We wrap up this Training Camp Battle series with a look at the final crucial training camp battle. In 2011, the Miami Dolphins decided to part ways with the Ronnie Brown-Ricky Williams tandem in favor of the Reggie Bush-Daniel Thomas combo. At that moment, the team gave up on its second and third all-time leading rushers for a rookie and a player considered a specialty player who had never rushed for more than 581 yards on a career high 157 carries. It was a risky move to give up proven players, regardless of age and talent level for unproven players. But in the end, it worked out alright for the Dolphins. Reggie Bush became a legitimate running back, ending with career high totals in attempts, yards, and touchdowns (216, 1086, 6). Thomas started out fast with 202 yards on 41 attempts (4.9 YPA average) in his first two games. However, injuries set him back and with the emergence of Bush, became relegated to backup duty.
Two years later, the Dolphins are facing a similar situation: replacing proven production at running back with unknowns. Unlike 2011 however, there is a little more excitement facing this overhaul. Daniel Thomas is still on the roster, but Miami has acquired two potentially explosive backs in consecutive drafts. Between the three backs, one is destined to emerge as the starter and lead back, but all of them should contribute in some fashion.
In an interview on NFL Network, quarterback Ryan Tannehill said that fellow 2012 draftee Lamar Miller was the starter. That, of course, was based on OTAs and minicamps. However, in an interview with the (other) Finsiders, Miller stated that he doesn't feel that he has been given the starting job and that the running back competition is wide open. With that said, let's look at each running back, their strengths, weaknesses, and how they stack up in this competition.
When the Dolphins drafted Miller in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, I literally laughed out loud in excitement. Here was a player that I (and many others) had considered a first or second round talent. After watching some college tape of him, I concluded that there was NO WAY the Dolphins would draft him, simply because we would use our first round pick on a QB. By the time Miami was on the clock, I had forgotten about him because I, like most fans, were focused on receivers at that point. So, when Miller's name was called, I laughed because what I didn't think would happen, happened.
Obviously, you can tell I'm a fan of Miller. Miller has all the tools to become a primetime running back in the NFL - speed, size, vision. Miller showed some of that in spurts his rookie year, finishing with 250 yards on 51 carries (4.9 YPA average). More importantly, he showed great decision making and vision whilst accumulating those yards. In an interview, Jeff Ireland lamented that he wished Miller had gotten on the field more and that he was excited to see what Miller could do this season.
However, Miller does have some questions about his game, the biggest of which is pass protection. Miller was not a great pass protector in college and that carried over into his rookie year. Lack of pass protection ability will keep a running back off the field on passing downs. Neither Bush nor Miller were good enough in pass-pro to stay on the field on third downs, meaning Daniel Thomas got third down duties. Reports from minicamps are that Miller has improved a great deal in this regard, meaning more playing time for Miller.
Another issue is work load. Miller fell in the draft due to a shoulder injury he played with in college. He should be perfectly healthy now, but he only got 51 carries as a rookie. The question is can Miller handle an increased workload, about 4 times as many touches? Will he hold up?
It seems that Miami Dolphins fans have to have someone to dislike. Every year, there is a player that fans want to rail against for whatever reason. Brian Hartline was the most recent guy until he went out and became the eighth Dolphins player ever to catch over 1000 yards. Since picking on Hartline was no longer in vogue, fans turned their focus to Thomas. In fact, you can ask most fans and they would probably say that Thomas will/should be cut immediately. Thomas was immediately going to be under scrutiny when Ireland traded up to get him in 2011. When fans want one player (Ryan Mallett) and get another (Thomas), they tend to be extra critical (despite the fact Mallett has never played a meaningful down in the NFL and is a terrible player for all we know).
As mentioned Thomas started out fast, and then went south. His career YPC average is a middling 3.5, and for a bigger back, never seemed to run with power. He struggled with nagging injuries his rookie year. When it seemed he was over that, he had concussion issues his second year, which forced him to miss games. He did seem to run with more power in 2012, but was inconsistent. One game, he'd run well (6.7 YPC against Seattle), and struggle the next (2.0 YPC against NE). He did find the end zone 4 times in 2012 and was used as the short yardage back. His lack of production and draft status makes him the number one target for fans and they want to see him out of here.
Unfortunately for them, it's not very likely that Thomas will see the door this season. For all the negatives I have mentioned, he does have some positives. His biggest asset is pass protection. For his perceived lack of physicality, Thomas was the most adept back on the team in pass blocking. That aspect hasn't changed and will allow Thomas to see the field on third downs. He is also a capable receiver out of the backfield. Thomas caught 15 passes for 156 yards last season. While he doesn't possess elite speed or elusiveness, he can make defenders miss in the open field. Thomas is still the biggest back on the roster at 6'1" and nearly 240 pounds. Thomas started running with more power as the 2012 season progressed, meaning he could see more short yardage and goal line carries. Thomas has said that he understands that he needs to produce and it appears that the light may finally be coming on for him.
Gillislee was another pick that I was excited about when his named was called. Gillislee was a backup most of his career at the University of Florida, never getting more than 58 attempts in a season. His senior year, Gillislee erupted with 244 carries, 1152 yards, and 10 TDs. He fell to the fifth round of the 2013 draft where the Dolphins quickly snapped him up. Gillislee will get work in as a backup unless he really impresses in training camp. He could challenge the other veteran backs for starting duties. Gillislee is a strong runner who fits the zone scheme well. He has good size and speed to be a threat in the NFL. One asset of his game is pass protection where he had success in college.
The negatives for Gillislee are that he only had one season of starting production in college. While that kept his mileage low, it brings into question whether he or not he will continue success at the next level. He also had other issues in his scouting report such as indecisiveness in the backfield. Overall, Gillislee is a promising later round pick that can push for playing time this season.
NFL teams usually keep 3 to 5 backs on the team, including a fullback. While there are some young players like Jonas Gray and Cameron Marshall who will try to make a name for themselves, it is all but inevitable that the three players I mentioned will make the team (sorry Daniel Thomas detractors). The question is who will win the starting job. I believe that Miller was drafted to be the running back for the future and I believe he will get the starting job. The starting job competition may be wide open, but I believe it will take a Herculean effort from Thomas or Gillislee to take the spot away from Miller. The second running back spot is more nebulous. Thomas should get the nod based on experience. He is a capable pass protector and knows the offense better. He also has the size to be a short yardage back and will be used in that regard to keep the wear and tear low on Miller. Gillislee will probably be used in a manner similar to Miller last season. He will get used sparingly until the coaches think he can handle more. His main value will come on special teams. If Gillislee picks up the offense quickly enough and can prove that he can handle pass protection duties capably, then he could slide into the second back spot before the season is over. Depending on how the fullback position plays out and how they list Marcus Thigpen (RB or WR), they could keep a fourth running back like Gray or Marshall (you can read how I think it plays out in my projected 53-man roster post coming up later this week).
The series is complete and I have highlighted the top positional battles that I see for the Miami Dolphins training camp in 2013. How these battles evolve will determine a lot for the Dolphins over this season and for seasons to come.