Miami Dolphins: Who Will Win Fins' Running Back Battle?

Alan Hubbard@@ahubbard72Contributor IIIMay 30, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 30: Lamar Miller #26 of the Miami Dolphins bobbles a pass before securing the catch against the New England Patriots during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins have a lot of new faces for 2013, which naturally makes for a handful of interesting position battles. Those competitions are beginning to play out during OTAs, but they'll begin in earnest in training camp in a couple months. For the Dolphins, the biggest battle to keep an eye on will take place in the offensive backfield. 

For the first time in years, that doesn't mean quarterback. Rather, five players will fight for the chance to be Miami's starting running back: Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee, Jonas Gray and Marcus Thigpen. 

One of the biggest talking points earlier this year was whether Miami would retain Reggie Bush. Bush revamped his career in two years with Miami, but the Dolphins ultimately felt that he was expendable. 

The biggest reason for that is Lamar Miller. General manager Jeff Ireland acquired Miller in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. Ireland liked what he saw in Miller, but one has to wonder if Ireland expected all along that Miller would be Bush's successor. 

Either way, early signs seem to say that's the case. According to the Miami Herald, Miller is currently getting the most reps with the first team. And he's been impressive. 

That shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who witnessed Miller in 2012. Despite limited action (only 51 carries), the University of Miami alum displayed explosiveness and showed no hesitation in hitting the hole. 

Where Bush tended to dance a bit too much at times, Miller bores through open running lanes. His 4.9 yards per carry average from last season speaks to that. 

But head coach Joe Philbin insists the competition is still "wide open" (per One of the first points he mentions his staff is looking out for is pass protection. 

That could spell trouble for Miller. 

One of the primary reasons he saw such limited action in 2012 was his struggle as a pass-blocker. Maybe you can chalk it up to the then-rookie's unfamiliarity with the blocking schemes, but regardless the issue kept him off the field a lot. 

The halfback recognizes that. He told the Miami Herald that improving his blocking is a primary focus for this offseason. We'll see how improved he is come training camp. 

If Miller is the favorite, then the Dolphins still have a riveting battle for second string. Daniel Thomas will enter his third year as a pro in 2013. His first two years in Miami were less than exhilarating.

His carries saw a significant drop from 2011 to 2012 (165 to 91) and his career average is a paltry 3.5. Thomas did score four touchdowns last season as a short-yardage back, and that could ultimately be where his future lies. 

Thomas is injury-prone (a hamstring injury sidelined him in 2011, while a knee injury ended his season last year) and has a problem with fumbles (five total over two years). So far, he has simply not looked like he has what it takes to break the starting lineup. His big body may allow him to see the field on short-yardage situations, though. 

Rookie Mike Gillislee is an exciting prospect. After a remarkable senior season at the University of Florida, he was drafted by the Dolphins in the fifth round. If early reports are any indication, he's already getting his career off to a strong start. 

He impressed during Miami's rookie minicamp earlier this month, displaying a great mix of speed and decisive, power running. He even prompted the Sun Sentinel's  Omar Kelly to compare him to Frank Gore

Gillislee looks like a lock to be Miami's No. 2 running back, but he could surprise and overtake the starting job. His reliable pass-blocking abilities will go a long way in his quest to claim the starting mantle. Starter or not, it looks like Ireland may have hit on running backs in the draft two years in a row.

From here, the battle admittedly loses a bit of steam. Jonas Gray, an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, is another big-body back. He spent the first half of last season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list due to an ACL injury he suffered as a senior at Notre Dame. He came back in October but never saw the field. 

Still, the coaching staff is giving him a chance by keeping him around. With his large frame and one-cut running style, he could challenge Daniel Thomas for the opportunity to be Miami's short-yardage specialist. 

That leaves Marcus Thigpen, who figures to likely be a non-factor in the running back battle. Thigpen is a speedy scat back who shows similarities to Miller, but he's a bit smaller. Moreover, he established himself as a legitimate return threat last season when he became the first Miami Dolphin in team history to return both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns. 

Miami's running back battle is definitely one of the more interesting story lines surrounding the team's offseason workouts. The race to replace Reggie Bush is in full effect, and it's going to be a heated battle. 

Miller is likely to beat out the competition and claim the starting spot as long as his pass-blocking has improved. Gillislee will probably be the No. 2 back, but don't be surprised if the two players end up sharing time.