The Miami Dolphins have signed former Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno today to a one-year deal worth ~$3 million per Adam Schefter. While the former first round draft pick was a great fantasy option last year, he became expendable with the development of Montee Ball. With this signing, where should Ball be drafted next year, and on the flip side, who is the running back to own in Miami?
There are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and a successful running back in Peyton Manning’s offense. The caveat to the last statement, however, is that the running back needs to have the trust of Peyton, which does not come easy. Last year, Knowshown Moreno was handed the reins of the offense for two reasons: he knew how to prevent Manning from getting sacked and he rarely turned the ball over. Why then, did the Broncos let go of Moreno? The difference between Moreno and Ball in terms of pass protection and ball security turned out to be minimal last year. Per ProFootballFocus, Ball actually ranked slightly ahead of Moreno in terms of pass protection (-0.4 vs. -0.7) and in total, only lost one more fumble than Moreno did at the end of the year. Granted Moreno had a lot more carries, but ball security is something that the Broncos think Ball can improve on. The fact that they were so similar in the two most important attributes that Peyton wants out of his running backs made Moreno expendable, especially since he was asking for money that the Broncos need to invest elsewhere.
So how should we treat Ball as heading into 2014? There’s no chance that Ball will go under the radar this offseason, as any RB who gets the majority of the touches in a Peyton-led offense is going draw plenty of attention. That being said, I would comfortably place Ball within my top 12 RBs for 2014. On tape and on paper last year, Ball was a superior runner to Moreno. On his last 65 carries of the year, Ball averaged 5.87 yards per carry, and finished the season with 4.4 YPC. While he didn’t prove to be a great receiver (he ranked 38th in terms of receiving out of RBs in 2013 per PFF), he finished as a top-10 receiver in yards after contact per attempt at 2.6, and should be heavily utilized near the goal line. If Ball gets the majority of the work on 1st and 2nd downs (which he will), along with the red-zone carries (which he also will), there’s no reason to think that Ball can’t repeat what Moreno did last year, which was a top 5 finish.
Traveling across the country to Miami, the situation becomes much more unclear. Summer breakout candidate Lamar Miller disappointed fantasy owners last year, in part because of his coaching staff but also due to his poor offensive line. The 2nd year back finished with a mediocre 177/709/2 line and 4.0 yards per carry average. His offensive line didn’t help much, as they were ranked the 4th worst run-blocking team per PFF. In addition, Daniel Thomas stole much of his thunder, scoring all four of his touchdowns from within the 5-yard line. So how are we to sort this three-headed running back nightmare? For starters, let me be clear: regardless of who receives the majority of the carries, I’m not expecting much out of them. Despite signing All-Pro LT Branden Albert and underrated G Shelley Smith in the past month, I don’t expect the offensive line to be improved enough to produce top 20 numbers. Of course, just because you’re not a top caliber RB doesn’t mean you don’t have value.
Out of the three running backs, I’m banking on the fact that Daniel Thomas is going to be the odd man out. Though he was Joe Philbin’s “goal-line back,” he took that classification to the extreme. Thomas’ running style last year is best described by the term “plodding,” and he finished with a CAREER-BEST average of 3.7 yards per carry. While that’s not quite Trent Richardson-esque, it’s still pretty miserable, so I think it’s safe to say that Thomas will have to outperform Miller and Moreno by a lot during the offseason to see the field, which I don’t think will happen.
Even with Thomas out of the picture, the roles are murky at best. Miller showed flashes of speed and explosiveness in 2013, but never put it all together. He lacked aggression and power on his runs, and he struggled in the passing game (26 receptions for 170 yards). Combine his inability to make the most of his opportunities with the fact that his coaching staff didn’t give him very many opportunities (the Dolphins ran the football the 4th fewest times in the NFL), and you get the mediocre season that Miller produced. In Moreno, you have a running back who takes what’s given, but not much more. That worked in Denver, but if the Dolphins offensive line can’t perform better than last year, Moreno won’t be given very much to work with. I realize I probably haven’t swayed you one way or the other in terms of who to draft, but that’s actually the point. Neither of these running backs excites me. Both have flaws that will still stand out in 2014, and neither has much of an edge over the other. I view Moreno as a mediocre running back who should have the first crack at the starting RB gig in Miami. In Miller, I see a high ceiling if he can put it all together, as well as a cavernous floor if he fails to improve. I’m not placing either running back within my top 30, but if the price is low enough, I’d be more inclined to take a gamble on Lamar Miller.