Around this time last year, Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin was talking about using Lamar Miller more. Miller was the Dolphins' primary ball carrier in 2014 but he had finished the season with just 216 rushing attempts. Not once did he carry the ball 20 times in a game despite finishing the season with 1,099 rushing yards. 54 of his 216 attempts and 317 of his 1,099 yards came over the final three games of the regular season. Those final three games, Philbin's comments and Miller adding significant weight over the offseason all suggested that the young back was about to breakout.
Instead, Miller carried the ball 37 times over the first four games of the season. Philbin was subsequently fired and Miller finished the season with fewer attemps in 2015 than he had in 2014.
Miller's usage throughout his career has been a hot topic. The 25-year old was drafted by the Dolphins in 2012 and was used sparingly as a rookie. He carried the ball 51 times for 250 yards, showing off his explosiveness and balance to take advantage of the space that appeared in front of him. At that point in his career, Miller was still developing. He was reliant on his athleticism rather than his technical precision or vision. Miller became a more prominent part of the offense in his second season but proved to be an inconsistent back because of his relatively narrow skill set.
It was his third season, the 2014 season, when Miller broke out. He thrived in Bill Lazor's offense behind a bad offensive line not because Lazor was setting him up to succeed, but because Miller was showing off consistent vision, creativity in deception and the same athleticism that had carried him to that point. He very quickly became the Dolphins best player.
Although Miller's size may legitimize Philbin's concerns about his durability or effectiveness when used as a feature back, Philbin isn't a coach who deserves the benefit of the doubt. Philbin's coaching staff repeatedly put players in position to fail rather than succeed. Miller was no exception. Furthermore, Miller is listed at 225 lbs and has reportedly added weight since he measured in at that size at the combine. He shouldn't be viewed as a small back.
Philbin's usage of Miller was regularly defended by the idea that the running back's quality of performance declined the more touches he received. The biggest problem with that line of thinking is that Miller's sample size to judge that was tiny since the Dolphins had never really put a big workload on his shoulders. Furthermore, over the past two seasons, Miller has averaged 4.9 yards per attempt in games where he carried the ball at least 15 times. He has five touchdowns and 932 yards on 191 attempts total in games that fit that criteria, so even if he was dropping off in qualtiy over the latter stages of games, it wasn't plummetting his production.
Miller only has one 20 carry game over his past two seasons in the NFL, he gained 113 yards against the Baltimore Ravens with those carries. He does have five games where he carried the ball at least 19 times over the past two years. He gained a total 556 yards on on 96 carries in those games, 5.8 yards per carry. Miller only averaged below 4.8 yards per carry in one of those games.
Leaving the Dolphins and signing with the Houston Texans has provided a boost to Miller's fantasy outlook. Bill O'Brien has shown in the past that he is willing to ride his number one back. Arian Foster carried the ball 260 times in 13 games during the 2014 season, 20 attempts per game. Escaping Joe Philbin's regime and the remnants of it that acted as the interim staff during the 2015 season has pushed Miller's stock into the second round of most fantasy drafts. He is creeping into the end of the first round at times. With Le'Veon Bell's looming suspension, the only back going in the first round who is clearly on another level in terms of individual talent is Todd Gurley.
One of the things working against Miller in his new situation is the quality of his offensive line. The Texans let their best run blocker, guard Brandon Brooks, depart in free agency this offseason. Brooks is a mauler who can move laterally. Without him the Texans don't appear to have any true impact blockers. Xavier Sua-Filo and Jeff Allen are more likely to settle for executing their assignment than blowing a defensive lineman away with their brute force. Center Nick Martin could have more value but he is a rookie so expectations should be constrained.
With his physical quickness and ability to diagnose/anticipate what is happening in front of him, Miller is able to combat penetration.
In the above play, he gains 29 yards despite being confronted by a linebacker behind the line of scrimmage. The gif has been slowed down to show off the different stages of the play. The linebacker times the snap perfetly and is cutting through the middle of the line from the backside of the play. Miller had to have recognized the penetration before he got the football because he uses a jump cut to get away from him as soon as he takes the ball from Ryan Tannehill. The running back's quickness and balance allow him to not only evade that linebacker but weave his way through the defense into space that was created by that linebacker's penetration.
He turned the defense's aggressiveness against itself.
This is something Miller had to do throughout that game. He carried the ball 19 times and gained only 60 yards. 29 of those yards came on that play alone. Yet, Miller was still very impressive and this was a great game to show off his skill set. While Miller wasn't gaining yards on the surface, he was consistently creating yards behind the line of scrimmage to avoid negative plays or turn them into gains. As a runnning back, that is gaining yards even if it's not reflected fairly in your average per carry. On any given play, there are the yards a running back should get and the yards he does get. Miller is consistently outgaining what he should get.
Although this play didn't actually count because of an accepted defensive penalty, it was typical of what happened throughout that game against the Patriots. The Dolphins pull their center and right guard to lead block for Miller working off right tackle. The right side of the Dolphins offense is responsible for sealing the left side of the Patriots defense. Dion Sims(#80) attempts to down-block a defensive lineman who manhandles him with relative ease. The defensive lineman penetrates past Sims' outside shoulder so that he is in an ideal position to prevent Miller from getting outside.
