There comes a time in every player’s career when potential must equate to results. That time has come for Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas. Some even feel that time has come and gone for the former second-round pick.
The Dolphins, however, remain patient.
According to the Miami Herald, the organization is still high on Thomas despite a 3.5 yards-per-carry average, multiple sustained injuries and five fumbles compared to only four touchdowns since he was taken with the 62nd pick of the 2011 draft.
The Herald’s Armando Salguero has maintained that Thomas is fighting for a role in training camp, but not for a spot on the 53-man roster — he’s competing with Lamar Miller for the starting job.
Dolphins fans must be bewildered by that notion after witnessing rookie Mike Gillislee and essential rookie Jonas Gray run harder and more decisively during the team’s first two exhibition games.
Rarely is a player so polarly perceived that anything from becoming a camp causality to cracking the starting lineup is being discussed. But that’s the conundrum Daniel Thomas has become.
So, what exactly does Miami see in Thomas that nobody else seems to?
Is it the fact that he’s only played two seasons? Seasons in which he was hampered by injuries and never got into a rhythm at full strength.
Maybe Miami is clinging to the promise Thomas displayed early on as a rookie. In his first two games as a pro, he ran for 107 yards against the Texans and 95 yards against the Browns in consecutive weeks, showcasing the tough running style that enticed general manager Jeff Ireland to trade up for him in the draft five months prior.
A tweaked hamstring sidelined Thomas the following week, though, and he’s never been the same.
A 73-yard outing against the Oakland Raiders in December of 2011 has been his high rushing total since.
Thomas has failed to run for as much as 30 yards in 12 of his last 23 games. 181 players averaged more than the 3.5 yards Thomas managed per carry in 2011. 182 bested Thomas’ 3.6 average last year.
Yet the Dolphins remain confident in the third-year back. And if that confidence is wavering, they certainly aren’t showing it.
Maybe the Dolphins plan to keep Thomas around because his price tag is relatively low. The $669,217 he’s slated to make in 2013 is less than what long snapper John Denney will accrue this season, after all.
Fiscally, Thomas isn’t a burden on the Dolphins. But neither are Lamar Miller, Mike Gillislee and Jonas Gray, whose salaries are all less than Thomas’ in 2013. Thomas is still considered ahead of Gillislee and Gray on the depth chart and, according to one source, challenging Lamar Miller for that No. 1 spot.
So, there must be another explanation.
Draft status — not what he’s actually accomplished on the field — could be propelling Thomas the most.
The Dolphins — and by Dolphins I mean general manager Jeff Ireland — likely don’t want to admit they made a mistake selecting Thomas in the second round of the 2011 draft.
Looking at a couple backs who were chosen after Thomas makes it hard to argue they didn’t.
Who were the next two running backs to come off the board? DeMarco Murray to the Dallas Cowboys with the 71st pick and Stevan Ridley to the Patriots with pick No. 73.
Murray has battled injuries during his first two seasons, but he’s averaged 4.8 yards per carry and once ran for 601 yards during a four-game stretch as a rookie, which included roasting the Rams for 253. Ridley, meanwhile, produced 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012 for New England.
But making a mistake is understandable, especially during the draft where months of scouting can be swayed by a gut feeling.
Not owning up to that mistake isn’t.
And so two young backs in Jonas Gray and Mike Gillislee have impressed so far in two preseason games. Both have a long way to go and must demonstrate consistency in the final three exhibitions. But even with continued success, it doesn’t appear they’ll be given a fair shot to unseat Daniel Thomas as Lamar Miller’s sidekick.
Letting Thomas compete to be the No. 2 back is more than reasonable. He’s the team’s most experienced runner and does an adequate job in pass protection. Giving Thomas immunity as Miller’s primary backup, however, even if he’s outplayed, is farcical considering he’s done nothing to prove he can be a reliable player.
Maybe the Dolphins are just blowing smoke, but the vibe around the organization seems to be that Thomas is a lock to make the 53-man roster. And if he’s indeed competing with Lamar Miller to be the feature back, Miami’s faith in Thomas has become unsubstantiated.
If all things were equal, it’s difficult to believe Thomas would remain a shoo-in as one of the team’s top two at he position. What he’s put on tape just doesn’t support that.
At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Thomas has the size to be a true force as a power back. He’s played like more of a scatback during his first two seasons, though, looking to juke defenders rather than run over them and going down rather easily for an athlete of his size.
On third and one, which back would you hand the ball to right now in Miami’s backfield? I’m calling Jonas Gray’s number, who may not be as talented as Thomas but has fought for every yard during the first two preseason games.
Which back would you have spell Lamar Miller for 10 carries or so every game? I’m going with Mike Gillislee, who has showed off some good elusiveness in the open field and toughness between the tackles.
With Marcus Thigpen moving to receiver, there’s no stopping the Dolphins from keeping all four of their remaining backs on the 53. But if Thomas’ job isn’t in jeopardy, the number of touches he’s projected to acquire sure needs to be.
And maybe throwing Thomas in a sink-or-swim environment where he’s fighting for that No. 2 role would help tap some of the potential Miami seems to be so high on. Because the entitlement that has come with being a former second-round pick sure hasn’t.
The Dolphins shouldn’t let one mistake become another.
Trading up to select Daniel Thomas in the second round of the 2011 draft was a mistake barring an unforeseen breakout season in 2013.
Not admitting that it might have been by giving promising young backs like Mike Gillislee and Jonas Gray a legitimate shot to surpass Thomas would be another.
Another mistake that could limit how effective the Dolphins are in short-yardage situations in 2013. Another mistake that could hurt the team’s turnover margin if Thomas continues to have ball security issues.
I’m not saying Thomas can’t put it all together and become a solid No. 2 option for Miami this season with good health. But he hasn’t earned what he’s apparently been given — the primary backup role and the opportunity to compete for the starting job.
Just go back and look at the film from Thomas’ first two seasons and tell me the Dolphins can’t do better. Then, go back and watch the way Jonas Gray and Mike Gillislee ran in games one and two of the preseason and tell me they don’t deserve a shot to compete.
If either Gillislee or Gray were to emerge as the offense’s change-of-pace back, Jeff Ireland’s decision to draft Thomas in 2011 would look even worse.
But a better product on the field in 2013 is what will ultimately decide Ireland’s fate in Miami. Replacing Thomas with Gillislee or Gray could provide the Dolphins with just that.