Miller capped his 2014 season with a 178-yard performance, including that 97-yard touchdown, and crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. With or without Week 17, he was our ninth best running back in PPR leagues. His services are available to you in the late third round.
Let’s talk about the third round for a minute. By this point you’ll see draft strategies emerging. You be able to identify the zero-RB crowd—perhaps you’ve gone that route yourself—and you’ll see the quality of running backs decaying quickly. But there are a few still available that could very well provide RB1 numbers for the season.
Miller is one such option. So too are Mark Ingram II, Frank Gore and Melvin Gordon III. Which of these backs are the safest in terms of opportunity cost? Our consensus rankings point to Miller, and for good reason.
Miami Dolphins Offense: Reasons for Optimism
It’s been six seasons since the Dolphins posted a winning record and a subsequent playoff appearance. During that time only one running back, Ricky Williams, has managed double-digit touchdowns.
2015 could be the year things change. Ryan Tannehill is settling into the offense, and though he needs to improve his accuracy and timing, he’ll at least have a talented wide receiver group to work with. The Dolphins nabbed Jordan Cameron, Greg Jennings and Kenny Stills in free agency, and used a first round draft pick on DeVante Parker. They’ll also return second year slot receiver, Jarvis Landry, whose skill-set blends well with a short-range Tannehill. It’s safe to say that this group provides enough firepower to keep them competitive in most games.
In the trenches, the Dolphins field one of the best offensive lines in football. Football Outsiders ranked them ninth in run-blocking last year despite losing Branden Albert midway through the season. His return, along with the highest paid center in the league, Mike Pouncey, formats this group as an above average line. In 2014 they paved the way to 4.7 rushing yards-per-attempt. Only the Seahawks were better in that category with 5.3. We currently have the Dolphins' line ranked 13th.
What does this mean for Miler? It means scheming their offense isn’t so obvious for defensive coordinators. It means that the Dolphins will surpass the 8-8 bubble of mediocrity and be in Wild Card contention. But they’re not going to do it by pushing Tannehill into high volume situations. Efficiency is the key word. Not to be confused with conservatism, efficient teams are more balanced. They play good defense, get leads and hold onto them. Generally, that translates into top production from running backs. It's also worth noting that the Dolphins ran 4.2 red zone scoring attempts per game last year, second most (Patriots ran 4.3). That speaks to both how Tannehill improved, and what Bill Lazor adds as offensive coordinator.
CORRELATION, CAUSATION AND POINT DIFFERENTIAL
It’s often touted that a good defense has a positive correlation on rushing production. In theory, that makes sense. The better a defense is the more the offense sees the field. Time of possession is an important fantasy asset to consider, as more minutes equal more snaps. And more snaps equal more points.
We love the Dolphins’ defense this year. They allowed the 12th fewest yards-per-game in 2014 and ranked 20th in points allowed. They had mediocre sack totals, which explains why Ndamukong Suh was given six-year, $114 million contract. We’re willing to bet the pass rush of this group not only generates more sacks, but it will also help out a secondary that allowed 27 touchdowns to 14 interceptions.
So, if you’re to believe that good defense begets good rushing offense, then Miller is an absolute steal in the third round.
We think there’s more to it than that. In fact, we found that point differential has a stronger correlation to rushing production than just overall defense. In the table that follows we sorted the top-ten rushing offenses by total fantasy points (FPS) from running backs over the last six years. The column labeled as PD Rank is where that team ranked in point differential (total points for minus points against, courtesy of Sporting Charts).
|Year||Team||FPS||FPS Rank||PD Rank||Wins||Losses|
On average, teams who fielded a top-ten rushing offense also ranked 12th in point differential. The top five averaged a rank of 10.6 and the best rushing offenses averaged a rank of sixth. You can see the correlation grow stronger from top to bottom.
This study, of course, wouldn’t be complete without us isolating correlation from causation. We do see that the Chiefs, despite having the third most points by running backs in 2012, had the worst point differential of that season. Similar story in Washington in 2014 and Baltimore in 2010. There’s more at play here than just how good an offense was and how good the corresponding defense was. The average win-loss record was 9.4-6.6—more evidence we aren’t dealing with powerhouse offenses all around.
But the correlation exists and it at least gives us something to hang our hats on. Spinning it back towards Miller, we’re a fan of the Dolphins’ defense and currently rank them eighth in redraft. If our projections are accurate (they are), it’s likely that Miami will be among the top in point differential this season. Last year, they ranked 15th, while ranking 16th in fantasy points by running backs. The addition of Suh to the defensive line, and a healthy offensive line, shows us a lot of promise for Miller to succeed and easily pay off his ADP.
