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Player Spotlight: Lamar Miller

Dave Larkin takes a closer look at Lamar Miller's fantasy prospects for 2017. 

Pros

  • The comfort factor: Lamar Miller has commented this offseason on his increased comfort level with the offense, noting that he knows ‘the blocking schemes and stuff’. A Bill O’Brien system always takes some time to assimilate fully, and a full year in the offense should give Miller a nice springboard into 2017.
  • Prime time: At just 26 years old but having played in the league for five seasons, Miller is entering the prime of his career as a back. The Texans will not hesitate to feed him the ball 250+ times, with somewhere in the 270-300 range the sweet spot. They should – and likely will – ride him into the ground.
  • Menace at the goal line: Miller ranked alongside Le’Veon Bell and, believe it or not, Ty Montgomery, on goal line conversion rates last season, checking in at the 60-70% range. Alfred Blue has been ineffective spelling Miller at the goal line, so it is likely rookie D’Onta Foreman will be his main competition.

Cons

  • Foreman up in his grill: Many in the scouting community drooled over Foreman’s blend of size and speed leading up to the NFL Draft. Footballguys staffer Andy Hicks highlights Foreman as a deep sleeper at running back who could oust an ‘underachieving starter’ like Miller.
  • It's the quarterback, isn't it?: Just who will be taking the first snap when the Texans trot out onto the field for their home opener against division rival Jacksonville? Miller will have to deal with a lot of attention while Houston’s quarterback dilemma remains as such.
  • Offensive line in flux: Lost in the shuffle of who will line up under centre is the elephant in the room: how will the Texans get over their offensive line issues? Nick Martin will start at centre after missing the entire 2016 season; an underperforming Jeff Allen will likely play right guard; Duane Brown is disgruntled over his contract, while veteran Chris Clark may prove an unsteady presence at right tackle. No matter how you slice it, Miller has his work cut out for him.

QUARTERBACK ISSUES

Before we embark on our journey to explore Lamar Miller’s prospects for the 2017 season, there is a giant question mark that needs to be addressed: the quarterback. I can already hear you audibly sighing at your computer. Haven’t we seen this script before with Houston, I hear you ask. Absolutely, and it is about to rear its ugly head again – and Miller may have a tough ride ahead of him as a result.

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has been notoriously quick with his trigger finger when it comes to switching out his starting quarterback. Last season, Brian Hoyer got three quarters of play in the season opener before he was yanked unceremoniously. Could the same happen to incumbent and presumptive starter Tom Savage, who O’Brien admits ‘functions’ better with the offense than Watson at this time?

Granted, that is hardly a surprise statement considering Watson’s wet-behind-the-ears status as a rookie passer. The big issue here is how teams will defend Houston’s offense. A lot of analysts lean on the ‘stack the box’ argument whereby it is assumed that poor quarterbacks will be afforded single-high looks on defense, with an extra body dropping into the box to take away the ground game.

The truth is, the best backs can weave around traffic and be patient and decisive enough to eliminate any such advantage. My point is, there are always ways around it. Miller is a crafty enough back with the ability to see and hit a crease, but he is by no means a superstar. Defenses will challenge the Texans - poor offensive line and all – to run straight at them. The concern has to be whether Miller will be able to work around the trash, or if we’ll see lines like this on a regular basis:

Minnesota (2016, Week 5): 42 snaps, 8 carries, 20 yards
San Diego (2016, Week 12): 49 snaps, 19 carries, 57 yards
Green Bay (2016, Week 13): 31 snaps, 14 carries, 22 yards

MILLER TIME – BUT FOR HOW LONG?

For a back who has finished in the top 20 fantasy assets at his position for the past three years, Lamar Miller doesn’t get a lot of attention. Perhaps it is his situation, mired in the AFC South on a team whose offense has, for lack of a more generous term, lacked panache in recent years. Or is it simply his profile as a player – not enough to be considered a household name, but in the fantasy football player’s consciousness enough to register as a factor?

