While much of the Miami Dolphins’ playoff aspirations are dependent on Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and whether or not he can elevate his game to the next level, the Dolphin offense will rely heavily on their rushing attack for consistency, multidimensionality, and balance. Last year, the Dolphins, as a team, finished 12th in total rushing yards, and 2nd in yards per attempt. Much of this was due to the breakout season of starter Lamar Miller.
In his third year with the team, and second as a starter, Lamar Miller compiled 1099 yards and eight touchdowns. These are both good for career highs, but most impressively, Miller was extremely efficient, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. The Dolphin tailback’s statistical pefromance placed him in elite company, as he was ranked in the top ten for all three categories, and finished 5th in yards per attempt behind three quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Colin Kaepernick) and Baltimore Ravens’ running back Justin Forsett.
Miller, a University of Miami product and local fan favorite, was electrifying all season long, including a 97 yard scamper against the New York Jets in the season finale. His combination of speed and vision perfectly fits the Dolphins’ zone blocking scheme and last year’s explosion seems to only be the beginning of a dynamic career.
One area for concern for Lamar Miller and the Dolphins is the running back’s durability. Miller was limited to just 13.5 carries per game last season. In the offseason, Miller has set out to rectify this, gaining a few pounds in hopes of garnering more carries. While Coach Joe Philbin prefers a running back by committee system, expect the Dolphins to feed their starting running back somewhere between 15 and 18 carries a game next season, and if Miller can stay healthy, his added work may vault into the top tier of NFL running backs.
After Lamar Miller, the Dolphins’ next leading rusher last season was QB Ryan Tannehill. This must change going into next season, and the Dolphins will rely on their reserve running backs to produce and spell for Miller. The Dolphins opened training camp with four other halfbacks, currently listed on the depth chart as follows: Damien Williams, LaMichael James, Jay Ajayi, and Mike Gillislee. Miami will certainly not keep five running backs going into the 2015 season, and will be looking to cut 1 to 2 of these players.
Currently second on the depth chart and the primary 3rd down back is Damien Williams. The former undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma looks to gain more playing time and improve on his 2014 campaign. Williams rushed for just 122 yards with a less than stellar 3.6 yards per carry, however, he was a weapon in the passing game hauling in 21 receptions for 187 yards and a touchdown. Williams will certainly get more opportunities to produce in 2015.
While on the smaller side, Williams is a tough runner that can weave in between gaps. He has steadily preformed throughout training camp and is arguably the soundest blocking back on the roster. This in combination with his experience playing in OC Bill Lazor’s scheme and excellent special teams play makes Williams a lock to make the 53 man roster and the likely backup for Lamar Miller.
Challenging Williams for the backup role is relative newcomer and former San Francisco 49er LaMichael James. While many remember James for his time in Oregon just a few years ago, he has shown much potential in the opening days of training camp, and seems to be adapting to the NFL. The 190 lbs. scat back is not going to run over anybody, but he possesses speed and ankle-breaking agility. His name is buzzing around the organization and many expect James to be an explosive option out of the backfield for the Miami Dolphin offense. His pass blocking ability seems to be the primary shortcoming in his game, and the reason why he cannot overcome Williams in the depth chart.
While these two backs have the potential to be solid contributers, they are mostly unproven commodities. A lack of confidence in their ability and the possible impending departure of Lamar Miller to free agency pushed the front office to seek out a running back in the 2015 NFL Draft. In what many draft analyst viewed as a steal, the Dolphins selected Jay Ajayi out of Boise State in the 5th round. After a stellar season in which Ajayi ran for nearly 2,000 yards, many expected him to be selected in the first three rounds, but concerns about his health caused his stock to plummet.
Ajayi brings a different running style to the team than any other running back on the roster. He has the potential to be the thunder to the others’ lightining and for this reason, has the highest chance to quickly shoot up the depth chart. Being a bit bigger and stronger, at his best, Ajayi can pair with Miller as a change of pace back. At his worst, he is a complimentary back that will only see the field if injuries begin to pop up. This will ultimately be determined by his performance in the preseason, however, his status as a rookie all but guarantees his place on the final roster.
At the bottom of the depth chart is Mike Gillislee, the University of Florida running back who spent all of last year on injury reserve. After making no relevant contribution to the team in his first few years, this is likely Gillislee last chance to prove he belongs in the NFL, and more specifically, on the Miami Dolphins. While he is skilled and silky when he runs, Gillislee struggles to recognize holes and has trouble with his vision. It is likely that he will be on a different team when the NFL season begins.
With Miller, Williams, and Ajayi having confirmed spots on the rosters, and Gillislee being the odd man out, the only real decision is whether the Dolphins will have a spot for LaMichael James. Given his performance in training camp and versatility as a runner, pass-catcher, and returner, I fully expect him to not only make the team, but to also receive opportunities to make an impact all season long.
All in all, the Dolphins should be comfortable with their options at running backs. While they all have not had much success at the pro level, with the exception of Lamar Miller, Coach Philbin will look to utilize each of their individual talents in the proper scenarios. A successful running game will relieve some pressure from the offensive line and Ryan Tannehill. If Miller can duplicate or even improve on last year’s performance and the backups can contribute timely big plays, the Dolphin offense will certainly be tough to stop.