Friday, July 13, 2012

Training Camp Battles #9: Backup Running Back

The Miami Dolphins enter 2012 with an interesting but potentially productive mix at running back.

You have former No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush coming off his first 1,000-yard rushing season, having shown all of us he can hold up as a feature back through a full season. You have 2011 second-rounder Daniel Thomas, who flashed at times but was overall disappointing in an injury-plagued rookie campaign. And you have rookie fourth-rounder Lamar Miller, whose speed and receiving ability make him a potentially versatile threat from the backfield.

But while I would say the Dolphins' top three running backs are locked in on the depth chart, a potential fourth spot remains up for grabs if indeed the team decides to go four-deep at the position.

The Contenders

  • Steve Slaton — As a rookie with the Texans in 2008, Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns, while adding 50 receptions and 377 yards through the air. Since then, he's rushed for just 614 yards on a 3.5-yard average in three seasons with the Texans and Dolphins. One has to imagine there is still talent in there somewhere, but his drastic fall in Houston and his inability to get on the field in Miami in 2011 is concerning. Although coach Joe Philbin talked him up after his resigning, he's going to need a stellar camp to crack the roster.
  • Jerome Messam — A 245-pound mauler from the Canadian Football League, the 27-year-old Messam looks to have some potential but has been slowed by a knee injury suffered last season in the CFL and a follow-up surgery in May. It still remains to be seen whether he works at fullback or tailback and there is really no way to predict how he'll do until we know he can stay on the field.
  • Marcus Thigpen — Another CFL import, Thigpen is more of a receiver out of the backfield and return man than a true running back. One has to imagine he'll be on the outside looking in unless he wins a return specialist gig.
  • Jonas Gray — One of the top running backs in the nation coming out of high school, Gray had a fairly quiet career at Notre Dame, failing to rush for more at least 120 yards in his first three seasons before totaling 791 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. A torn ACL in November prematurely ended his college career and still has him limited in offseason workouts, so an active roster spot is pretty much off the table.

The Verdict

Based on the four names I see competing for this potential fourth running back spot, I'm inclined to think the Dolphins won't keep a fourth one at all. Slaton is obviously the most proven and "high-upside" of the bunch, but he hasn't produced in three years and doesn't contribute elsewhere, so there is little reason to keep him at a veteran price as your fourth running back.

Beyond that, Messam appears to be the only one with the immediate talent to even have a chance at making this roster, and his knee is questionable. If he can stay healthy and show enough potential, he might force the Dolphins to use a roster spot on him.

Otherwise, I'd expect the Dolphins to keep three backs total. Thigpen isn't good enough to crack this roster and Gray need more time to rehab and develop. In September, I imagine Thigpen will be heading back to Canada and Gray will simply be hoping to land a practice squad spot, as the Dolphins would almost certainly keep a fourth back there if they only kept three active.

It will be interesting to see how the Dolphins use their three-headed monster at tailback. Some people are down on Thomas, but I for one was impressed when he was on the field last year and I see him as a potential feature back.

My initial guess is that Bush will start if he stays healthy, but Thomas will see an increased role between the tackles and Miller will be brought along slowly. If Bush has another good year, I'd expect him to price himself out of the Dolphins' plans for 2013 and beyond, at which time we could see a true dual-back system of Thomas (the between-the-tackles pounder) and Miller (the speedy receiving threat).

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