from his backs.
No one likes a committee, but this is far overbaked into both RBs price tags. Both are likely to exceed the price, and each have Top-15 upside if either separates as a true horse.
Currently, The Wolf is +8 RB spots on both Howard and Breida in his 2020 Rankings and Big Board. This may feel unsexy, and is unlikely to draw “Ohhs” and “Ahhs.” Still, the Dolphins backfield is shaping up to be a prime source of fantasy value and upside.