Sunday, July 22, 2007

Training Camp Positional Preview: Running Backs

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming...

Up next in the training camp positional previews are the running backs.

What to expect: Miami is going to have to change one major facet of its running game in order to field a successful offense in 2007. No, Ronnie Brown does not need to be replaced as the starter. It's actually quite simple, or at least it seems simple. The offense needs to run the ball more! What a complicated strategy, huh? Yet poor coaching choices in the past (usually involving an abandonment of the ground game far too early in the game) coupled with the team falling behind early in games, and thus forcing the passing game to take over, have sapped the Miami offense of its bedrock for success. If Miami is going to have a legitimate chance to compete this season, the offense must be lead by Ronnie Brown's legs and not Trent Green's arm. Fortunately, Cam Cameron utilizes an offensive system that strongly emphasizes establishing a ground game. Former Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey claimed that to be his goal as well, although Miami only rushed the ball 402 times last season - the fourth lowest total in the NFL. Ronnie Brown has yet to rush 250 times in a season, which is absolutely ridiculous considering how integral a cog he is supposed to be in the offense. Miami averaged 25.1 carries per game last season, with Ronnie averaging 18.5 carries/game. The team average should rise, and in doing so Ronnie should end up around 21 carries/game. The RBs on the roster are primed to succeed, as long as they are given the opportunity. Ronnie Brown and Lorenzo Booker are a perfect pair of workhorse and finesse players. It will be key for the offense to establish its running game early and even more important to refrain from abandoning it even if the team is down early.

Here's a closer look at the individual running backs currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:

Ronnie Brown
With limited opportunity, Brown has shown that he can be a consistent ball-carrier. Although he somewhat lacks "big-play" potential (only 11 runs of 20+ yards in two seasons), he has the toughness and grinding effort to carry the ball at a solid 4.3 yards per carry. These numbers, of course, have come behind sub-standard offensive line play, and while that may not change this year, there is hope that the line will at least be somewhat improved. With some holes opened for him, there's little question that Brown has the tools to take advantage of them. He has a rare mix of size and speed, and Cameron's main goal on offense must be to utilize those qualities to the best of his abilities. Brown is also a fantastic pass-catcher, and he should see his receptions rise as Cameron tries to get him the ball in as many different ways as possible. The bottom line is this: Brown's level of success this year will ultimately come down to the play of the offensive line. If the line doesn't improve, expect another season of around 1,000 yards and a handful of TDs. If the line is able to come together and regularly open some holes, Brown could see his production skyrocket.

Lorenzo Booker
With Sammy Morris and Travis Minor gone, Booker immediately steps into the primary backup role behind Brown.
Booker is going to be a really interesting player to watch on offense since he is much more than just a RB. He can line up as a slot receiver, an outside receiver, catch passes out of the backfield, stay in as a blocker, catch screen passes, and return kicks. He's a swiss-army knife on the offensive side of the ball and the ability to move him around before the snap is going to confuse many defenses. He presents the opportunities for some great mismatches. As a RB, he's probably best suited as a change-of-pace type runner, and he perfectly complements Ronnie Brown's all-around ability with a quick burst of speed. He's a slasher and he excels in the open field, but he can't break tackles. That's why he'll be spread around so much to try and get him open. Booker is a smallish back who is better suited to being a role-player, at least at first. Whether it's being used on a toss-sweep or lining up as a slot receiver, Cameron has a bevy of ways to utilize his abilities. He will make an impact in some way for this offense as a rookie. My only concern is that if Brown is forced to miss a game or two during the season, I'm not confident that Booker can shoulder the starting load.

Jesse Chatman
Chatman's career has been somewhat of a roller-coaster to this point and there are big questions as to what he can bring to the team. From 2002-2004, he played under Cameron while with the Chargers. During that period, he had one very good season (2004) as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson, in which he rushed for 392 yards on 65 carries for an impressive 6.0 yard average. With only those limited carries, he managed to score 3 TDs and to break 5 runs of 20+ yards (in comparison, Ronnie Brown had 6 runs of 20+ yards on 241 attempts last season). So, the big-play potential is there. As a backup, he proved that he had the ability to make the most of his carries. But then he didn't play a single game in the 2005 season and was out of the NFL in 2006. It's unclear as to why he simply fell off the map. Weight issues have been a concern for him in the past, but he seems to have gotten those under control. Training camp is going to be a critical period for Chatman to prove that he is back to stay.

Patrick Cobbs
Cobbs entered the league as an undrafted free agent of the Patriots last season. During the preseason, he led the Patriots in rushing with 188 yards on 38 attempts (4.9 yards/carry) with 3 TDs. He also caught 7 passes for 115 yards and a TD. After being traded to the Steelers and subsequently waived, he landed on Miami's practice squad. He spent three games on the active roster playing on special teams, but he didn't record any stats.

Ray Perkins
Cameron is familiar with Perkins since he spent each of the last two seasons on the Chargers' practice squad. At only 205 pounds, Perkins fits the mold of scat-back. He's a long shot to make the roster, but his ties to Cameron certainly don't hurt.

Ricky Williams
Technically, Miami still retains the rights to Williams, even though I highly doubt he will ever play another down for the Dolphins even if he is reinstated come September or October. At this point, I would say his odds of ever playing again for any team are 50/50. The league may simply decide to not reinstate him. Even if they do reinstate him, there's a good chance that no team is willing to risk bringing him aboard. I list him here only because he represents some potential future asset. Should he be reinstated, Miami just might be able to trade him to another team. At this point, I'd be more than happy to get a seventh-round pick for him.


Here's my predicted depth chart:

1. Ronnie Brown
2. Lorenzo Booker
3. Jesse Chatman
4. Patrick Cobbs (practice squad)

Training camp battle to watch: Jesse Chatman vs. Patrick Cobbs for the third running back spot. Chatman will have to prove that he has returned to his 2004 form. If he can, he should win the job. Cobbs has some upside, but he may be well served by a second year on the practice squad. Then, if one of the other backs gets injured, he can get called up to the roster to fill their spot.

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