Up next in the training camp positional previews are the running backs and fullbacks.
What to expect: Miami's offense is predicated on a power running game and Ronnie Brown was one of (if not the) best running backs in the league last season until he went down with a season-ending injury. Ricky Williams' return to football was also quickly ended by injury. So Miami enters training camp with its top two runners still mending wounds from last season. A lot of pressure will be put on the running game to keep the offense competitive, so it will be important to spread the carries amongst an array of backs until Brown and Williams can prove that they are 100% healthy. It makes no sense to risk the long term health of either by running them too hard too 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:
Truthfully, the situation with Ronnie's ACL injury scares me. I know that he's said he is far ahead of schedule in his rehab, but these injuries take 12-18 months to fully heal. When the season begins, he'll have had only about 10 months of rehab time. It will take a big leap of faith to just assume that he will be ready to take a pounding from day one. What athlete doesn't say that they are right on or ahead of schedule? I'm not going to take his word for it, and the team doctors certainly can't. It would be a disaster for Ronnie to come back too soon and reinjure himself to the point where he is hampered next season or even for the rest of his career. As I will continually preach in these previews, this season is all about the future. Ronnie's health is a huge component of that. Hopefully, he will see reduced reps in training camp. Even if he is ready to go to start the season, which I think he will be, I don't want to see him carrying the ball 18 times a game. For at least the first month, Ricky Williams should probably see the lion's share of the workload. That plan may upset the people who only care about Ronnie compiling stats, but it's what's best for his health.
As far as when he does get on the field to play, I expect Brown to improve on his fantastic showing from a year ago. Of course, I don't expect him to pick up right where he left off, but by season's end he should be churning out yards and first downs in abundance. Brown is a multifaceted threat who can pound the ball between the tackles as well as catch the ball out of the backfield. His great hands were put to use last year on plenty of screen passes and dump-offs and I would expect that to continue. The bottom line is that Ronnie Brown is a young stud running back, but Miami fans should probably temper their expectations of him this season, at least in the beginning as he gets his legs back under him.
Love him or hate him, Ricky is back and according to OTA and minicamp reports he is looking like the best player on the field. In a way that's not so surprising given his pedigree and relatively fresh legs. Like I said above, Ricky is going to have an important job this season, as Miami looks to be adopting a true running back-by-committee approach which will save Ronnie and Ricky's legs throughout a whole season. He's going to need to prove he is fully recovered from his pectoral surgery, but that is much less worrisome than Ronnie's knee. Ricky's style is similar to Ronnie's - a bruiser with speed who has great catching ability. I don't think Ricky will match his 2005 numbers (the last time he split carries with Ronnie), but he should come pretty close.
Parmele was one of Miami's sixth-round draft picks this year, and already he's been handed the third string running back spot. Of course, he'll have to battle to keep that spot in training camp, but I suspect he'll be able to do that. He was a two year starter at Toledo, and during those final two seasons he amassed 2,642 rushing yards. He fits right in with the Parcells prototype for running backs as he is a solid 6'0", 222 lbs. of power. He's not going to outrun anyone to the sidelines, but Miami's offense is built more around running between the tackles anyway. He needs to work on his receiving skills, but I'm confident he could step up as the fulltime backup running back if the team decided to trade away Ricky before the trade deadline. Otherwise, look for Parmele to get a couple carries a game, particularly in short yardage situations.
Cobbs has basically made his living as a preseason warrior. He is always impressive in preseason games, and then when the season roles around he can never quite seem to earn significant playing time. He's a useful special teams player, but he only managed four special teams tackles last season. With Miami's revamped special teams units, he may not have a spot on this team anymore. His running abilities certainly don't warrant an automatic spot.
Mauia had an underwhelming season as a rookie, and I suspect some of that had to do with learning all the assignments. His offseason transgression in an alehouse parking lot certainly didn't help his standing with this new regime. He's young and has significant upside, but he needs to prove that he can be the powerful lead blocker most thought he would be coming out of college. Granted, he's only been playing fullback for a couple seaons now so he is likely just getting comfortable there. He's not a real threat to run the ball and he can't catch very well out of the backfield, making him one-dimensional as a blocker. In this offense, that's probably okay. In fact, this offense may rely more on two tight end sets for additional blocking rather than on a regular fullback. If that's the case, then Mauia's value takes a huge hit. Still, it's good to have a true fullback on the roster who can clear holes for the running backs, and Mauia is the best option for that kind of player at the moment.
Grigsby was transitioned from linebacker to fullback while in Kansas City, but I don't think he's ever shown the ability to be an above average blocker in the running game. That's why I think Mauia has a leg up on Grigsby for the fullback job. But Grigsby still deserves a spot on this team simply for his special teams skills. He's excellent as a blocker and wedge-buster on kick coverages and returns. Grigsby is a useful player to keep around since he will be a stud on special teams and can offer depth at fullback and even at linebacker if the team were to ever find itself in the kind of predicament that the Bengals did last year when they barely had three healthy linebackers.
Hilliard was another of Miami's sixth-round draft picks. He's an interesting hybrid halfback/fullback player. He offers yet another hefty, powerful between the tackles runner who can also block very well. At the NFL level, I see Hilliard being used more as a fullback than a halfback, but he could take on a Mike Alstott role as a short yardage specialist. Hilliard may find himself on the practice squad for a season, but if he shows that he can play special teams, I think he'll crack the 53-man roster.
Here's my predicted depth chart:
1. Ronnie Brown
2. Ricky Williams
3. Jalen Parmele
4. Lex Hilliard
1. Reagan Mauia
2. Boomer Grigsby
Training camp battle to watch: Mauia vs. Grigsby for the starting fullback position