Can Lamar Miller Hold off Knowshon Moreno to Win Dolphins RB Battle?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJune 10, 2014

Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller (26) warms up before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills  on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)
Bill Wippert/Associated Press

When Knowshon Moreno signed a free-agent deal to join the Miami Dolphins after a career season with the Denver Broncos, the assumption was that Moreno was brought in to serve as the lead back who would jump-start Miami's lagging ground game.

Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

Apparently, third-year running back Lamar Miller didn't get the memo, and now the storyline has shifted from what Moreno brings to the Dolphins to whether it will be Miller, and not Moreno, who opens the season as the starter in Miami.

As Chris Perkins of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, it's been Miller who has spent the majority of time working with the first-team offense in OTAs, while Moreno has practiced primarily with the reserves.

Head coach Joe Philbin singled out Miller for praise, telling Perkins that the former University of Miami star is "a little bit bigger than he was a year ago, he's moving very well." Philbin also told James Walker of ESPN, "He's had a very good camp. ...This is the time as a third-year player that you're ready to make a big contribution."

Reports regarding Moreno have not been as positive. First came news that Moreno's showed up for OTAs a bit on the rotund side:

The 26-year-old also didn't impress on the practice field:

Philbin addressed Moreno's struggles while speaking with Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald. "Moreno dropped a pass today," Jackson wrote from OTAs, "and Joe Philbin conceded that his conditioning could be better."

Of course, Philbin also downplayed the notion of who is running where in OTAs, according to Perkins:

We don't really have starters right now. We're not overly concerned about that. We're teaching a system and a style of play offensively, so exactly who is getting what plays at this stage of the game isn't really the focus.

Philbin has a point. It's still only the second of week of June, and there's a long way to go before the Dolphins welcome the hated New England Patriots to town on Sept. 7.

Still, the notion of Miller beating out Moreno isn't exactly off the wall.

After all, prior to last season's explosion, Moreno was widely considered a bust, a pedestrian running back who never lived up to his status as a first-round draft pick.

Knowshon Moreno Career Stats

In fact, back in February of 2013, Dan Pompei (then of The National Football Post, now of Bleacher Report) wrote that the Broncos were prepared to part ways with Moreno:

Knowshon Moreno, the 12th pick of the 2009 draft, may be a former Bronco before long. Moreno never has performed up to where he was chosen in the draft, and he has a cap number of $3.28 million in 2013. Moreno impressed coaches in 2012 by coming on strong late with two 100 yard rushing games in December and even was voted AFC offensive player of the week, but his tenure in Denver mostly is notable for injuries and fumbles. Some question if he always has worked as hard as he should have.

Now that didn't happen, and Moreno went on to top 1,000 yards on the ground for the first time in his career, inspiring the Broncos to make next to no effort to bring Moreno back in free agency.

Even the Dolphins didn't exactly break the bank bringing Moreno on board, signing him to a one-year, $3 million deal.

At the time, Moreno himself admitted to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post that the depth chart at running back in Miami was far from set in stone:

"I just want to compete, Moreno said. "I’m not expecting anything. I’m coming from a team where anyone can be the starter and it’s the same thing with Dolphins.”

Rocking the Michelin Man look and butterfingers in camp isn't going to help his odds.

With that said though, Lamar Miller isn't exactly Jim Brown.

Lamar Miller Career Stats

Miller showed some flashes in 2013, but he managed only four yards a carry. Miller ranked 31st overall among NFL running backs at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and 27th in its "Elusive Rating," which "boils down a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers."

After the Dolphins ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing last year, Philbin made it clear, according to Jackson, that if Miller wanted to start in 2014, his play had to improve:

We want to see him make more explosive runs here and there. His pass protection improved but there’s still room for development there. He can do all three things a running back needs to do -- he has good running skills, he can pass protect, he can catch the football. We thought Lamar played well. We’ve got to break more tackles. I may have been guilty of overcoaching, harping on the ball security issue. He really did a good job of that. At some point, running backs need to break tackles. It’s not that he didn’t break any. But he’s got to break some more. There is room that we could potentially utilize him more [as a pass receiver]. He has good natural hands, good speed.

Now, until players start hitting, the tackle-breaking part is up in the air, but early indications are that message hit home.

The message that Philbin has sent to Moreno with this "demotion" (and it was a message, make no mistake) may hit home as well. We're still over a month from training camp, which leaves plenty of time for Moreno to get his ducks in a row.

And in any event, we're going to see both backs on the field this year. It behooves the Dolphins to get Miller's elusiveness on the field, just as Moreno's receiving ability (he can catch, really) and blocking acumen make him an excellent third-down back.

So far as Daniel Thomas goes? Milk-carton time, barring an injury.

However, all those fantasy-football types out there drafting Moreno under the presumption that he'll see the lion's share of the work in the Dolphins backfield this year may just want to slow their roll.

Because presumptions and assumptions are wilting in the Florida heat right now.


Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.