What happened to Lamar Miller?

by Jesse Jones (@majesstik1)

Heading into 2016 many expected Miller to finally get the workhorse role that seemed due for him. His rush attempts (19.1) per game supported that with a 57% carries per game increase - good for nearly 7 additional carries per game tacked on to the previous three year average. All that newfound opportunity culminated in was an average points per game finish ofRB18 and 71st overall in PPR scoring. All those Miller truthers who invested a 1st or early-2nd round pick in him ended up disappointed. His previous finishes prior to last year show why this was a such a disappointment: RB12 (71st overall) in 2015 and RB12 (78th overall) in 2014. He got worse positionally with the extra work, but stayed in the same overall area amongst all positions. So what happened? Why wasn't he as good as we thought he would be?

Were the opponents tougher last year? The defenses he faced in 2016 and 2015 had similar average run defense ranks (18.5 & 18.4) per FootballOutsiders.com. 2014 was a bit tougher with a 14.1 average rank. Miller faced a Top-10 run defense three times each in 2014-15, and only twice last year - he would have faced a third if healthy in week 17. In those seven games, he had three games of over 4.3 YPC which shows he can gets yards against any level of opponent. In those same three years, he also faced five Bottom-13 defenses in 2014, seven in 2015, and five in 2016 and had some hits and misses, and finished with an average of 4.35 YPC against them. It seems we can mostly rule out strength of schedule as a cause for the decline.

Was it attrition? Maybe. Miller has been pretty healthy his whole career, missing his first two games ever last year. He's also been pretty absent from the injury reports during his career, receiving the questionable tag five times in the last 4 years. However, those two lost games last year probably weren't going to be enough to salvage his season. Bill O'Brien did admit to over-using his new RB early in the year, which may have lead to Miller seemingly fighting injuries for most of the second part of the season.

Was he getting used to running behind a new offensive line? Possibly. Yet, Miller's 2016 season saw the most continuity of games played among the OL starters, and the second best Adjusted Line Yards since 2014. Below is a chart showing ProFootballFocus.com's tier level for Miller's offensive lineman the last two years, as well as FootballOutsiders.com's Adjusted Line Yards and their rank to the right. Based on the PFF grades, it appears the Texans OL might be the best overall that Miller has played behind. Miller has been productive behind bad O-Lines before, but maybe the new team, new city had a role in it. Miller has admitted he is more comfortable in the offense this year, which leads me to ask...

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Was it the offensive scheme?  When we compare Miami's offenses to what Bill O'Brien was doing in HOU, it's easy to see why folks were excited about Miller's lead role in Houston. Bill O'Brien runs a lot of plays and was top 5 in rush attempts before Miller got there and slipped just one spot to 6th with Miller on the roster. Overall, this is a situation you would want to "buy" into for fantasy football. Problem is, Miller did not perform as expected, and the owners who got burned drafting him last year are holding a grudge. Looking at the difference in offenses between Miami and Houston, it's fair to wonder how Miller was so much more effective in Miami playing behind a weaker offensive line and getting less opportunities per game. With the 89th pick of the third round, the Texans selected Texas native D'Onta Foreman, who is expected to help relieve Miller of such a workhorse role, and potentially snipe goal line carries.

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Something working in Miller's favor in regard to red zone touches is he has been pretty efficient with his share of these touches. Something working against Foreman taking on a huge market share of red zone carries is his 6 fumbles last year. Bill O'Brien is from the school of Belichick, where fumbles get you a place in the doghouse (Ridley), or cut (Harper). In 2015, Miller was super-efficient in the red zone, but will likely fall back to around 15%. It should also be noted that Miller carried the ball 15 times from within the 10 yard line and scored on 5 of those carries.  So, while it would make sense for the big, tackle breaking rookie to get a lot of those touches, Miller is no slouch either, and has a year of trust earned with O'Brien accrued.

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So, what can we expect this year? Well, for as much of a disappointment as last season seemed to be, Miller was not that far below his previous two seasons in PPR points per game, and if he creeps back up to RB12 status again, he'll be worthy of a late 2nd round pick in fantasy this year. Although, drafting him that high is taking on the risk of hoping he returns to form. Given the opportunity a Bill O'Brien offense offers running backs, and Miller's history of production when used less then he was in 2016, I think it's safe to take the risk on Miller in the early part of Rd3. Miller can reasonably be expected to produce top 15 RB results, and could be as good as his old RB12 self again in 2017. His current draft position is in a range of other questionable risk players such as Todd Gurley, Joe Mixon, Isaiah Crowell, Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, and teammate DeAndre Hopkins - and based on opportunity and past history, I'd be willing to gamble on Miller over every one of these guys, except for maybe Hopkins.

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Houston does have a pretty tough schedule this year, so if you're a schedule reader, it might deter you from Miller. However, we do have evidence Miller can be resilient, regardless of opponent. I currently have no shares of Miller in best ball drafts, but after this research I'll be likely to change that soon.

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