With no running back under contract for '23, Dolphins have key decisions to make

MIAMI – When the Miami Dolphins hired then-San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel as their new coach last offseason, the expectation was for the NFL’s third-worst run game to improve.

It did — gaining an average of 99.2 rushing yards per game compared to 92.2 in 2021. But it’s not the type of improvement Dolphins fans hoped for, considering McDaniel’s previous role coaching one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL over the past five seasons.

Miami certainly did its best 49ers impression, bringing in former San Francisco running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. The tandem started off promising, but the run game as a whole faltered down the stretch.

Neither Mostert nor Wilson is under contract for next season. In fact, the Dolphins don’t have any running back under contract entering 2023, but there are options.

Familiar faces

In his second game with the Dolphins, following a Week 9 trade from San Francisco, Wilson recorded 119 total yards in a blowout win over the Cleveland Browns.

It was the type of performance Miami hoped would rejuvenate its run game.

“It made me so happy, because I couldn’t articulate it,” McDaniel said at the time, referring to telling his players what to expect from Wilson. “I was like, ‘Just wait, guys. Just wait.’”

After trading for Wilson, the Dolphins ranked 9th in the NFL in yards after first contact through the remainder of the regular season.

But quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion issues, and poor offensive play as a whole down the stretch, impacted the Dolphins’ efficiency on the ground.

There is reason to believe Mostert and Wilson can get the job done with Tagovailoa healthy — and for a far cheaper price than some of the bigger-name players on the market.

Miami could realistically bring both players back on one-year deals, shore up its offensive line and spend draft capital on a running back to fill out the room, plus add via undrafted free agents.

The pipe dreams

If the Dolphins want to make a splash at running back, this is the year to do it — if they can find the money. Right now, they’re projected at $12.7 million over the cap, but they can get back under it with a series of restructures and other roster moves.

Saquon Barkley is the biggest name on the market, but the New York Giants aren’t likely to let him walk. The same goes for Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, who led the NFL in rushing yards this season.

Both players are likely to command more than $13 million per season, which would qualify as a short-sighted decision for a Dolphins team not yet bogged down by a franchise-quarterback contract. They could get away with it in the short-term, but it could backfire if they don’t win a Super Bowl while Tagovailoa is under his rookie deal.

The realistic options

The Carolina Panthers were the fourth-best rushing team in the NFL from Weeks 7 to 18, after trading superstar running back Christian McCaffrey. Why? Because D'Onta Foreman became the league’s third-leading rusher during that span after taking over as the team’s starter. He tore an Achilles as a rookie in 2017 but has been relatively healthy since, spending two seasons behind Derrick Henry in Tennessee. He’s produced when given the opportunity, as the Dolphins found out in 2021 when he ran for 132 yards on 26 carries in a blowout Titans win.

Kareem Hunt wanted out of Cleveland prior to the 2022 season, but his trade request was denied. Instead, he put together a relatively unproductive fourth season with the Browns as starter Nick Chubb remained healthy for all 17 games. Hunt has proven capable of high-level play when called upon to carry the workload and is effective as a runner and receiver.

Rashaad Penny is an interesting candidate because of his injury history. He tore an ACL in 2019 and broke a leg in 2022, with a handful of soft tissue injuries suffered in between. That’s the bad news. But he’s an undeniably talented runner when healthy. From Week 14 of the 2021 season to Week 5 of the 2022 season, he led the NFL in rushing yards and ranked second in yards per rush behind Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

The former first-round pick is all but finished in Seattle after the emergence of Seahawks rookie Kenneth Walker III, and the Dolphins haven’t hesitated to add players with injury concerns over the past year.