Better free agent RB: Doug Martin or Lamar Miller?
Running back was once a marquee position in free agency, commanding big money contracts and no end of interest throughout the league. Today, however, it remains a devalued position, and teams are reluctant to commit big money to a player they feel they can find in the draft for far cheaper, who no longer is the centerpiece of the offense.
The two biggest potential free agent additions at the position are Doug Martin and Lamar Miller, each of whom brings enough question marks to the table to justify teams not chasing them with suitcases full of cash.
But which is the better option?
At his best, Martin has been an incredibly effective rusher, and done so with little help from his blocking. He has two 1,400-yard seasons to his name, and those seasons have come with 1,005 (2012) and 906 yards after first contact. Martin forced 110 missed tackles on his rushes over those two seasons and averaged more than 3 yards per carry after contact.
When you try and project success in a new environment, these are tangible indicators of a running back carrying more than his share of the load on the ground and getting it done without the aid of blocking that opens up yawning chasms to gain free yardage.
He hasn’t been run into the ground, even in his best seasons. Martin has never carried the ball more than 320 times in a season and does not have a 30-carry game to his name in the NFL (Todd Gurley had one in his third game as a pro, coming back from a torn ACL).
Martin has two things working against him: injury history and inconsistency. We have only really seen two good seasons from Martin. One was his rookie year, and even that was based on a couple of huge games more than consistently high performances, and the other was this past season—a contract year. In between, we saw two injury-marred seasons in which he looked like a different player. In those two seasons combined, even though he carried the ball 162 times total, he broke just 22 tackles, averaged nearly a full yard less per carry after contact, and was even far worse in pass protection, coughing up two sacks, seven hits, and 12 hurries.
Martin, at his best, is a great runner, but will you be getting that guy with your investment?
Unlike Martin, Lamar Miller’s career has been one of more steady development. Both his overall and rushing grades from PFF have improved in each of his four seasons, and while (like Martin) his best year was his contract year, it doesn’t raise nearly the same questions as it does in the Buccaneer’s case.
Though this season was perhaps not as pretty as the previous from a statistical point of view, it was perhaps more impressive when you isolate Miller’s contribution from the Miami run game generally. He gained fewer total yards (872 to 1,101 in 2014), but actually gained more after contact (535 to 486), gaining a full half yard more per carry after contact this year than the one before. He also put the ball on the ground just once, giving him four fumbles for his career (Martin had four this season alone).
Miller is not the same threat to make people miss in a phone booth as Martin (32 missed tackles is the most he has ever forced in a season), but he counters that by being every bit as much of a home-run threat. In each of the past two seasons, he has runs of 85 yards or more, and in each of the last three, he has a run of 49 or more yards.
Miller has never carried the load as much as you might want a big-money back to do. His career-high for carries in a season is 216, and that is his only season over 200 carries. The counter to that is that he has comparatively little wear on his tires, but the extent to which a team can lean on him to carry their run game is an unknown they must quantify before handing him a rich contract. In a league that revolves around the passing game, Miller is not the most dynamic receiving back in the world. He has forced just 10 missed tackles in his career after the catch (Detroit’s Theo Riddick forced 36 this season alone), and has displayed questionable hands, dropping 7.9 percent of all catchable passes sent his way over his career.
Neither player is a sure thing when it comes to solving a team’s backfield issues. Doug Martin may be the more complete player with the higher ceiling, but comes with bigger question marks about whether you will actually get that guy. Lamar Miller may be more of a known quantity, but is more one-dimensional in a league that leans ever more towards the other dimensions.
As always, it comes down to what you value the most, but in a conservative league, the devil you know may just be the better bet, and Lamar Miller could find himself with the hotter marketplace.