Lamar Miller Could Be Primed for a Big Year With the Houston Texans

Miller could finally get a shot to be a feature back, and that could mean a breakout for the still-young running back.

The “American Dream” is a concept that once told the working class of this country that, if you persevered, pulled yourself up by the bootstraps, and worked hard, you would become great and powerful (and wealthy).

Despite the meaning of that term changing over the years, the NFL’s free agent period at least gives players the chance for “the pursuit of happiness.” For many, that means straight cash, homie. For many others, it is also a chance to aim for a genuine chance to prove themselves on, or to be appreciated by, a new team.

The money doesn’t hurt, but the happiness is definitely what drew running back Lamar Miller to the Houston Texans.

Miller has been in the NFL for decades, it seems, but he’ll just be turning 25 this year. For someone who’s been in the league in a lead back role for four years, one would expect more wear-and-tear on his body than just 638 rushing attempts, but the Miami Dolphins never fully utilized his potential.

The Texans were reeling, however, after releasing star running back Arian Foster, and saw Miller as an immediate way to replace their aged star.

How will Lamar Miller fare as the Texans’ new lead running back?

Home, Home on the Range

Landing spot is a huge determiner of value and usage for NFL players. Truly transcendent, elite players can rise above circumstance -- but there aren’t that many truly elite or transcendent players in NFL history. One of the most important things we can ask about Lamar Miller’s future is: what kind of team situation is he walking into?

We want to know the Texans’ big offensive trends over the past seasons, and there’s no easier way to do that than looking at their value production in the different phases of the offense. We can analyze value by looking at numberFire’s signature analytic, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Miller runs for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the Texans’ running back usage and NEP production since the beginning of the Arian Foster era. Will Miller’s team situation benefit him, or will he be in another muddy timeshare?

Year Rush Pass-Run Ratio Adj. Rush NEP Per-Play
2009 424 (t-20th) 1.46 (24th) -26.37 (29th) -0.06 (t-26th)
2010 423 (19th) 1.43 (t-22nd) 43.53 (3rd) 0.10 (3rd)
2011 546 (1st) 0.91 (2nd) 25.63 (6th) 0.05 (t-6th)
2012 508 (4th) 1.15 (9th) -14.32 (21st) -0.03 (21st)
2013 414 (22nd) 1.63 (26th) -18.00 (26th) -0.04 (t-23rd)
2014 550 (1st) 0.93 (1st) -24.03 (26th) -0.04 (t-21st)
2015 472 (5th) 1.39 (13th) -22.53 (26th) -0.05 (t-24th)

What should be music to the ears of fantasy owners is the fact that -- while the Texans have just three top-10 finishes (heavier on the run, the better) in pass-to-run ratio since 2009 -- they have four top-five rankings in rushing attempts in the last five years. We know that fantasy points come from chances, so the arrow for Miller’s fantasy upside is skyward.

The one worrisome thing is that the Texans haven’t been particularly efficient rushing the ball since Foster came to town. They’ve had just two top-half finishes in both the total and per-play versions of Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points. This doesn’t bode very well for the play of the Texans’ offensive line, but that could be a result of poor talent coming in for Foster in relief when he got injured.

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

It looks like Miller is primed for a fairly heavy workload in one of the league’s most run-oriented offenses. But will he actually be able to live up to the challenge? Remember, Miller has had just one season with at least 250 touches. Can he be a true lead back and thrive?

The table below compares Lamar Miller’s annual Rushing NEP per attempt and Reception NEP per target to that of Arian Foster. Will the former Floridian be able to fill a Foster-sized hole?

Year Miller Rush NEP/P Foster Rush NEP/P Miller Rec NEP/T   Foster Rec NEP/T  
2012 0.08 -0.02 0.31 0.06
2013 -0.10 0.00 0.04 0.20
2014 0.06 0.03 0.22 0.46
2015 -0.01 -0.24 0.39 0.64

In every season except 2013, Miller has outpaced Foster in Rushing NEP on a per-play basis. It hardly seems a contest between the 25-year old budding playmaker and the oft-injured 30-year old bruiser, to see that Miller is still spryer (though, perhaps more inconsistent than Foster was).

It’s also worth noting that Miller is not nearly as incredible of a receiver as Foster, as he has not had a season of Reception NEP per target that beat Foster’s marks. This also comes with the caveat that Foster was working with some of the worst quarterbacks of the past decade, while Miller at least had Ryan Tannehill, who had promise and upside.

The Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day

So, the outlook for Miller as a Texan isn’t the clearest in the world. Foster, in his prime, was clearly a supreme talent compared to Miller, but the Texans aren’t looking for the next NFL Hall of Fame running back here; they’re looking for a valuable runner for the long-term by signing Miller to this deal.

Miller -- if nothing else -- does step into incredible opportunity by moving to his new team. It’s worth noting that the Texans have had 73 unique player games where a running back earned 20 or more touches since 2009 (out of a possible 112). The Dolphins have had just 39 such games in that span of time.

This suggests that they are much more willing to provide their running backs with chances to be a true lead back rather than a member of a committee. In addition, the Texans have averaged a compelling 104 passing targets to their running backs over the last three years. This will work well with Miller’s skillset.

Miller should be very satisfied with his move, as should fantasy football players. It remains to be seen how it will play out, but there is a promising feel to this. And that’s something worth pulling yourself up by the cleat-straps for.