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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Drake could give Bills Ajayi nightmares

Consider Kenyan Drake's emergence for the Miami Dolphins this month as the umpteenth example of why running backs should not be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.

The Dolphins pulled the plug six weeks ago on Jay Ajayi, trading him to Philadelphia after a disappointing first half to the 2017 season, despite the fact he rushed for 1,272 yards last year.

As Bills fans know too well, Ajayi looked like Earl Campbell against Rex Ryan's defense last season, stampeding the Bills for 214 and 206 yards in two games.

Ajayi averaged just 3.4 yards a carry the first seven games, and Miami decided it could survive just as well with the tandem of Damien Williams, a former star at Oklahoma, and Drake, a former backup at Alabama.

Miami ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing yards but comes to Buffalo on a running roll. Drake rushed for 114 yards on New England Monday night and had 120 on Denver the week before. He's averaging 5.1 yards a carry since the Ajayi trade.

"Even when we don’t quite block it right, he makes it work," Miami coach Adam Gase said of Drake. "He has good vision. With speed like that, he just gets a little bit of green grass and seems to go a pretty good distance."

Drake never managed 100 carries in a season at Alabama because he played behind future NFL starters Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But Drake ran a 4.45 40-yard dash before the 2016 draft, and Miami picked him in the third round based on his explosive speed to the perimeter.

Drake catches the ball well (he had 79 yards in catches vs. the Pats), which is not an Ajayi strength.

"Jay, you kind of knew where he was going to hit it and you just start bulldozing and pushing piles," said Miami offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen. "This guy, it can go anywhere."

The questions on Drake entering the NFL were his ability to run between the tackles, ball security and durability.

The undrafted Williams has a powerfully-built body and also catches well. His running instincts and explosiveness were questioned coming out of college. No doubt the Dolphins hope he can be the thunder to Drake's lightning.

"When we traded Jay," Gase said, "we kind of put those two guys in a room and were like ‘Alright, both of you guys are going to get touches.’ And they knew how I wanted to use them."

For now, nobody in Miami is missing Ajayi, who is splitting time with LeGarrette Blount. And if the Dolphins decide they need more depth at the position, they likely can find a capable running back with the fourth-round pick they got for Ajayi.

The 30,000-foot view: The Dolphins have a good head coach in Gase. Their near-term future depends on whether Ryan Tannehill can come back next season and rise to the level of championship-contending quarterback. Tannehill, who blew out his knee in preseason, has top-10 caliber arm talent. But the jury on him will remain out as he enters his seventh NFL season in 2018. He's 37-40 as a starter with 106 TDs and 66 interceptions.

Many Bills fans don't have a high opinion of him because he's 3-6 vs. Buffalo. His deep accuracy is a bit of a question. Does he make enough special plays under pressure? The Dolphins have quality skill-position talent in place. They're in the bottom five in terms of least cap space available for 2018, so the defense will have to largely improve from within. That's possible. But their playoff viability next year rests with Tannehill. His contract runs through 2020, and Miami must see if he can elevate in 2018. Is Tannehill a modern version of Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Plummer? Or can he be better than that, a Tony Romo? I think the latter still could happen.

Game-breaker: The Dolphins' best receiver is Jarvis Landry, who ranks tied for second in the NFL in catches with 88. But the game-breaking deep threat is Kenny Stills, who has 50 catches for a 15.0-yard average. Stills has Lee Evans speed. He ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash coming out of Oklahoma in 2013. Stills was a steal in the fifth round for the New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins then stole him away in a 2015 trade with New Orleans, which had a surplus of receivers. (The Saints got since discarded linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.) Stills has 14 catches of 20-plus yards this season, tied for 10th most. The Dolphins like to run crisscrosses downfield with him to break him free.

Weak link: Middle linebacker. The Dolphins drafted Raekwon McMillan in the second round with the intention of starting him at the mike position. He blew his knee out covering a punt in the first preseason game. Undrafted Mike Hull started the first three games. Rey Maualuga was the MLB the next six but then he was released after getting arrested for battery outside a nightclub. Miami has turned to Chase Allen, an undrafted rookie from Southern Illinois. Look for the Bills to test him.

Miami's outside linebackers aren't great, either. Ex-Bill Kiko Alonso has been exploited in pass coverage on the weak side and is not stout. Strong-side veteran Lawrence Timmons, 31, is more physical but has slipped since his tenure in Pittsburgh. Miami got steamrolled on the ground in losses to Baltimore, Carolina and New England the past seven weeks.

Stat for the road: The NFL seems to like sending Miami to Buffalo in the cold. In the 20 years from 1980 to '99, the Dolphins played in Buffalo after Thanksgiving only three times. In the last 17 years, they've come post-Thanksgiving 11 times. Miami is 6-5 in those games. Snow games make for good television viewing. This is the fifth time in the last seven years the Bills have played three home games after Dec. 1. That never happened once in the 1990s, partly because the NFL season started on Labor Day weekend back then.

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