Fantasy Football: Will Kenyan Drake Be the Miami Dolphins' Workhorse Back in 2018?
Kenyan Drake lit the fantasy world on fire at the end of the 2017 season.
From Week 12 to 16, he was a force, averaging 23.8 opportunities (carries plus targets) per game. In Week 13, Drake's Pro Football Focus grade was the highest single-game mark for any running back during the season. On a broader note, Drake led the NFL in yards after contact per attempt with 4.3.
With his fantastic finish to 2017 -- and a full year without Jay Ajayi ahead -- Drake has settled in as the 37th overall player off the board in this year's early drafts. And, according to Fantasy Pros, he's ranked as the 17th back, on average, in 12-team PPR drafts.
It's clear that many fantasy footballers are counting on Drake to see a similar workload to the one he saw down the stretch a year ago. But will he be a bell-cow type of back in 2018, or should we be tempering expectations?
Lack of Competition
With the Ajayi trade to the Philadelphia Eagles in the middle of 2017 and the departure of Damien Williams at the end of the season, the Miami Dolphins had no choice but to bring in running back help. The signing of Frank Gore brings leadership and a hard-working mentality -- something head coach Adam Gase has been actively seeking this offseason -- to the Dolphins' rather inexperienced locker room. They also drafted Kalen Ballage in the fourth round this year, and while he seems to profile as a big bruising running back at 6'3" and 230 pounds, he is actually an accomplished pass catcher, notching 82 catches in college and 44 in his final season at Arizona State.
Despite these additions, it is difficult to project either Ballage or Gore being a significant threat to Drake's workload. Gore is now sitting at 3,226 carries in his career. The last time that a 35-year-old running back carried the ball more than 150 times was Emmitt Smith in 2004, and before that, it was Marcus Allen in 1996.
Gore also lacks the big-play potential that Drake has. In 2016, Drake had 7 carries and 1 reception (8 touches) totaling 20 yards or more on 181 opportunities. Gore had 118 more opportunities than Drake but had only 1 run and 2 receptions (3 touches) of more than 20 yards. Drake is also the highest-drafted running back that Gore has played with since Carlos Hyde with the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 (when Gore was 31).
As for Ballage, he was a complementary piece to Demario Richard at Arizona State. Richard went undrafted in the 2018 draft, and if Ballage couldn't take the opportunity away from an undrafted talent, what will compel him to take many carries and targets away from Drake? The fourth round is decent draft capital, but Ballage was the team's second pick in the fourth behind a blocking tight end. So was grabbing him that much of a priority? Probably not enough to steal meaningful carries from Drake.
Competition for touches is one thing, but coaching tendencies are also something to examine in a situation like this. For bell cows, 17 touches per game is a nice cutoff because it equates to 272 touches on the season. This would be good for 13th-most in 2017 or right around the RB1/RB2 range in terms of volume.
Before becoming the Dolphins' head coach in 2016, Gase was an offensive coordinator for three years (2013 to 2014 with the Denver Broncos and 2015 with the Chicago Bears). Across the league in the last five years (with Gase as a coordinator or head coach), there has been about a 61.3 percent chance of a running back having 17 or more touches in a game (there have been 1,569 cases of a running back hitting this threshold and 2,560 team games through these five years). Under Gase, backs have hit that threshold in 66 percent (53/80) of games. And even if you look just at his head-coaching tenure with Miami, he has still exceeded the league average 62.5 percent (20/32) of the time.
If you break it down into wins and losses, things still look great. Gase has 47 wins as a coordinator and coach and has had a running back meet the threshold 79 percent of the time in a winning effort (compared to 77 percent for the league). In losses, the number is 48 percent for Gase -- 46 percent for the league -- in that time.
A Bleak Outlook
Unfortunately, this is where things start to turn south for Drake.
If you narrow the focus to only Gase's tenure as a head coach, then there is a drastic difference. In Gase's 16 wins, he had a running back touch the ball 17 or more times in 15 games. This is more than 94 percent of the time, drastically higher than the 77 percent for the league. And the really scary part is in only 5 of his 16 losses did a running back touch the ball more than 17 times. This is only 31 percent, much lower than the league total of 46.
Given that the Dolphins are hovering at about a six-win total, according to Westgate, the number of games that Drake touches the ball more than 17 times could be few and far between. This win total will also lead to more running-back work occurring in the passing game, something that Ballage did well with in college.
Ballage's 82 receptions in college are just a few shy of the 87 that Drake has had in his 4 college seasons and 2 NFL seasons combined. It's also worth noting that through college and the NFL, Drake has never carried the ball more than 133 times in a season (which he did last year). That's not to say that he can't carry the ball 200 times, but it does suggest that it's unlikely he does. There is just no proven history of him doing so and remaining effective with that type of volume.
Coming to Terms
Drake has a lot of positives going for him. He was one of the best running backs at the tail end of 2017. His competition is a 35-year-old veteran coming off of a terrible season and a rookie who was not a priority draft target for the team. He has a head coach who favors having a bell cow running back as much as -- if not more than -- the rest of the NFL.
However, Drake's downfall in 2018 is ultimately going to be his team. With a low projected win total and a coach who moves heavily away from using his running backs in losses, it is unlikely that Drake has very many workhorse type games. His ADP at the third-/fourth-round turn is a bit too steep.
With all that said, there are surprise teams each year. If you believe the Dolphins will surpass their win total, Drake could be a darkhorse to finish as a high-end RB2 or even an RB1 if things work out perfectly in his favor.