Tale of the Tape for the Miami Dolphins' Biggest Question Mark Heading into Camp
A lot has been made about the Miami Dolphins' backfield over the past couple of months. A number of writers have given us their thoughts on who will claim the Dolphins' top running back spot. Heck, I've even said as much recently.
So why all the constant talk about a seemingly overblown topic?
Frankly, because it's the Dolphins' most interesting position battle. Hands down. The only other position that comes close is the cornerback race, but in reality that's just a contest to see who can fill in behind Brent Grimes.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins have at least three players vying for playing time at running back, and two of those guys are fighting for the starting job. It's been a heated race so far between the talented group of youngsters, and it's only going to get more exciting as we approach training camp.
With that in mind, let's break down the Dolphins running back situation one more time and see who's leading the pack. And remember, the tale of the tape never lies.
It seems natural to start out with the favorite to win Miami's running back crown. Lamar Miller enters his second season with a bevy of expectations surrounding him. Many folks are already claiming 2013 will be his breakout season, despite being used sparingly as a rookie.
Those proclamations aren't too surprising, though. While his overall yards and touchdowns aren't exactly stunning, Miller did finish out 2012 with a remarkable average of 4.9 yards per carry. Moreover, he has the ability to break any run for big yardage.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks recently called Miller a "Clinton Portis clone" with the speed to break outside runs and the toughness to pound the ball up the middle. That's why the Dolphins felt comfortable letting Reggie Bush walk this offseason.
The biggest thing that held Miller back as a rookie was his deficiency as a pass-blocker. However, after spending another year in the offense, he has apparently become a reliable blocker. Head coach Joe Philbin sang his praises earlier this month, and now quarterback Ryan Tannehill is saying similar things.
In fact, Tannehill is saying a lot of things about Miller. When asked who Miami's starting running back is, he named Miller without pause. Obviously, Tannehill's word isn't final, but it's promising praise to hear from your quarterback.
At this juncture, it appears as though the running back job is Miller's to lose. However, that doesn't mean the second-year runner can rest easy, because there's at least one player who is poised to challenge for the starting spot.
Selected as part of Miami's impressive draft this offseason, rookie Mike Gillislee has been impressive so far in team drills.
His grizzled, punchy running style serves as a perfect complement to Miller's more surgical cuts. That's not to say Gillislee is all lumbering power—he has the speed to break away from most linebackers and the occasional corner as well.
His burst and vision prompted James Walker of ESPN's AFC East blog to dub Gillislee a rookie eye-catcher. He's turned heads elsewhere in the media as well, leading the Sun Sentinel's Omar Kelly to compare him to Frank Gore after rookie minicamp.
Gillislee enters the NFL following a breakout senior campaign with the Florida Gators in which he led one of the nation's most prolific rushing attacks. By all early accounts, he looks ready to transfer that success to the NFL.
It will take not only a remarkable effort on Gillislee's part to steal the starting job but a big drop off from Miller as well. At this point, it's likely the rookie will be Miami's No. 2 option in the backfield, but given his performance so far, he should still see a fair amount of carries in that role.
Considered by many to be somewhat of an odd man out in Miami's backfield, Daniel Thomas has a lot to prove in 2013.
The former Kansas State Wildcat is coming off two disappointing seasons. Injuries have kept him on the sideline much longer than the Dolphins would prefer, but even when he's been on the field, he's been underwhelming.
His carries took a hit from 2011 to 2012, dropping from 165 to 91. He has five total fumbles in his two-year career and an unimpressive 3.5 yards per carry average. Based on these numbers, it may seem easy to write off Thomas.
But Thomas has put in a lot of work this offseason to become a better back. He shook up his old training regimen to give himself a beefed up running style. He's added muscle and maturity to his game. Indeed, the added bulk could help him solidify a roster spot.
His blood and thunder style makes him a devastating short-yardage option. He rattled off four touchdowns last season in that role and could be effective there again in 2013. If he shows enough improvement, he could find his way to the field more often, stealing some carries away from Miller and Gillislee.
After all, nobody will complain about three effective running backs.
Jonas Gray was a force to be reckoned with at Notre Dame. The Dolphins took notice and scooped up the runner as an undrafted free agent prior to last season.
Unfortunately, an ACL injury forced Gray onto the physically unable to perform (PUP) list for much of the season. Once he was cleared to return, he rarely saw the field.
The Dolphins have kept Gray around, obviously intrigued with the young man's game. But despite a powerful career at Notre Dame, Gray's chances at finding playing time in Miami aren't terribly high. His chances of starting are significantly less so.
But with his one-cut style and big body, Gray could challenge Daniel Thomas to be Miami's short-yardage runner. However, that would likely take a pretty big collapse on Thomas' part.
Marcus Thigpen is the final contender for Miami's running back position. He's also the least likely to earn a spot in the regular rotation.
That's hardly an indictment of Thigpen's skills, though. With his quick cuts and blazing speed, he's solidified his role as Miami's deadly return man. After a record-setting campaign in 2012 which saw him become the first player in team history to return a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in one season, Thigpen looks to continue his streak this season.
Unfortunately, that's where his specialties will remain. Miami's backfield is already crowded with Miller, Gillislee and Thomas. There isn't much room for Jonas Gray, which means there's even less room for Thigpen.
Barring a catastrophic string of injuries, Thigpen will enter 2013 as the Dolphins' electric return man and nothing more.