Dolphins' backfield will be more than the Kenyan Drake show in 2019

Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake had 53 catches for 477 yards last season to supplement his 535 rushing yards on 120 carries. Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

Brian Flores watched Kenyan Drake zigzag across the right side of the field and outrun a stumbling Rob Gronkowski for the winning touchdown in what came to be known as the Miami Miracle. It was a play that, in Flores' final moment in Miami as a New England Patriots assistant, isn't easily forgotten.

"I would say that my last memory here wasn't a great one," the new Miami Dolphins coach said of that Dec. 9 game during his introductory news conference in February.

Flores now has Drake on his side, and the expectation is that the running back out of Alabama will be a key cog of the new-look Dolphins' offense.

Last season was supposed to be Drake's big splash on the scene. His biggest competition came from a 35-year-old Frank Gore, whom many considered to be near the end of his career. But Gore wasn't finished yet, and coach Adam Gase fell in love with his consistency and ability to maximize yardage, compared to Drake's boom-or-bust style. Drake became option 1B in a two-headed backfield.

Drake, headed into the fourth year of his contract, now has another open path to a breakout season. It might be his final chance in Miami.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't on my mind," Drake said of free agency being on the horizon. He admitted that he is trying to prove that he can be a three-down back. "I can only look myself in the mirror and say, I gave my best, and my best was what I put out here."

First-time playcaller Chad O'Shea will lead Miami's new offensive staff, and as a former Patriots assistant, he's well versed in the liberal and creative use of both running backs and receivers.

Drake said he watched film on Patriots running back James White this offseason and noticed how often quarterback Tom Brady got the ball to him on checkdowns and outlet passes. O'Shea said fans should expect running backs to be a big part of the passing game in his offense. That element excites Drake because one of his best assets is being a playmaker as a receiver.

"You can make a person miss and take it the distance any time," said Drake, who had 53 catches for 477 yards last season to supplement his 535 rushing yards on 120 carries. "To be able to watch film like that in terms of getting out into the defense and figuring out a way to get into the zone and use leverage to my advantage to free up space for me to make plays."

Drake won't be handed the starting job. Gore is gone, but the 6-foot-2, 237-pound Kalen Ballage is ready to challenge Drake after the 2018 fourth-round pick spent most of his rookie season as a spectator. He had 191 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries.

"I'm a competitor. That's what I do. That's who I am," Ballage said. "It doesn't really matter who had the most playing time in the past or anything like that. I'm going forward and ready to do my thing."

Dolphins running backs coach Eric Studesville is one of the NFL's best at maximizing talent. He often discusses the potential of Drake and Ballage, and both have flashed it to degrees.

The big question remains: Can one of them prove himself as an NFL workhorse back?

Drake wants to be one, but he hasn't been the man in a backfield since high school and hasn't eclipsed 133 carries in an NFL season. Drake has that see-you-later speed and a rare ability to make plays in the open field, yet concerns persist about his ability to keep the offense on track and avoid injuries.

Ballage's combination of size, athleticism and speed is the best on the roster, and Studesville praises his work ethic and personality. However, the coach says Ballage "still has a lot of growth to do as far as seeing and recognizing things." How he turns that potential into production will have a big impact on his Year 2 reps.

ESPN's new fantasy football rankings have Drake at No. 27 among running backs and Ballage at No. 58. I would make that gap a little smaller by lifting Ballage into the top 50 as a strong sleeper pick based on his upside and the likelihood that Miami uses both backs more frequently. Drake is a safe bet as an RB3/flex.

Miami added a smashmouth fullback -- seventh-round pick Chandler Cox -- in another sign that O'Shea's scheme will be more reliant on the running game than Miami's offense was under Gase. That should mean more reps for Drake, Ballage and maybe even seventh-round pick Myles Gaskin.

Miami had 371 rushes last season, eighth-fewest in the NFL. New England finished third with 478 carries. The 2019 Dolphins could enter the 400-carry range, as they will want to take pressure off quarterbacks Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick and an iffy-at-best offensive line.

My early guess on how touches will be distributed is a 50/35/15 percentage split among Drake, Ballage and the rest of the backs, in that order.

Ballage averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season in a limited workload (36 carries, nine receptions) that came primarily in the final three games of the season. He also showed a propensity for big plays, such as his 75-yard touchdown at Minnesota after Gore suffered a season-ending foot injury.

"I'm tired of that run -- honestly. ... I just want to move forward," Ballage said. "Having a chance to have Frank here and teach me a lot of things obviously was great for me. But now, hopefully I'll get more playing time and be able to show what I can do."

Let the competition begin.