The Dolphins chose not to renew Reggie Bush’s contract this offseason, parting ways with 2,072 rushing yards over the past two years. But running back is the one position where fielding fresh legs is even more important than employing an established player.
Not that Bush is damaged goods, but Miami feels they have a young, promising back in Lamar Miller who is ready for a starter’s workload and a breakout 2013 campaign. Behind Miller, the Dolphins have a few talented, but unproven runners who are eager to compete for carries.
So how will the position play out in training camp? Who wins the No. 2 role? Who makes the team? Let’s take a look.
Lamar Miller: Some have made the claim that Lamar Miller is only the front-runner in a highly-competitive battle for the starting job.
I don’t buy it.
Miller became the Dolphins’ starting halfback the second it became obvious that general manager Jeff Ireland wouldn’t be retaining Reggie Bush. Obviously, Miller must run well to keep that title. But for now, it’s his.
The bigger question may be: Can Miller be as or more productive than Reggie Bush?
My surmise is, without a doubt. Miller only carried the rock 51 times as a rookie, but he was the Dolphins’ most consistent back, averaging 4.9 yards per carry to Bush’s 4.3.
He’s a one-cut runner who’ll be more productive than Bush was between the tackles. Bush may have more speed and elusiveness than Miller, but the former Miami Hurricane far from pales by comparison. He wasn’t able to showcase it as a rookie, but Miller, like Bush, will be a home-run threat every time he touches the ball.
The Dolphins made a wise decision to let Bush walk in free agency. It will only be a matter of time before Lamar Miller proves it.
Mike Gillislee: The Dolphins nabbed Miller’s potential accomplice in Mike Gillislee during the fifth round of April’s draft. The former Florida Gator is a well-rounded runner who has solid size and speed.
Gillislee doesn’t excel in any one particular trait, but he has the ability to pick up tough yards or produce yards by the chunk. He also projects to be a reliable blocker, which could be a factor in plenty of snaps on third down.
Third-year veteran Daniel Thomas stands in Gillislee’s way of becoming the Dolphins’ No. 2 back. With a strong camp and preseason, though, the rookie’s prospects of beating out Thomas are feasible.
Daniel Thomas: It’s safe to say former second-round pick Daniel Thomas is down 0-2 in the count. His first two seasons in Miami were disappointments and his third will be his last chance to develop into a key contributor.
Thomas is a tough runner, but injuries, fumbles and inconsistency have threatened his tenure in Miami. If training camp and the exhibition season prove to be more of the same for Thomas, rookie Mike Gillislee will have a golden opportunity to become Lamar Miller’s primary backup.
And if Thomas is relegated to third on the depth chart, the Dolphins wouldn’t have much incentive to keep him on the roster.
Jorvorskie Lane, FB: For now, last year’s starting fullback Jorvorskie Lane is a possible cut. That status would downgrade to a likely cut in a hurry if the Dolphins ever come around to signing free-agent fullback Vonta Leach.
Leach, even at 31, is one of the game’s best lead blockers and would instantly upgrade the Dolphins’ rushing attack. He’d also help protect Tannehill in pass pro.
Lane played hard in 2012, but he’s far from irreplaceable and the Dolphins obviously feel they need to upgrade at the position.
Marcus Thigpen: Give Jeff Ireland credit, the man knows how to find talent north of the border. After spending three years in the CFL, Marcus Thigpen signed with the Dolphins last season where he spent time at running back and receiver.
But Thigpen’s main contribution was return specialist, returning one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns. The Dolphins may experience with other returners in camp, but Thigpen is the hands-down favorite to retain that role.
Entering 2013, Thigpen hopes to get more work on offensive, either in the backfield or the slot.
Jonas Gray: Gray was a fast-rising running back prospect at Notre Dame before tearing his ACL in November 2011, scaring away any potential suitors during the 2012 draft.
The Dolphins took a flyer on him as an undrafted free agent and gave him a medical redshirt last season. Now, fully-rehabilitated, Gray hopes to compete for a spot in Miami’s crowded backfield.
If he can return to the form that averaged 6.94 yards per carry as a senior for the Irish, he may just turn some heads this season. As a big back with deceptive quickness, Gray could easily play his way onto the team with a solid preseason.
Evan Rodriguez, FB: Rodriguez was let go by the Bears following two offseason arrests, but actually had a fairly impressive rookie season, starting five games and appearing in 12.
If he can put his legal troubles in the rear-view mirror, he could certainly push Jorvorskie Lane for the one roster spot at fullback. Unlike Lane, though, Rodriguez isn’t a pure fullback. The Bears experimented with him at tight end and H-back as well.
It’s unclear if the Dolphins have similar plans for Rodriguez as Charles Clay has been that versatile player in the past. But if they do, Rodriguez could threaten Lane and Clay by playing well on the field and cleaning up his lifestyle off of it.
Cameron Marshall: The Arizona State product is a long-shot to make the 53-man roster after going undrafted in April. But impact running backs come from seemingly nowhere every year.
It’s not out of the question to think Marshall could impress enough in the preseason to make the team. Highly unlikely, but not impossible.
1. Lamar Miller
2. Mike Gillislee
3. Jonas Gray
4. Marcus Thigpen
1. Vonta Leach
Countdown to camp: 9 days