Whatever this ‘je ne sais quoi’ quality happens to be, one thing that cannot be denied is that while Miller is presumed to have a stranglehold on this job, things can change very quickly in the NFL.

Running backs are not immune to the wrath of Bill O’Brien, and the drafting of D’Onta Foreman in the third round wasn’t a throwaway selection by a franchise that clearly has a plan.

Miller isn’t doing himself many favours either; last season he handled 65% of the Texans’ carries, but there were times he looked passive, distracted and downright confused as he navigated the line of scrimmage. There is a possibility that he was drowning in detail, focused too much on the design of the play as he assimilated a new offense rather than trusting his instincts. Miller has admitted this offseason that his comfort level is much higher now that he knows ‘the blocking schemes and stuff’.

And yet, the spectre of Foreman and an irascible head coach – not to mention the quarterback situation – might snowball and create a perfect storm to unseat Miller. If Foreman shows off his fresh legs and can be more productive on a carry-by-carry basis, we could shift to a committee that would instantly sink Miller’s fantasy stock.

It’s Miller time, but for how long exactly?

GOAL LINE QUESTION MARKS

Miller had a 63% conversion rate on goal line touches last season, enough to put him in the lofty company of one Le’Veon Bell. However, that figure is the high water mark of his career – and it would be unwise to read too much into a statistic based on such a small sample size.

The bigger issue for Miller is hanging on to the role entering 2017; with rookie D’Onta Foreman breathing down his neck, nothing is guaranteed. Foreman has something of a knack for finding pay dirt, notching 15 touchdowns on the ground in his final season at Texas. His scouting report reads like a goal line vulture, as well:

“Has size and balance to pinball from one tackler to the next if he's not wrapped up. Jars linebackers and safeties at impact with his size alone. North-south runner. Rarely caught taking a loss due to ill-advised "bounce" outside.” (from NFL.com report)

Having to cede goal line work would be a significant blow to Miller’s value. With lingering questions already in play about the offense, one can only speculate over how many high-leverage opportunities there will be for six points.

Final thoughts

The book on Lamar Miller is more or less written already; it’s now about how many chapters he can squeeze out of it. The Texans will not easily hand the reins of their backfield over to a rookie like Foreman, but the threat is always there for Miller. On the plus side, Miller has admitted his increased comfort level with the offense, which may have stymied his usually effortless running style last season. However, 2017 represents a make or break year for a back, who, not necessarily all because of him, will face an uphill battle to retain fantasy relevance on a weekly basis. In redraft, Miller is a dependable back in the RB16-25 range, but there are multiple risk factors baked into this projection.

Projections

PROJECTOR G RSH YD TD REC YD TD FUM
DODDS 15 275 1130 7 35 249 2 2
HENRY 15 275 1140 7 36 260 1 1
WOOD 16 290 1200 6 39 275 2 1
TREMBLAY 16 298 1209 7 29 200 1 4

Other viewpoints

James Simpson of Fansided sees Miller as a sketchy option as an RB1:

“Running backs can often be touchdown-dependent in fantasy football unless they rack up the volume, and the fact Miller is part of a stifled offense means he’s a risky RB1 option. Last year, he had the most rushing attempts in a season so far in his career with 268, but could only muster up 1,073 yards (4.0 per carry) and five touchdowns.”

The staff at FantasyPros raise valid questions about Miller’s workload with Foreman in the picture:

“Despite getting all the work he possibly could last year, Miller disappointed finishing with the sixth-most carries, but just the 17th most fantasy points among running backs. He misses two games, but the workload was there. The Texans spent a third-round pick to acquire D'Onta Foreman, which adds concern to that workload hanging around.”

The CBS Sports outlook remains a bit more positive, however:

“The Texans spent a third-round pick on D'Onta Foreman, a burly, physical running back whose role is likely to consist of taking anywhere from four to 10 carries per week away from Miller. This definitely dims the upside for Miller but he remains a high-volume running back who could dominate the passing game work.”