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April Blue Chips – Part I: Saquon Barkley

This season is a wrap – it was since the injury to Ryan Tannehill. Jay Cutler was a boom or bust signing and, ten games in, that ship has sailed towards the latter. While the Dolphins play out the string and try to uncover encouraging individual performances, it’s time to start thinking about April’s draft.

Miami figures to land a top 10 pick. With the remaining schedule ahead of the ‘Phins, drafting in the top five isn’t out of the question either. With two guaranteed losses to New England, road games in Kansas City and Buffalo and home tilts versus Denver and Buffalo, 6-10 would be something of an achievement.

This column operates under the assumption that Miami finishes 5-11. Doing so would likely fetch the Dolphins a pick no later than seventh.

Assuming a quarterback or two goes, the Dolphins may have their pick of the litter in regards to a few blue chip prospects.

North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb (edge), and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick (defensive back) will fill out part two and three of this series respectively – but this piece focuses on the Heisman hopeful from Happy Valley.

Running back Saquon Barkley is held in the same regard as eye-popping running backs before him. Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliot and Todd Gurley have all gone in the top 10 over the last three years. If Miami wants to select the Penn State all-purpose star, it might have to move up.

And Barkley is the type of player worthy of spending big on – for these three reasons:

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1.) His well-rounded skillset allows Adam Gase to disguise his play calls in any personnel grouping or formation.

2.) Ryan Tannehill is terrific in the play-action game.

3.) Gase prefers a bell cow back that can do anything, from any formation, on any down.

Let’s jump into that first bullet point.

Adam Gase made his desire for a primary back clear multiple times at the start of 2016. Jay Ajayi emerged as that guy, and rode a hot streak all the way to the pro-bowl. When a disconnect between Ajayi and Gase surfaced, the Dolphins dealt the 1,200-yard rusher for an underwhelming price.

The reasoning for the trade was Ajayi’s lack of scheme diversity. Miami was limited to an outside zone scheme when Ajayi was in the line-up. The Jets and Ravens were privy to Miami’s tendencies, cheated on these particular play calls, and frequently met Ajayi behind the line of scrimmage.

When Ajayi was approached about changing up the calls, he did what he does best – he sulked.

Couple that with Ajayi’s lack of skills in the passing game, and you’ve got a one dimensional, predictable running game.

Enter Saquon Barkley.

Barkley can run from the wildcat, the zone read, inside or outside zone. Barkley can execute a power running scheme, he can pass protect and, perhaps most importantly to Adam Gase, he’s a dynamic threat catching the football out of the backfield.

With these diverse traits in mind, the Dolphins would be able to show any personnel grouping pre-snap, and shift to something entirely different post snap. This creates the mismatches that every play-caller across the league desires. Running backs flexed out on linebackers, safeties forced to come down and cover the slot – this is where big plays are created.

The second reason is Barkley’s impact on Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill is one of the NFL’s best when it comes to throwing from play action. In last week’s ‘Tannehill Savior’ piece, I highlighted the former Aggies’ prowess as an RPO quarterback. Zone read, bootlegs, the play action game – all things that Tannehill does very well.

Tannehill ranked fourth in completion percentage on play-action in 2016.

The threat of a running back that can power it between the tackles, or run any route from any position on the field, the defense suddenly has a lot more to think about. Barkley’s greatest trait at Penn State might not be the big plays, the kick returns for touchdowns or anything he does tangibly. Rather, it might be his ability to put doubt in opposing linebacker’s minds. Generating false steps on misdirection work opens things up for his teammates.

It’s often said that a player’s greatness can be measured by his impact on the players around him. Barkley makes life a hell of a lot easier for Trace McSorely and the Penn State offense. There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be the same in Miami.

The last reason is a combination of the first two cases made for drafting Barkley. His scheme versatility and position flexibility allows him to stay on the field for more than 80% of his team’s snaps. This impacts the way defenses will defend Miami. The threat of a run between the tackles is just as likely as a flare pass to the flat on a third and short.

Drafting a player in the top 10 requires two things.

1.) He’s a blue chip prospect, and

2.) He rarely leaves the field.

Today’s running backs are built more as compliments to converse style. But, as Gase prefers, Barkley’s ability to literally do everything, makes him worthy of the organization’s most valuable resource – a first round draft pick.

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Miami doesn’t boast an elite offensive line the way the Dallas does. But the 2018 Dolphins could mimic the 2016 Cowboys. Reverting back to previous high-level production from the quarterback, and drafting a difference making factor-back early in the draft, would be two huge steps towards fixing a broken offense.

We just have hope that the 2017 Dolphins cooperate by continuing to lose games.

@WingfieldNFL

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Travis is a lifelong Dolphins fan that bases his writing on film study and analytical statistics. His passion for football is rivaled only by his passion for journalism. Specializing in all things Miami Dolphins and quarterback play, Travis also owns and operates Thirdand10.com, a QB grading site.

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