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Scouting Jets running back Kalen Ballage

Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Jets signed former Miami Dolphins running back Kalen Ballage so we’re going to take an in-depth look at his strengths and weaknesses.

The 24-year old is listed at 6’2” and 231 pounds and was a fourth round pick out of Arizona State in 2018. He spent his first two seasons in Miami, rushing for 326 yards and four touchdowns and adding 23 pass receptions.

Background

Ballage was a four-star recruit and ranked as the sixth best athlete in the country by Rivals after an impressive high school career in Colorado. He was recruited to Arizona State where in 2014.

Although he registered 126 yards and three touchdowns in a reserve role, Ballage only averaged three yards per carry in his freshman year. He added six catches and also contributed on special teams.

As a sophomore, Ballage averaged a career-best 5.2 yards per carry and had the first two hundred-yard games of his career. He ended up with 653 yards and four touchdowns and added 12 catches.

In the second game of his junior year, Ballage broke out with a spectacular performance against Texas Tech as he racked up almost 200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. The rest of his rushing production for the season was somewhat underwhelming, although he ended up second in the Pac-12 with 14 rushing touchdowns and had his best season as a pass catcher with 44 receptions for 469 yards.

As a senior, Ballage ended up with a career best 669 yards on a career-high 157 carries. He rushed for over 100 yards in a win over Oregon State in November; his first 100-yard game in over 14 months.

After an impressive week at the senior bowl and at the scouting combine, the Dolphins selected Ballage in the fourth round of the 2018 draft but he missed the first few games of his rookie year after a preseason injury.

He entered week 10 with just 11 rushing yards on eight carries, but took the first play of the second half 75 yards for a touchdown in that week’s game against Minnesota, finishing up with 123 yards on 12 carries in a breakout performance. However, he didn’t get many more chances over the rest of the season and ended up with 191 rushing yards and nine catches.

In 2019, Ballage struggled badly, averaging just two yards per carry, although he did rush for three touchdowns and caught 14 passes.

The Jets initially traded a conditional pick for Ballage last month but he reverted to the Dolphins after failing his physical and was released with an injury settlement, so they re-signed him earlier this week.

Now let’s take a look at what Ballage brings to the table, divided into categories.

Measurables/Athleticism

Ballage has good size and posted some excellent workout numbers with a 4.46 40-yard dash, 122-inch vertical and 6.91 three-cone drill at the scouting combine.

His other results were disappointing in comparison but then he improved on his vertical (37 inches) and short shuttle (4.20) at his pro day.

He only managed to post 15 bench press reps at the combine and didn’t attempt to improve upon that at his pro day.

Usage

While mostly employed as a conventional running back with the Dolphins, he has been used elsewhere at times having shown he could play in a more versatile role with the Sun Devils beginning in 2016. That season, Ballage saw action out wide, in the slot, as an h-back and also as a wildcat quarterback and has been used similarly by the Dolphins, albeit not very often.

He completed three of four passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in that wildcat quarterback role and has taken some snaps in the same role with Miami.

Running ability

Ballage is regarded as a back with good speed and power. He’s showcased that speed at the combine and also at the senior bowl where he was clocked at 19.4 miles per hour in game action, which was faster than every other running back prospect that participated.

This speed translated to the field on his long touchdown against the Vikings, on which he was clocked at 21.9 miles per hour and streaked away from defensive backs including Mackensie Alexander, who ran a 4.47 at his pro day.

Unfortunately, he’s not broken into the open field very often at the NFL level, although he had several long runs in college. A high percentage of Ballage’s runs have been stuffed close to the line of scrimmage.

While this can be attributed to the Dolphins’ poor offensive line play, that’s not the only reason. Ballage’s poor vision, which we’ll discuss more below, is a major factor, as is the fact that he’s often too upright which makes him slow to change direction and incapable of cutting back effectively or bouncing a run outside.

The fact that he runs upright, which put him at a greater risk of injury since he’s a bigger back, also prevents him from being able to display his power and generate yards after contact unless he can build up a head of steam as he does here.

He’s yet to showcase much in the way of elusiveness at this level either, although he showed off some quick feet on this run.

Ballage’s ball security has generally been good, although he had one regular season fumble and two in preseason with Miami. In his college career, he only had three fumbles, all of which were in 2016 when he played a lot of wildcat for the first time and may therefore have included some fumbled snaps or exchanges.

Despite being a bigger back, Ballage perhaps cannot be relied upon to carry a heavy workload. He only surpassed 20 carries once in his entire college career and hasn’t been close to that at the NFL level.

Short yardage

Ballage has had mixed results as a short yardage runner with the Dolphins, although all three of his touchdown runs last season came from inside the three. He does well to lower his head and drive into the end zone through contact on this play.

Pass catching

Ballage showed some good pass catching ability out of the backfield in 2016 as he caught eight passes from the slot, leaked downfield for a couple of big plays, including one for a touchdown on a gadget play and showed an ability to run good routes from the backfield.

