Miami Dolphins' running back Daniel Thomas has been disappointing in his brief time in the NFL. This 2011 second round pick has started only three games in as many years in the league and averages only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt.
Thomas, the former Kansas State standout, was sold as a big, physical, touchdown machine (30 in two years at KSU) who also had fluid enough body movements to make people miss in the open field.
So far in his career Thomas has been very oversold, but he has had solid patches, such as the 50-yard scamper against the Pittsburgh Steelers to set up the go-ahead touchdown in Week 14 of 2013 and the six total touchdowns he accounted for last year.
Thomas has been working hard this offseason to improve his standing with the team, but what does he have to do this training camp to solidify his roster spot and earn playing time in 2014?
Thomas has to run much more physically as the biggest back the Dolphins have. Thomas is outweighs all other running backs by at least ten pounds yet he plays with one of the most finesse styles. Thomas is the back the Dolphins have been forced to turn to in short yardage situations in the past few years, but Thomas was not keen to putting his head down and trucking forward for necessary yardage.
Often times in these situations, Thomas seemed as though he would rather dance around to try to pick out a clean hole (which rarely exist in the short yardage situations) than bull forward. As the "big back" on the team, Thomas will need to prove he can toughen up to gain tough yards and finish runs by falling forward.
Thomas needs to be much tougher at the second level of the defense. Thomas has always been good at weaving his way past the line of scrimmage, but is usually stonewalled at the second level. A few more broken tackles could have led to huge runs for Thomas which would have improved his 2013 average of 3.7 yards per carry.
Thomas needs to be tougher to tackle and he needs to consistently move forward on his runs. That's his best (and maybe only) shot at making this roster.
Thomas also doesn't posses adequate speed to beat defenders to the edge, so he will need to prove he can consistently find cutback lanes when the Dolphins run wide zone plays.
Thomas should be able to impress in this area. One of Thomas' strengths coming out of college was his ability to find running lanes. This offense, specifically the "wide zone" stretch plays, will present a plethora of cutback lanes for Thomas (and other slower backs like Knowshon Moreno) to take advantage of.
Thomas, who is built (and plays) similarly to Houston's Arian Foster, could thrive in the same blocking system that propelled Foster to stardom (the system of former Houston Texans' and current Dolphins' offensive line coach John Benton).
Thomas will also need to prove he can gain at least four yards consistently. One of the most valid criticisms of Thomas is his yards-per-attempt average. It has gotten better every year, but only by a tenth of a yard. Thomas's career average looms under four yards, which means that he is on the fast track out of the NFL if he doesn't improve.
An offense will find itself in much more favorable down-and-distance situations if four yards can be consistently gained on first down. Thomas, as a back who isn't a "home-run threat" and doesn't provide spectacular plays, needs to be more steady and dependable (almost like the "possession receiver" of the running back corps).
Thomas, like all the running backs, must prove himself to be versatile enough to consistently catch passes out of the backfield.
A big part of new offense coordinator Bill Lazor's new system is designed passes to the running back. Thomas must prove himself to be skilled enough to run routes out of the backfield, have soft enough hands to catch a pass and quick enough eyes to turn upfield and diagnose the defense ahead of him.
Thomas had two receiving touchdowns in 2013 and was used as a receiving threat more when by the goal line, but he will see much more action as a receiver in 2014 (assuming he makes the team).
The question isn't if Thomas can catch passes and work screen plays. The question is, can he do it better than his competition?
Thomas is now extremely replaceable after three years of disappointing play and the signing of Knowshon Moreno (who is a similar back to Thomas). Thomas knows where he stands with the team, knows he needs to be more consistent and knows he needs to simply play harder.
The good news for Thomas is he will be playing behind an improved offensive line (I presume it will be a better run blocking squad, even with the loss of Mike Pouncey, due to the fact that most of the linemen now fit the scheme).
For Daniel Thomas, this is the most important training camp of his life. This August will present Thomas with a difficult ultimatum-- prove his worth to the team or lose his roster spot with the squad altogether.