Miller recognizes the penetration and slows his feet for a second to slow the defensive lineman before making a sharp cut towards the sideline. His acceleration allows him to escape the attention of the penetrating defender before another good cut sends him upfield. Miller gains four yards that ultimately don't count.
Running backs with great straight-line speed typically have the same flaw as other backs with great straight-line speed. Because they grow up being able to run away from everyone, they prefer to force plays to the outside where they hope to find space. That destroys the design of more runs than it does create big plays. Miller doesn't have that flaw. Miller is a disciplined back who reads his blocks and makes the read that gives him the best chance to succeed rather than the read that makes him more comfortable.
In the above gif, Miller makes the right read on left tackle Branden Albert before showing off his speed between the tackles. That speed is hugely valuable because the right side of the offensive line is horrific on this play. Billy Turner can't locate his assignment in space while Jason Fox completely whiffs on his attempted cut block. With Albert conceding more ground at the point of attack than he wanted to, Miller was put in a position where he could very easily have been stopped at the line of scrimmage. His ability to accelerate downfield after making a quick read meant that he could just escape the attempted tackles of the defensive end and the inside linebacker.
Miller's decisiveness and acceleration led to a five-yard gain.
You can find plenty of examples of those types of plays from Miller over the past two years of his career. If the Texans are incapable of providing a better offensive line than the Dolphins, an implausible but possible scenario, Miller should still be able to produce solid numbers with a greater workload. That's not the reason you draft him in the first round though. You draft him in the first round in the hopes that the Texans will provide Miller with a slightly below average, average or above average offensive line that can afford him enough space to thrive in.
If Bill O'Brien's offense gives Miller space, he will thrive.
In the above play, Miller shows off the acceleration and decisiveness that we had seen previously. However, once he gets outside he is confronted by a linebacker who has the angle to bring him down. The lighter running back uses his strength and a well-timed handoff to maintain his speed while discarding of the defender's attempted tackle. Whenever you have one dominant physical trait, you are more likely to be overlooked for your other physical abilities. Miller has developed a stronger upper body and more power in his lower body since he entered the NFL.
From the same play against the Giants, Miller ran in another touchdown that was completely his creation. What was critical on this play was Miller's quickness and balance but also his awareness and willingness to continually move his feet. Even though he didn't have a one-cut option or any use for his straight-line speed initially, Miller kept moving and searching in the hopes of finding a running lane. His efforts were rewarded and at that point of the play he could show off his breakaway speed.
One of the elements of Miller's game that was diminished in Bill Lazor's offense was his cutback ability. Despite playing relatively little throughout his career to this point, Miller has proven himself as a very effective cutback runner. He understands when to press plays to the front side while still remaining wary of opportunities to cutback. The above play from the Dolphins' game against the Baltimore Ravens perfectly captured Miller's ability to slice through the middle of a defense and punish defensive linemen who are too aggressive in their gap assignments.
Miller can attack the defense in any way a runner can be asked to attack it. If you run inside zone, outside zone, power or toss the ball to him running outside, he wil be effective regardless of where the offense is on the field. What may be most surprising about his rushing ability is his work near the goal line. Over the past two seasons, Miller has scored 10 touchdowns on 21 rushing attempts within five yards of the opposition's endzone. He has eight touchdowns on 11 attempts from within two yards of the endzone.
Just in case you were wondering, he also doesn't fumble. He had just one in 2015 and three in 2014.
As a runner, the only negative on Miller over the past two years has been his usage. His usage was out of his control and limited by a coaching staff that repeatedly proved itself incompetent. How good the coaching staff in Houston is compared to it is another matter entirely, but with a massive question mark at quarterback and the big contract that Miller just signed, it's hard to envision a scenario where Miller isn't featured prominently.
Miller has proven his quality as a runner over the past two seasons but broke out as a receiver in 2015.
He isn't Darren Sproles. He won't line up all over the formation and run every possible route. But he doesn't need to be. Miller is a great screen receiver because of his natural hands combined with his elusiveness and acceleration in space. He can line up in the slot or outside but is unlikely to create separation against defensive backs. His balane and speed will allow him to feast on linebackers though. In 2015, Miller caught 47 passes for 397 yards and two touchdowns. He had six 20+ yard plays and one 40+ yard play with 14 first downs.
Bill O'Brien didn't feature enough screens or short throws to running backs last year but that should change because of Miller's presence.
For his career, Lamar Miller averages 4.6 yards per carry. If he gets 250 carries and his average drops slightly, let's say 4.4 yards per carry, in Houston, he would finish with 1,100 yards rushing. That should be the floor of his projection. Miller averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year and 5.1 yards per carry the year before while running behind some of the worst offensive line play in the NFL. His talent should be unquestioned but his situation has neutered his production to this point. At the end of the first round, Miller is a great value pick in the landscape of fantasy this year.
With so many experts pushing zero RB and taking part in the philosophy themselves, quality players such as Miller, Devonta Freeman, Doug Martin, LeSean McCoy and C.J. Anderson are being undervalued. Only the top echelon of backs are sure-fire first rounders and even they are often falling slightly too far. At 25 years of age, with his versatility and his expected workload, Miller should be one of the most valuable fantasy prospects in 2016.