However, he wasn’t as productive in his other three seasons where he averaged just 5.7 yards per catch and has been similarly ineffective at the NFL level with just 5.2 yards per catch and six first downs on his 23 receptions.

Part of the problem has been his inconsistent hands as he’s had some bad concentration drops at the NFL level and has rarely seemed to catch the ball cleanly despite having shown in the past that he’s capable of doing so.

In practice, Ballage has showcased those abilities too, although so far in his career he’s been a player that has a tendency to practice well but then struggle in games. For example, in a training camp scrimmage against the Bucs, he ran for a 70-yard touchdown and then caught a touchdown pass.

Pass catching seems to be an area where Ballage should have contributed more but, for whatever reason, lost his confidence.

Blocking

Ballage is a player who is comfortable in pass protection, having had plenty of experience of staying in to block with the Sun Devils. He gave up just two sacks in his college career and was mostly effective in that role last season, although he did give up this sack as a rookie.

Special Teams

Adam Gase has already said that one way Ballage can help the Jets is by contributing on special teams. He has plenty of return game experience, averaging 22.1 yards per return at Arizona State and, although he didn’t score a touchdown, he did set one up with a 96-yard return in his freshman year.

Ballage has also rushed punts and ran for a first down on a fake punt which saw the Dolphins shift into a conventional formation and send Ballage in motion so he could catch the direct snap on a jet sweep action.

One other role where could help the Jets is as a gunner on the punt coverage unit. Ballage played this role extensively as a rookie and recorded four tackles. On this impressive play, he beat a double team by releasing inside and the pursued the return man across the field, although unfortunately he was flagged for a horse collar tackle.

Instincts

Ballage’s instincts are a concern. He entered the league with a reputation as someone that had poor vision and that seems to be a factor in his low yards per carry average; maybe even the main factor.

Reviewing his film shows that he is slow to process and this, coupled with his inability to make quick and effective cuts often lead to him being bottled up or missing chances to hit a hole.

Interestingly, when he takes a direct snap, he seems to be more patient and more comfortable making his reads. This suggests there must be a technical reason for his struggles to make reads on conventional carries and the Jets will no doubt hope it’s correctable.

While his on-field discipline has been good, Ballage still has a tendency to make mental errors. On one play in training camp where Ballage’s missed assignment led to a sack, Ryan Tannehill threw him out of the huddle, a decision Gase later endorsed. Ballage has also had some plays where he’s ended up running the wrong way on a play or not been expecting the ball.

Attitude

Ballage is a high character individual who works extremely hard. He impressed his coaches at Arizona State with his maturity and by becoming more of a vocal leader in his senior year and his teammates voted him as a captain. One example of his humility was when he brought his offensive line with him to the postgame presser following his record-setting performance against Texas Tech.

None of this is surprising to learn, given how the Jets targeted Ballage in spite of his disappointing production so far in his career. Brian Flores also praised his work ethic and said the team was confident his production would eventually improve because of this, although he got injured a few weeks later and missed the rest of the season.

He did, however, rub some people the wrong way when he was asked about his poor production and stated that he had “nothing to prove”.

Injuries

One of the reasons Ballage’s career got off to a bit of a slow start was that he suffered a concussion in preseason as a rookie and missed the next few games.

He’s had a few healthy scratches in his first two years, but most of his eight missed games were injury related. He was placed on injured reserve at the end of last year and missed the end of the season due to an Achilles sprain.

His failed physical after the abandoned trade to the Jets was due to a hamstring pull but he has since passed a physical and practiced for the first time on Wednesday.

Ballage didn’t have many injury issues in college, other than a minor knee sprain which didn’t cause him to miss any games.

Scheme Fit

Ballage is obviously considered a good fit for Gase’s system because Miami drafted him for that purpose in Gase’s final year as a head coach and now he’s gone out of his way to re-acquire him.

His 1.8 yards per carry average last season suggests he struggled to adapt to Miami’s new system, although if you take out the 75-yard touchdown, he only averaged 3.3 yards per carry in Gase’s offense too. Both teams had bad offensive lines though.

In addition to Gase, Ballage is familiar with a few other coaches on the staff from Miami, including offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. He’s also played with David Fales and Frank Gore, who he looked up to as a rookie.

Conclusions

There’s no escaping the fact that Ballage has had a disappointing career so far. Other than that one game against the Vikings, in which most of his yardage came on one play, his production has been below that of a replacement level player.

He should be more comfortable now he’s back in Gase’s system and the Jets should focus on getting him to make quicker reads if they want him to have any chance of realizing his full potential.

With the Jets, he could contribute on special teams and in the passing game - both as a blocker and receiver - and there’s a chance he could get some early opportunities with Le’Veon Bell injured.

Ultimately, he comes extremely cheap and whether or not he contributes is unlikely to make or break the Jets’ season. The Jets will hope they can re-mold him into a useful piece and wouldn’t have made the move if they weren’t confident in doing so.