The running back in a spread offense like Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman have established in Miami is not going to be a classic workhorse back who gets 20 or more carries right up the gut every game. The lead back in the Dolphins offense will need to be explosive, laterally quick, a good pass catcher, and a decent enough blocker on early downs. All the aforementioned categories made Reggie Bush a good fit in the Dolphins scheme, but keeping him at his price tag was not going to happen this offseason, and that’s neither here nor there.
The team felt confident enough with what Lamar Miller showed as a rookie in 2012 to make him the odds-on favorite to win the starting job in 2013. However, former second round pick Daniel Thomas is still around, and the Dolphins drafted University of Florida running back Mike Gillislee in the fifth round of April’s draft.
Let’s start with the favorite. Miller was often the guy fans were clamoring for to get on the field more often, with Reggie Bush’s ill-timed benchings, and Daniel Thomas’ overall ineffectiveness. Now it appears as if the job is Miller’s to lose. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill stated on “NFL Total Access” on June 3rd that Miller was the starter as of now. As a rookie, Miller averaged nearly five yards per carry, and showed elusiveness and burst when given consistent carries (see his touchdown run in his first NFL game versus Oakland as proof).
Then we have the underdog. Daniel Thomas was the Dolphins’ second round pick in the 2011 draft, a pick the Dolphins actually traded up to acquire. Thomas has missed seven games in his first two seasons due to various injuries, and his averages were nearly identical in his first two years, averaging 3.5 and 3.6 yards per carry, with only four touchdowns (all in 2012). For being a big, strong back (6’1, 233), Thomas has displayed an inability to gain first downs in short yardage situations, and although his blocking is decent enough to merit a spot on the field, it is tough to see Thomas overtaking Miller barring injury.
Now we come to the dark-horse candidate. The Dolphins selected Florida Gators’ running back Mike Gillislee in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, and all reports out of team practices so far have been very positive on the rookie. Gillislee had a breakout year in 2012 for Florida, averaging 19 carries per game, 4.7 yards per rush, and scoring 10 touchdowns. Gillislee does not show superstar grades in any category, but has no glaring weaknesses either. His agility, toughness, and pass catching ability will make him tough to keep out of the rotation as a rookie.
Don’t rule out undrafted free agent signing Cameron Marshall out of Arizona State. His measurables are comparable to Gillislee and he had a phenomenal junior year at ASU in which he ran for over 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns facing tough PAC-12 defenses. By no means will Marshall begin the season as the starter or the backup, but do not be surprised if he shines as an injury replacement and then becomes hard to get off the field.
Luis Estrada lives in Miami and has covered University of Miami Hurricanes’ athletics for InsidetheU.com, as well as the Miami Dolphins and Miami Marlins for BleacherReport.com.