Giving Lamar Miller a Second Chance

Nathan Jahnke examines the upside Lamar Miller has coming into the 2014 season and why you can can draft him.

| 3 years ago

Giving Lamar Miller a Second Chance

MillerPrior to the 2013 season, it seemed like Lamar Miller was primed for a great sophomore season. He saw a lot of opportunities late in his rookie season, and the Dolphins let Reggie Bush go to Detroit. If you drafted Miller you were probably dissatisfied as he only had one 100 yard rushing game, and two touchdowns all season long.

While Miller may have disappointed you last year, I think he is worth reconsidering in 2014. While there are certainly better options for the top two backs on your fantasy depth chart, Miller has the ability to be a great third man on the running back depth chart.

What Went Wrong

There were two big reasons his statistics did not equal the expectations. One was a lack of opportunities and the other his offensive line. Daniel Thomas played more than expected which led to Miller playing in just 60% of snaps. He saw more than 11 carries in just six games. While his 633 snaps was tied for 15th most among running backs, his 177 carries was just 26th most.

The bigger problem for him was the poor play of his offensive line. The worse an offensive line is at run blocking, the fewer yards a running back can gain before the defense gets to him. While adding up all the PFF run block grades of all of the offensive players might not be the best way to rank the offensive linemen, it gives a decent sense of how the team performed. The Dolphins overall grade of -38.3 in run blocking was third worst for all teams.

At offensive tackle both Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo were in the bottom 15 in terms of run blocking grades by tackles. John Jerry had the third lowest run block grade for right guards who played all 16 games. In low sample sizes both Nate Garner and Sam Brenner weren’t adequate replacements after Richie Incognito had his suspension, or when Mike Pouncey was out.

So how did this impact Miller? There were 30 plays where all of Miller’s blockers had a combined raw grade of -1.5 or lower. On those plays, Miller was on average getting contacted 0.8 yards before the line of scrimmage.  He was only averaging 0.8 yards after contact on those carries, so on those 30 carries he gained a single yard. Similarly on the 36 carries where the offense had a combined raw run block grade of -1.0, Miller averaged 0.4 yards before contact and 1.4 yards after contact.

The trend continues to go up as the blocking improved with both his yards before contact and yards after contact increased. On the 28 plays where the Dolphins offensive line combined for a +0.5 raw grade, Miller averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and on the 18 they had a +1.0 grade or better he averaged 12.0 yards per carry.

The Relationship Between the Problems

There were nine games where Miller had 10 or fewer carries. On six of those games he was averaging 3.3 yards per carry or worse. This makes sense, because if you aren’t running the ball effectively, then you will eventually stop running. I believe in these games, the problem was more the line than Miller.

His worse 3 games came in Week 1, Week 10 and Week 12. In the first week, on half of his carries he was first contacted 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. In Week 10, only one of his seven carries occurred where he was contacted past the line of scrimmage. In Week 12 he was always contacted anywhere between four yards behind the line of scrimmage and two yards in front of it. Looking at his six worst games in terms of yards per carry, he had more yards after contact than he had yards, meaning on average he was contacted behind the line of scrimmage. It is very hard to succeed when you keep getting contacted behind the line of scrimmage.

I believe why his yardage total from one game to another was so sporadic was because the Dolphins couldn’t trust their offensive line in run blocking.

Why 2014 will be better

The reason 2014 will be better is the Dolphins will have four new starting offensive linemen for most of the season. Center Mike Pouncey is expected to miss some time, and during those games Miami will have five new starters.

The new left tackle is Branden Albert who has ranged from being one of the best run blocking left tackles in the league and at worst has been average. At right guard will be Shelley Smith of the Rams, who had a +13.2 run block rating in 2013 which was seventh best among all guards despite only playing 371 total snaps. At the very least, the Dolphins will see a lot better production from these two positions.

It is a little harder to predict how the Dolphins will do at the other two starting positions. In all likelihood Ja’Wuan James will start at right tackle. My best bet is that this won’t be much of an upgrade or decline in terms of run blocking in his rookie season. The chances are if anything he will be more of an upgrade than downgrade.

Finally at left guard as well as center when Pouncey is out will be either recent free agent addition Daryn Colledge, 2013 third round pick Dallas Thomas, or 2014 third round pick Billy Turner. While this won’t be an upgrade to Incognito, it will likely be better than what Miami had after Incognito.  Since Colledge joined the Cardinals in 2011 he ranged from very good to a slightly below average as a run blocking guard.

All in all the line will see two big upgrades and two unknowns. Even if the left guard and right tackle positions don’t pan out right away, it will still be a big upgrade to what the team had in 2014. The improved offensive line should help Miller’s yards per carry, and it should also lead to the Dolphins not abandoning the run as much which will lead to more carries. Obviously more carries and more yards per carry will lead to a lot more yards.

Why Only Cautiously Optimistic

The Dolphins added Knowshon Moreno this past off-season, and he was expected originally to be the starter. However he showed up to OTAs out of shape, and is likely to miss a lot of training camp until he is fully recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery. This should give Miller the inside track to the starting job and a lot of carries. However there is certainly still a chance Moreno can gain the starting job. If that becomes the case, then Moreno will be the one benefiting from the improved offensive line although it likely won’t be as good as the line he had in Denver.

Another thing to be aware of is the Dolphins don’t pass the ball to their running backs much. The Miami running backs combined saw 57 targets last year which was fifth fewest in the league. Part of the reason this happened is the Dolphins asked their running back to stay in and pass protect more often than most teams. Lamar Miller pass blocked 127 times which was fifth most for running backs, and Daniel Thomas did 91 times which was 19th most. A better pass blocking line could lead to more pass routes and therefore more targets. However the reason the Dolphins backs block so much could simply be by design and doesn’t have to do with the success of the offensive line. In this case it’s unlikely Miller will see noticeably more targets.

Closing Thoughts

When you get past the top 24 running backs, there are plenty of question marks. They include players past their prime, young players who haven’t played well recently, or players where playing time will be a concern. Miller is one of the young players in the group who should see playing time, but unlike some of the others on the list there is reason to believe he can show substantial statistical improvement. Keep an eye on the situation heading into training camp to make sure he holds off Moreno, but at the moment the opportunity is there for Miller. That is why I would be happy to pick him as the third running back on my fantasy teams this year.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

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