Written by Kip Earlywine
Something I’ve come to believe as I’ve gotten older is that the more I learn about something, the more I realize how little I actually know. I think every fan has had moments where they believed they were smarter or had better evaluation skills than an NFL front office. There were times when I felt that way in the past. That said, after watching John Schneider and Pete Carroll find so many mid to late round success stories, it’s really hammered home how vast a difference there is between my ability to evaluate talent and theirs. I wasn’t a fan of the KJ Wright pick. I wasn’t a fan of the Kam Chancellor pick. I was lukewarm on Richard Sherman (although I did like his upside). I was lukewarm on Earl Thomas. And I never thought Doug Baldwin would amount to anything in the NFL, and that was after having the benefit of seeing him in four preseason games.
Because of humbling experiences like those, I’ve come to believe in my own opinion a little less and listen to the input of others a little more. There are times when I rate a player much higher than most others, but I accept that there must be logical reasons for the divergence in opinion. Perhaps they have access to information I don’t have? Perhaps I overlooked a fault or didn’t put enough value on it? Perhaps my amateur level understanding of scheme and fit plays a role in how well that player can translate his game?
However, witnessing the slow yet steady decline of Lamar Miller’s draft stock over the past couple months has put this attitude to the test. Miller began the offseason as a possible mid-first round pick. I’m not a subscriber to ESPN insider, but its my understanding that in Mel Kiper’s most recent Mock (4.0), he didn’t even list Lamar Miller going in the first two rounds at all. Kiper may be the first to be so bold, but he’s simply reflecting the consensus feeling that Miller continues to drop and drop and drop down mock drafts. Its getting harder and harder to find a mock that even has Miller going in the first half of round two at this point.
To me, that’s crazy talk. Granted, Miller only has one full starting season to go by, but his tape is first round quality, and he had a very strong combine.
There is only one good reason to devalue Miller’s stock, which is the stiff competition he faces from being part of the deepest and most competitive running back class in years. Trent Richardson is clearly the top back, but spots two through four are almost a tie (in my opinion) between Lamar Miller, Doug Martin, and Chris Polk, with David Wilson drawing strong consideration from many places too. Not just that, but the next tier of running backs is loaded with talents like LaMichael James, Robert Turbin, Isaiah Pead and Bernard Pierce. Even going into the 5th and 6th rounds, you will find starter quality backs like Cyrus Gray, Tauren Poole, Vick Ballard and Terrance Ganaway. You don’t have to be an economist to understand the effects of supply and demand, and the incredible depth of running back options will tempt many teams to spend that valuable second round pick on another area of need instead.
Heck, even Rob and I were guilty of as much when we passed on Lamar Miller in Mocking the Draft’s writer’s mock, though we only did so because we felt convinced that a linebacker with the kind of special speed Seattle wants would not last another round. It still hurt though, because while Rob and I may not always agree on every prospect, we both view Miller as a 1st round talent. Getting Miller in the second round would feel a lot like having another first round pick.
There is so much to like about Miller, he’s kind of the Lavonte David of running backs: a mountain of positive features with some uncertainties but no glaring negatives.
First, let’s talk about speed. Lamar Miller is tied with David Wilson for being the fastest big name running back in the draft. But unlike Wilson who accomplishes that speed with long strides, Miller takes very short strides which gives him change of direction skills that Wilson can only dream of. Whereas Wilson is easily the least shifty of the top running backs, Miller is the shiftiest back in the draft. Miller’s ability to juke and slip around defenders makes him a frequent comparison to Clinton Portis.
Miller has pull away speed and will be a threat to score from anywhere even in the NFL. He’s not Chris Johnson tier, but he’ll be faster than most running backs in the league on day one. This is a very valuable asset as Seattle still needs to find more ways to produce big plays. He also has the quickness to be dangerous both inside and outside of the tackles. Every carry Miller makes has a good chance to be a big gain.
Miller’s vision is a strength and he has the instincts to take what he can get when appropriate or show the patience to hit a developing cutback lane instead. He accelerates with deceptive speed and knows how to get skinny at the first level. Miami had an above average run blocking line, but Miller knows how to take full advantage of good blocking and maximize yardage with his opportunities. In my four game sample I was very impressed with the very low number of negative plays Miller made. Everything comes naturally to him and he often makes it all look very easy. He’s also consistent game to game. Only three times in twelve games last year did Miller average less than 4.2 yards per carry.
I think what surprised me the most about Miller is how tough he was to bring down. He doesn’t look especially muscular and typically runners with elusive skill sets tend to lack strength. Miller isn’t quite as strong as Chris Polk or Doug Martin, but he plays hard and can push a pile. That power is even more surprising since he tends to avoid stiff arms in favor of maximized ball security. Per ESPN, Miller has only had three fumbles (two lost) in 381 career touches. Miller knows how to take care of the rock which will have added appeal for a ball control team like Seattle that stresses turnover ratio very heavily.
Miller is only 20 years old as of this writing (he turns 21 next week). Like Trent Richardson and David Wilson, time is on Miller’s side as he’ll have nine full NFL seasons before reaching his 30th birthday.
One of the drawbacks of being so young is that Miller hasn’t had a very large body of work yet, which means we really can’t say much about his receiving ability or pass blocking. In my sample he made a diving touchdown catch and never suffered a drop, so I think the initial signs there are encouraging. As far as pass blocking, I have no idea, but given how hard he plays the game, I’d imagine he’s a willing blocker and will be receptive to coaching. Some teams who are looking for an immediate three down starter could shy away from Miller because of the risk that he’s potentially only a two down back. Seattle has twenty six year old Marshawn Lynch on a four year contract, making them an ideal landing spot for Miller as he can work on his receiving and blocking skills over the next few years while backing up a franchise player.
Miller suffered a shoulder injury early last season, but it appeared to be minor and Miller didn’t miss time from it.
Lamar Miller isn’t just a second round steal, he’s a perfect fit in every way for what the Seahawks need at running back. He’s good enough to be a legitimate starting running back if Lynch gets hurt, and he’s also useful as a change of pace back in the meantime. A Lynch/Miller paring would be a lot like the Gore/Hunter pairing in San Franscisco, where Frank Gore wears down a defense and then Kendall Hunter slashes through a weary defense while Gore rests. You may recall in Seattle’s second game against the 49ers the Seahawks defense contained Gore (3.6 YPC) but was consistently punished by Hunter (6.1 YPC). Hunter was a 4th round pick last year, and his addition to the roster not only gave the 49ers a future successor to Gore but also improved the running game in the short term. Miller could do the same, except better.
Wherever Miller goes, I have little doubt he’ll continue the recent tradition of excellence from Miami running backs. In just the last decade or so, Miami has produced the following list of productive NFL running backs: Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore. Miller has the talent to join that impressive list of names in a few years’ time.