Fantasy Football Take-Shopping: How will the Dolphins running back rotation play out?

It’s June. No one has nor does anyone need “the answers to the test” yet — to use a silly analogy that somehow makes the very unserious pursuit of understanding and projecting NFL teams and players seem like some profound quest. We’re writing thoughts in pencil and merely take-shopping, for now.

That makes for a perfect backdrop to discuss one of the most difficult puzzles to solve with the current, limited offseason information we have: How will the Dolphins running back rotation play out?

Miami was one of the best environments for running back production last season. The team was fifth in rushing EPA and success rate. I often argued last offseason that Mike McDaniel’s counterpunch in Year 2 of his offensive installation in Miami would lie with a new emphasis on the run game. That was the case, and McDaniel found immense success in leaning into the Dolphins' ground game. It was a source of sustained production to keep the offense on schedule and provided field-flipping big plays. According to Fantasy Points Data, Miami ranked third in explosive rushing rate and led the league with 6.16 yards-per-carry on zone concept runs.

This strategic shift in the Dolphins' offensive approach had a significant impact on the fantasy success of the running backs, making them valuable assets.

Raheem Mostert was a revelation as a late-round pick, finishing the year as the RB2 behind only Christian McCaffrey. Rookie De’Von Achane wasn’t a full-season option like Mostert but provided a similar upside. He was the RB4 in per-game scoring last season and was one of the better waiver-wire adds of the campaign following his outrageous Week 3 performance against Denver (233 yards from scrimmage with four total touchdowns).

As we turn the page to 2024, there are many variables to consider when analyzing this backfield. For starters, the interior offensive line took some hits in the offseason and the resource-strapped Dolphins didn’t make significant moves to address it. They actually spent a draft pick to add yet another speedy name to this rotation in Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright. Somewhat quietly, the defense could take a step back with the departure of Vic Fangio and Christian Wilkins, in conjunction with questions regarding the health of their edge rushers, after the unit helped provide some quality run-first scripts in the mid-point of the season.

All of this is important to weigh as we discuss each Dolphins running back for fantasy this season. That’s especially the case when the current best-ball ADP sorts these players out aggressively in a way that doesn’t at all reflect how last season's results played out.

Any sort of De’Von Achane analysis from a fantasy perspective will often include the “per game” caveat I noted above. The rookie appeared in 11 games and only started four. From Weeks 6 to 12, he played a grand total of three snaps. His first season was full of injuries that stalled out his progress.

When Achane is on the field, there’s no question he’s one of the more dynamic weapons in the game.

Achane led the SEC in 2022 in yards per carry, which immediately translated to his first season in the league. His 7.8 yards per carry is the first time a running back averaged north of seven while handling 100-plus carries since 1934. Yards per carry can be noisy, but any stat that involves explosive rushing ability will have Achane as one of if not the highest-ranked back.

There’s no denying Achane is a big-play machine. He might be one of the most dangerous backs in the league given his speed, agility and Miami’s dynamic rushing ecosystem. If early best-ball ADP is any indication, you’ll be asked to pay up for that ability this season. Achane goes off the board as the RB7 and 20th overall player, which is … aggressive.

The pros are easy to see for Achane, but what has me a little bit stuck on that ADP is that the cons are pretty easy to point out. At 5-foot-9 and sub 190 pounds, Achane doesn’t profile as a traditional lead back. He registered just two games last year with 15-plus carries, and both were blowout wins (vs. Denver and Washington). Of course, Achane is so dynamic that he can put up outrageous results on 11 or 12 touches like he did in Week 4 against Buffalo in Week 4 (120 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns) or Week 5 against the Giants (156 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown) but those shouldn’t be all you remember. After putting up a significant number in that Week 13 win over Washington, Achane had a three-week stretch where averaged just under 11 touches per game and never cleared 7.2 fantasy points.

Unless his role changes in Year 2, those floor performances will be ever-present in Achane’s range of outcomes. That’s a bit more volatility than many will want from their Round 2 selection.

That role change will be a key variable. Sure, we can hang our hat on Achane’s unique explosive rushing ability creating high efficiency every season when taking the plunge, but adding more touches to his workload should be a given at his ADP. It sounds like the Dolphins have a clear plan for that, as well. David Furones of the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that the two goals given to Achane this summer were to “get stronger to better withstand the hits taken in the NFL and improve on his route-running to get the ball more often in the passing game.”

That second one is appealing to me. Miami has a pair of star receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle but something of a target vacuum beyond them. Running backs operating in the slot or out wide is often an OTA-driven mirage that doesn’t play out in the real games, but Mike McDaniel is creative enough to make this a rare exception. And in reality, we’re only looking for Achane to average four to five catches per game mixed with his explosive rushing ability to make the calculations work out.

Achane doesn’t profile as the typical workhorse back that goes in Round 2 of fantasy drafts and will always bring inherent risk. If he can stay healthy and get a few more touches, ideally in the passing game, to his projection, his unique profile can turn into a positive rather than a problem.

Raheem Mostert was one of the best picks you could make in drafts last year. He wasn’t a “per game” merchant or someone who just got boosted in the overall scoring because of some big-time run he went on. Mostert was the lead back for a great offense and delivered in every stretch of the season. This was primarily because he was a force to be reckoned with in the scoring area.

He led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns, 13 of which occurred inside the 10-yard line, despite ranking outside the top-18 backs in red zone rushing share. As a team, Miami had 19 rushing to 14 passing touchdowns inside the 10-yard line. The ground game was their finisher last season, and Mostert often delivered the final blow.

Mostert won’t run that hot in the touchdown column again but he also won’t just fade out of this offense. He’s been excellent in this system over multiple seasons and Miami invested in him with a contract. With all the discussion we just went over around Achane not profiling as a true feature back, Mostert is a near lock to maintain a significant share of the team’s carries even if he cedes some work to Achane.

With all that in mind, his early best ball ADP of 93rd overall and RB30 is rather mystifying. That draft positioning essentially implies he will get hurt. He has a long injury history and plays the most injury-cursed position in the sport, so it’s possible, but that ADP paints it as a certainty. Any time the community is dead-set on something that’s almost impossible to predict, it’s usually a good idea to take the opposite stand.

At that depressed ADP, no one is asking you to believe Mostert will have a season that remotely resembles 2023. It’s almost wholly ruling out Mostert as a critical, useful player for the 2024 Dolphins and one who we know has a massive contingent upside if Achane misses time. That seems foolish.

The Dolphins threw a bit of a wrench into this equation when they couldn’t resist the shiny object and plucked another speedy back on Day 3 of the NFL Draft. Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright is a bit of project when it comes to all the nuances of playing running back in a true pro-style offense but he’s the type of athlete this team loves. He brings another layer of juice at 210 pounds with 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash. He looks like an ideal candidate to be the long-term replacement for Raheem Mostert once he’s developed. That “long-term” part is the sticking point.

While talented, Wright may not be ready to rock as a rookie. He comes from a wide-open Tennessee offense whose spread formations and huge gap runs simply don’t map to the league. He’ll have to do a ton of work to get his vision and cutback ability up to NFL speed and that may take some time, forcing a red-shirt season.

Early best-ball drafters disagree entirely with that assessment, as Wright is going at RB47 right now. I see the upside in this offense but I think it’s wild he’s a mere 17 position spots behind a proven veteran coming off a dynamic season on this same team.

If Wright is valuable at all in fantasy this season, one or possibly both Mostert and Achane didn’t deliver the season we expected. Otherwise, I have a hard time imagining this rookie carving out a big enough role to siphon work from his teammates on an offensive unit that isn’t going to skew that conservative in its run/pass ratio.