Position review: Miller emerges, but Dolphins run game lacks consistency
The Miami Dolphins will need to improve in all facets of their team in order to rise above their rivals next season, including their running back corps which were solid in several games but saw a decrease in production as the season wore on.
Lamar Miller had a career season with 1,099 yards as he confidently grabbed the starting job and ran with it. Miami ranked 13th in the league in total rushing yards and a respectable second overall with 4.7 yards per carry. Much of that had to with Miller’s production and his 5.1 yards per carry average, which placed him fifth among all NFL players.
The Dolphins front office and head coach Joe Philbin must make some tough decisions here — the most critical being whether or not they envision Miller as the starting running back for the future.
"I think the thing that is encouraging, I think his rookie year, what did he have maybe 150 yards," said Philbin following their season-finale against the New York Jets. Miller actually rushed for 250 yards that year. "Then last year he had 700 (yards) and change. This year he got over 1,000 (yards), so that’s a good developmental curve.
"You would like to see that as a coach. You like to see guys be more productive, make bigger contributions as they gain experience. I’m real pleased with what he has done. I’m not really into numbers of guys or he’s number one, he’s number two, all of that. I think he was productive. I think he contributed to the offense well, and I think he got better."
Regardless of what Miller’s role may be, the team must look to solidify the position in the offseason given the fact that backups Knowshon Moreno and Daniel Thomas — who are both expendable — are unrestricted free agents. And let’s face it, upgrades are in order when your quarterback is easily the second leading rusher on the team.
Several areas of the team were criticized for their poor showing late in the season, but a stronger running game could have meant the difference in those close games that Miami ultimately lost. They were ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game before their Week 12 loss to the Denver Broncos. They proceeded to be out-rushed by the opponent each week until their last game against the Jets thanks to Miller’s incredible 97-yard touchdown play.
With this in mind, let’s take a deeper look at this critical component of the offense.
Lamar Miller — Not only was Miller the team’s leading rusher, but he also showed great hands and ranked fifth on the team in receptions. He finished in the top 10 of the NFL with his career-high 1,099 rushing yards and his 5.1 yard per carry ranked him among the league leaders. He saved the best for last with his record-breaking touchdown play against the Jets. It was the longest run in the NFL for the season and third-longest ever, as well as breaking the franchise mark.
By losing Moreno so early into the season, the team was forced to ditch their plans to share the workload between the two, but they were fortunate that Miller immediately made an impact and was able to raise his level of play from last year. Though he managed to play in all 16 games, he was bothered by knee issues since the beginning of the season that limited him in practice and also suffered a shoulder injury in Week 9 against the San Diego Chargers. Is he durable enough as an every-down back for a playoff contender?
Moreno is one year older and as injury prone as ever, so Miami will likely look elsewhere unless he comes back at a significant discount.
Daniel Thomas — Thomas had his moments after being brought back to the team because of Moreno’s injury, though he was limited with a knee injury in December. He finished the season with 168 yards on 44 carries and two touchdowns. The 27-year-old will likely have to look elsewhere for another shot to stick in the NFL.
Damien Williams — Noticeable progress was made with the undrafted rookie as the team brought him along slowly. Williams had 36 carries for 122 yards as well as 187 receiving yards and one touchdown in 16 games. He has a solid chance of sticking around for next season because of his versatility and talent but he must prove to the team he can be a reliable number two option in the long run. In that role, he could do some damage because of his athleticism and strength and may blossom given time.
POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS
The Dolphins have plenty of roster decisions to make and that will affect just how much money they have to spend. Fortunately for them, or any other team in the market for a solid running back, there are several options to choose from and they should be affordable because there is quantity. The key will be whether or not impact players such as Frank Gore, C.J. Spiller, Mark Ingram, Ryan Matthews and Ahmad Bradshaw re-sign with their respective teams. Some will hit the market and Miami should pounce.
BEST DRAFT OPTIONS
Whether or not they make a splash in free agency, the Dolphins would be wise to keep an eye on some solid running backs that could be available on Day 2 or 3. Like in free agency, this year’s draft will be deep with quality players. University of Miami’s Duke Johnson would be a good fit, and the "homegrown talent" factor has yielded good results before for the Dolphins. Other intriguing names that could be available include Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, Todd Gurley from Georgia and Kenny Hilliard out of LSU.
Too often, Miami’s drives last season would come up short, contributing to their red zone struggles, because they lacked the kind of speedy but powerful running back that could pick up extra yards on his own or break tackles. Whether it was by design or because there wasn’t enough faith in their running game, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterback Ryan Tannehill would often choose to throw on third and short plays to mixed results.
This is a position that is deep in the draft and in free agency. There are bigger problem areas on this roster that need fixing, but the Dolphins need to strike gold here whichever method they use to help them in their goal of reaching the playoffs.