Lamar Miller Is Slowly Getting Hyped, but It's for Good Reason
The last thing Lamar Miller needs in his career is more competition in the backfield.
Miller, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, played his rookie year behind Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. For the 2013 season, Bush departed to Detroit, and the competition whittled down to just Miller and Thomas, but the tandem accounted for very little success overall for the Dolphins.
Rather than commit to either Miller or Thomas entirely in 2014, the Dolphins added Knowshon Moreno to re-complicate Miller's chance of a breakout.
With the apparent lack of confidence in Miller (and Thomas, for that matter), the Dolphins seem like an unlikely team to rely on a single-runner approach or to give enough of an edge to one back to emerge as a top talent in 2014. So is there any reason to believe in Lamar Miller?
I sure think so.
Used (Like New)
One of Miller's biggest problems in his first two years may be one of his biggest advantages entering year three. After two years, Miller has tallied a total of 228 carries.
Sure, he has only 959 yards and 3 touchdowns as a result of those carries, but he's far from overworked.
At the University of Miami, Miller showed his ability to shoulder a fairly hefty workload in his second season. In 2010, his freshman season, Miller attempted just 108 rushes, 175th-most in the nation (for what it's worth). But in 2011, Miller's 228 attempts ranked 32nd in the nation, and his 1,272 yards ranked 20th.
Miller doesn't have a track record of 300-carry seasons, but he isn't built for the heavy-mileage wear and tear that we expect from elite runners. That isn't necessarily a terrible thing if he can be used optimally.
From Zero to 20
I don't know the first thing about cars, but it's my understanding that you don't get optimum performance from a Ferrari while sitting in traffic on FDR Drive trying to leave Manhattan during rush hour.
Likewise, expecting a guy like Miller to chip away and eat up yardage four yards at a time is a disservice to everyone involved. Miller, whose 4.40-second 40-yard dash is still fourth-best among running backs over the past three NFL Combines, had just 4 rushes for at least 20 yards last year, or 2.26% of his carries. The conversion rate (2.26%) ranks Miller 13th of the 28 running backs who attempted at least 175 carries last year, placing him ahead of only the slow plodders like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Chris Johnson.
Miller's speed should be giving Miami an elite option out of the backfield, but he's been able to break free so rarely that he's still bogged down in a crowded backfield situation.
There's obviously an issue, and it doesn't seem like it's Miller's speed alone. After all, not all of the players who were successful at picking up 20-yard runs were speedsters who were part of an ultra-effective rushing attack.
I included the top-five not to be futile, but to exhibit that good blocking, something the Dolphins didn't have last season, is as important as running back ability.
The 2013 Dolphins were a bad rushing team according to nearly every statistic and metric available. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, though, explains just how bad they were. In case this is your fist numberFire article, NEP is a highly-contextualized metric that considers game situation and is used to identify the amount of points scores (or doesn't score) over the course of a season. We can also isolate this for pass plays and run plays and adjust these scores for strength of schedule.
Despite being the third-most pass-reliant offense in the league and attempting 1.88 passes for every rush, the Dolphins accrued an Adjusted Rushing NEP of -12.74, meaning they lost nearly 13 points on the ground compared to what an average team would have accomplished in the same situations the Dolphins ran the ball. This mark was 23rd in the league, and well below the league average of -1.49. (Rushing tallies can easily be negative because running the ball is a very ineffective way to put points on the board.)
Of the 39 running backs with at least 125 carries, Miller's personal Rushing NEP (-17.55) ranked just 31st, well below the average of the subset (-6.39). His Rushing NEP per rush (-0.10) was even worse, ranking 33rd.
A Much-Needed Tune-Up
In order to figure out what's wrong with a car, my mechanic says he hooks it up to a computer to figure out the diagnostics or some such. That could be a hoodwink (maybe even a flimflam), but if we were to do the same for the Dolphins, we could uncover some very exigent problems.
Problem 1: Last year, the Dolphins' offensive line, a unit tainted with plenty of off-field drama, ranked 28th in rushing success, per FootballOutsiders.com. The line has been almost entirely revamped during the off-season, and only Pro-Bowl center Mike Pouncey remains of the line's core. Pouncey, though, is set to be out for three months and be unavailable for the start of the season after undergoing hip surgery. Newcomers to Miami's offensive line include free agents Branden Albert and Shelley Smith as well as two early draft picks at the tackle position: Ja'Waun James (a first-rounder from Tennessee) and Billy Turner (a third-rounder from North Dakota St.).
While a revamped line means there won't be on-field chemistry, there are reports that the line is getting along well, which is already a huge improvement over the line Miller had in front of him last season.
Problem 2: Like I mentioned before, the Dolphins were more reliant on the pass than every team in the league except for the Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns. Of their 1,000 offensive plays run last year (which ranked just 24th in the NFL), Miami attempted 653 passing plays (9th most). Their 347 rushing attempts ranked 29th. The passing attack was both voluminous and below-average: the team finished 20th in both Adjusted Passing NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP per pass.
This year, Miami has a new offensive coordinator: Bill Lazor. Lazor's background is primarily as a quarterbacks coach, most recently for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. The Eagles were substantially the best rushing team in the league per our Adjusted Rushing NEP marks, and led the NFL with an Adjusted Rushing NEP of 55.97. While Lazor worked to get the most out of Nick Foles, the Eagles passed just 1.11 times per every rush, ranking 27th in the NFL. If Lazor is able to harness some of the Chip Kelly attack and bring it to Miami, then Miller might be afforded more open field opportunities than ever before.
Problem 3: Miami ostensibly has a crowded backfield. The keyword there is "ostensibly." Thomas still lingers for now, and Moreno has come to town. But Miller is penciled in as the team's starter. Moreno is dealing with the types of injuries that hampered his career, and his status for the season opener is questionable after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Thomas may not not even make the 53-man roster. The backfield isn't really as complicated as it seems, which could allow Miller as many touches as Lazor deems fit.
No matter the fate of Moreno and Thomas, Miller is the healthiest and most-secure option for touches in 2014 behind a revamped offensive line in an offense that should reduce its passing attempts. It's hard to imagine a heavy workload in back-to-back seasons for the already-injured Moreno, or to see Thomas become effective all of a sudden. That leaves Miller as the top candidate for legitimate touches behind what might be a good offensive line in an offense that might resemble Chip Kelly's, to an extent.