Just a week ago, Dolphins fans were starting to believe that running back could be a position of strength for the team. Free agent acquisition Knowshon Moreno was the NFL's leading rusher despite splitting snaps with Lamar Miller, and Moreno brought both tackle-breaking ability and emotional intensity to the running back corps, as well as providing an elite pass-protecting option for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Meanwhile, Miller had scored a receiving touchdown in week 1 and, aside from a fumble after a well-placed hit by a Patriots defender, also had one of his more impressive days as a runner, breaking multiple tackles of his own. Behind those two players, the Dolphins had promising rookies in undrafted free agents Orleans Darkwa and Damien Williams who would have time to be slowly integrated into the offense behind the veteran running backs rather than being forced into action immediately.
Fast forward to today. Moreno is out for at least 4 weeks, and perhaps up to 8 weeks, with a dislocated elbow. Miller suffered an ankle injury during the game against the Buffalo Bills that knocked him out of action, and that was after he had prematurely ended multiple drives by dropping passes. Miller was able to practice today, but he might not be 100% for awhile. Darkwa and especially Williams have been impressive in limited roles, but neither are trusted to be effective pass protectors as rookies since most rookie running backs struggle to pass block early in their careers due to the strength of NFL defenders and complexity of blitzing defenses. The situation at running back was so dire that the Dolphins re-signed Daniel Thomas just 2 weeks after they chose to cut him.
While everybody hopes that Thomas finally lives up to his draft status as a former second round pick by playing well this season, the Dolphins front office doesn't appear to be prepared to bet on it. Just a day after signing Thomas, the Dolphins have reportedly worked out LaMichael James, another former second round pick at running back who was recently waived by the team that drafted him. However, while both James and Thomas are former second round picks, they have very different skillsets. Thomas' strengths are pass protection, being a reliable if unspectacular receiving option on checkdowns, and doing reasonably well as a power-back in goal line situations. Last but not least, by virtue of spending the entire offseason with the Dolphins, Thomas at least knows the playbook, which is important given that the Dolphins needed running back depth who could help immediately.
LaMichael James on the other hand is a "home-run threat" type of running back with elite speed and agility. He's a dynamic receiving option who can make men miss in the open field, and he thrived when playing behind a zone-blocking offensive line in college at Oregon while being coached by Chip Kelly, whose system has influenced the playbook of the Dolphins' offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. In addition, James has been used as a kickoff and punt returner in the NFL, and he has averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 28.4 yards per kickoff return.
Therefore, signing James could help address a few of the Dolphins' problems. First, the Dolphins lack elite receiving options at the running back position, with Moreno being injured, Miller's hands being questionable, and Williams and Darkwa being unproven. James could immediately give the Dolphins' offense a very threatening option to use on screens, for example. Second, the Dolphins lack great options at kick returner. Second round rookie wide receiver Jarvis Landry has shown some elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability in that role, but he was rarely used as a returner in college, and his inexperience may have played a role in Landry muffing a punt in just his second regular season game. As mentioned previously, James is an experienced returner who is more elusive and speedy than Landry. Third, while it's true that James couldn't earn a lot of snaps after being drafted by the San Francisco 49'ers, it's worth mentioning that the 49'ers are a team that is very deep at running back and primarily use a man-blocking scheme. It's possible that playing in an offensive system more similar to Chip Kelly's, particularly behind an offensive line using the zone-blocking scheme, could allow James to thrive as a Dolphin.
However, there are reasons why James went unclaimed when he was waived by the 49'ers weeks ago. Most worrisome is the fact that he's been very fumble prone in the NFL after having fumbling problems in college. He's fumbled 4 times in 46 offensive "touches" (handoffs plus catches), or once every 11.5 times on average. Most starting running backs average at least 80 touches per fumble, so James has fumbled almost 8 times as frequently as the league average once you factor how rarely he's had the ball in the NFL. In addition to that issue, when the 49'ers decided not to feature him heavily in their offense his first couple of seasons, James wasn't shy about complaining about his lack of touches. Most running backs in today's NFL have to accept limited touches given that the majority of teams have a 2-man or even 3-man rotation at the position, and 49'ers coaches didn't appreciate James complaining about a lack of touches when he was guilty of fumbling so frequently on the rare occasions that he was trusted wtih the ball.
Still, if the Dolphins decide to sign James, it's possible that he's been humbled by his experience of being unemployed the past few weeks and that the Dolphins could help fix his fumbling issue. If that happens, the Dolphins might luck into a truly dynamic receiving threat at the running back position, which Lazor's offense needs given his emphasis on creating space and mismatches by sending out 4 receivers/TEs as well as a running back on receiving routes for most passing plays. All that effort to create space means nothing if the running back drops the ball or can't get open, which has been happening too frequently.
Former Oregon star LaMichael James' workout with Miami didn't result in him signing but it's a possibility.Sides have had discussions.— Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) September 16, 2014