With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Miami running back Lamar Miller. After rushing for 1,272 yards in 2011 and posting a 4.40 forty time at the combine, Miller declared himself to be the best running back in this year's draft class. Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, and a few others may disagree, but what would a Hurricanes prospect be without an overabundance of self confidence?
Miller may not be the best back of the class, but he is the best running back to leave Miami since Frank Gore. His 40-time also may have opened a few eyes: Miller does not look like a sprinter on tape, but if he can match that 4.40 speed with his compact 215-pound frame and no-nonsense running style, he could develop into a Pro Bowl running back.
Pros: Miller is an old-fashioned I-formation tailback. He takes the handoff or pitch, reads the block of the fullback, makes a cut, and keeps his legs pumping for extra yards after contact. When lined up as a single-setback or in shotgun, he attacks the hole quickly, though he will sift and make quick cuts to elude a defender in the gap. On sweeps, he does an excellent job setting up his blocks, patiently waiting until defenders are engaged before knifing upfield.
Once he makes his move upfield, Miller does not shake-and-bake much, but he is quick enough to make flat-footed defenders whiff, and he is a very strong finisher. That finishing ability makes Miller a very effective interior runner for his size, allowing him to turn three-yard gains into five-yarders. He can blow through arm tackles.
Miller does not get high marks for elusiveness, and he looks a little tight when trying to change direction or bounce outside. Still, he has made some big plays when reversing field: he had a Marcus Allen-type run against Virginia Tech, for example, when he swept right, found nothing doing, and crossed all the way back to the left sideline for a long gain. Plays like that are not a huge part of his game, however, and he is more likely to put his nose in the pile than to try any Barry Sanders-style heroics.
Cons: Miller lacks experience in the passing game. He appears to have good hands and tools, but most of his receiving production came on screens and dump-offs, and he earns low grades as a pass protector.
Remember that these are major flaws for an NFL back: most teams do not line up in the I-formation 40 times per game anymore, so an every-down back must block and catch more than screen passes.
Despite his 40 time and track-and-field background (he was an anchor-man in the 4X100 relay), Miller does not appear to play to his timed speed. Part of the problem is his lack of change-of-direction quickness; Miller usually finds his final gear after he bursts through the secondary.
Conclusion: Miller offers such an intriguing production/potential combination that many teams will consider him in the second or early third round, even if they only project him as a committee back who leaves the field on passing downs as a rookie. Miller has a lot of room to grow and could become a bell cow in a Mike Shanahan-Gary Kubiak offense or the slasher in a power-based running game. His upside is very high; his downside is as a specialized back who loses playing time because he never develops as a blocker and receiver.
NFL Comparison: Ben Tate, Houston Texans.