AFC East: Ben Tate

The Miami Dolphins hired former Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor last week. While the initial hype included Lazor’s experience working with quarterbacks and the passing game, a big question is whether he can improve Miami’s 26th-ranked rushing attack.
Lazor helped previously unknown Nick Foles go from a backup quarterback to a Pro Bowler this season. But a little-known stat is Philadelphia’s offense actually led the NFL in rushing last year under Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. Lazor certainly picked up some pointers from Kelly’s offense and the successful running game that he hopes to bring to Miami.

“When you come off of a season like we did where we were the leading rushing team in the NFL. We had the leading rusher. We had the highest-rated passer. We were able to be an explosive offense,” Lazor said last week. “Certainly a lot of things that led to that are going to have a great impact on what I believe works going forward.”

The Dolphins can do a better job in personnel this year to help Lazor. Miami relied on inexperienced former draft picks Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas to carry the load. In fact, the Dolphins only spent $2.412 million of their cap last year on running backs with Miller, Thomas and 2013 fifth-round pick Mike Gillislee. Miami ranked 30th in the NFL last season in money spent on running backs, according to the Roster Management System.

Miami has resources in both the draft and free agency to upgrade the running-back position. Big names in free agency include Ben Tate of the Houston Texans and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Potential draft targets include Carlos Hyde of Ohio State and James White of Wisconsin. White will play in the Senior Bowl this weekend.

Miller and Thomas were not the answer in 2013. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins upgrade at running with a new offense and offensive coordinator in 2014.
The Miami Dolphins have yet to hire their general manager. However, holes remain on their roster that needs to be fixed.

With that in mind, here are five players the Dolphins should consider in free agency:

1. Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans

Why: Tate is the top projected running back in free agency who is entering his prime, and Miami's running game was ranked 26th last season. Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas proved in 2013 that neither was starting material. Miller is better with fewer carries as a change-of-pace back. Thomas is entering the final year of his contract and is mostly a bust as a former second-round pick. Tate is a running back who can carry the load in Bill Lazor's new West Coast-style offense.

2. Branden Albert, LT, Kansas City Chiefs

Why: The Dolphins had a chance to land Albert from the Chiefs last season. Kansas City drafted rookie offensive tackle Eric Fisher with its top pick and was looking to ship Albert for a solid draft pick. However, former Miami general manager Jeff Ireland was unwilling. It was a decision that proved costly. The Dolphins set a team record for quarterback sacks allowed (58) while Albert went to another Pro Bowl. Miami's next general manager has a shot to bring Albert to Miami, but it won't come cheap in free agency.

3. Michael Oher, RT, Baltimore Ravens

Why: The Dolphins don't need just one offensive tackle. They need two. Both Tyson Clabo and Bryant McKinnie are unrestricted free agents, leaving major holes on the offensive line. A pairing of Albert and Oher would be a nice upgrade. Oher also is a close friend and college teammate of Dolphins No. 1 receiver Mike Wallace, who may do some friendly recruiting before March.

4. Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills

Why: Miami starting safety Chris Clemons is an unrestricted free agent who may not return. The Dolphins could use an upgrade at the position such as Byrd. He is a playmaker who can better pair with Reshad Jones. Byrd has made a lot of big plays against the Dolphins, and that probably doesn't go unnoticed with Miami's coaches.

5. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Why: Jones-Drew, 28, has some mileage and wear and tear. However, he rushed for 803 yards on an awful Jaguars team in 2013. The downside if Jones-Drew averaged 3.4 yards per carry last season. But Jones-Drew may still be capable of putting up numbers in the right situation. If Miami is interested, it might consider a short-term contract for Jones-Drew, who is approaching the age when running backs usually hit a wall.
The Miami Dolphins need to retool their 27th-ranked offense, and running back is one of the biggest questions on that side of the football.

Tailbacks Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas did not get the job done in 2013. Neither player stepped forward as the primary ball carrier, which provided many frustrating weekends for Dolphins fans.

Miller, who was expected to have a breakout year, rushed for 709 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas, a former second-round pick, rushed for 406 yards and four touchdowns. Both appear more suited for complementary roles off the bench, not as a full-time starter.

So where could the Dolphins look to upgrade? Here are some initial thoughts:
  • There will be some interesting names hitting the free-agent market at tailback. Two intriguing options who I think are potential fits for the Dolphins are Ben Tate of the Houston Texans and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both are powerful runners who can carry the load. Tate may be the most expensive option. He’s only 25 and doesn’t have much wear and tear. Jones-Drew will be 29 in March and is approaching the age where running backs often decline.
  • It’s always risky talking draft before the Senior Bowl and NFL combine. But let’s take a very early look at this year’s running back class, which isn’t very top heavy. The Dolphins hold the No. 19 overall pick, and Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde could be an early possibility. Miami has other needs, such as guard and offensive tackle. But picking at 19, the Dolphins must be flexible and consider various options. Miami also could look to the later rounds to add a running back.

Miami will have solid salary-cap room this offseason. So it would be surprising if the Dolphins stay put at running back with Miller and Thomas next season. Look for Miami to add another option into the mix to improve its ground game.