WHAT ABOUT OPPORTUNITY?
One of the most concerning things about Miller is his usage. If we’re investing a third round pick on a running back, we want to avoid a committee. For this reason, it’s hard to be confident in someone like Ingram, even if he works the goal-line, now that C.J. Spiller is in town.
Miller averaged only 13.5 carries-per-game last year, which ranked 16th among running backs with at least 100. He was also targeted only 48 times, which ranked 17th. The good news there is that he converted those 48 targets into 38 receptions, a catch rate of 79.2%. Expecting those numbers to go up is foolish. But it’s encouraging to see he can contribute to the passing game, a short-range passing game especially, and stay on the field for more snaps.
A lot of analyst are going to point to him never having more than 19 carries in any game. But even if his 216 total carries ranked 14th among all running backs, he was given 54% of his team’s total rushing attempts—10th most. The big question is does that number go up? Twenty-one teams ran the ball more than the Dolphins last year. We’d prefer to see numbers in the mid-400s, with the feature back garnering close to 60%.
We’re confident that they will rely on the running game more in 2015. So even if Miller hoovers around 55% of carries, he will still provide good, if not great fantasy numbers. We’d like to see the Dolphins closer to the league average of 427 carries-per-game. In that scenario, assuming Miller’s usage stays the same, his attempts-per-game would climb to approximately 235—good enough to finish in the top 10 last year.
Quality of carries shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Miller had the 14th most carries in the fourth quarter last year, and only 14 within his opponent’s five-yard line. That says a lot about how the Dolphins are closing games. And perhaps that’s why they drafted Jay Ajayi in the fifth round. He’s a bigger version of Miller and has good hands. When he’s healthy, it’s possible he eats into Miller’s snap-count, particularly around the goal-line. Initially, this isn’t something to worry about. But down the road, towards latter part of the season, Ajayi might earn a bigger role.
That, of course, presumes he’s healthy and actually good at football on a professional level. Neither presumption should scare you away from Miller. We expect his offense to be more efficient and more productive; all indications of a solid, RB1 season from No. 26.
- Offensive Line Intact: This group was shuffled around quite a bit last year after injuries. Having everyone back healthy and playing at their natural positions will be huge for the offense.
- Defensive Line Upgraded: Acquiring a big name like Suh and plugging him into the same line as Cameron Wake and Vernon Olivier makes this one of the best units on paper. A good defense usually spawns a good offense.
- Upside: We’ve seen what he can do even with limited touches. Should the Dolphins’ offense improve in the way that we’re projecting them to, Miller could produce top-five numbers in 2015.
- Usage: When investing an early draft pick on a running back, we want to make sure we’re getting near a bell cow back with carries and targets. We didn’t get that from Miller last year, despite his efficiency.
- Competition: Though we’re glad the Dolphins didn’t invest much in their backfield via the draft or free agency, the fact that they took someone like Ajayi means a timeshare could be in the works.
- Receptions: This might be more important in PPR leagues than standard, but we lose a lot of value at this position if our player is not a part of the passing game. We know Miller has the hands to participate on every down; we don’t know if he’ll be asked to do so more in 2015 than he was in 2014.
Going into Week 17, Miller needed 77 yards to break 1,000. He got it with one play and then some. Expecting 97-yard touchdown runs is crazy, but knowing he has the ability to rip through a defense is comforting. A healthy offensive line, and an upgraded defensive line, is also comforting. Las Vegas currently has Miami’s over/under win total set at eight games. We’ll be happy to bet on the over, and bet on Miller to give us a positive return on our investment. His ADP shouldn’t change much between now and fantasy drafts come late August, which provides us an opportunity to grab two elite wide receivers, if we’re so inclined to, but not miss out on a top tier running back.
Thoughts From Around the Web
ESPN Staff Writer, James Walker, notes that head coach Joe Philbin is open to giving Miller more carries in 2015:
“Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin told ESPN.com Sunday that the coaching staff is confident Miller can handle the load in 2015 and has no problem giving him more carries.”
Tyler Buechner of Numberfire.com lays out a nice argument for why we can trust Miller in fantasy football this year:
“The Dolphins rarely played with a lead last year, subsequently leading to Miami turning to the passing game and limiting Miller's production. After an offensive facelift this summer, Miller could be in line for an even better finish than last year from a fantasy perspective.”
Cori Bonini of USA Today lists Miller as a top-five breakout candidate, noting Bill Lazor comes from the Chip Kelly school of offense:
“Miller should be even better in 2015 — look for him to rack up nearly 1,700 offensive yards and at least 10 scores. In the prime of his career, he’s entering a contract season and auditioning for a huge payday.”