It happens every fall. A player bursts onto the scene, makes a big play or helps his team win a pivotal game, and the collective football world celebrates his arrival as a true difference maker in the NFL. Let's get ahead of the curve! In advance of the 2013 season, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks identifies candidates for significant improvement, concentrating on running backs below. Click here for other positions.
Most Improved Running Back for 2013: Lamar Miller
Miller's backstory: The Dolphins landed one of the biggest steals in the 2012 NFL Draft when Miller inexplicably fell to the fourth round. In pre-draft evaluations, the former Miami standout was widely viewed as one of the top five running backs in the class, with some scouts seeing flashes of former NFL star Clinton Portis in his game. Miami was attracted to Miller's raw talent, but the presence of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas prompted the team to use the rookie selectively as a situational runner. Additionally, Miller's struggles with the playbook spawned concerns about his blitz awareness and pass blocking, preventing him from taking on a bigger role. Consequently, Miller logged just 51 rushes for 250 yards and a touchdown over 13 games.
Why he will improve in 2013: Most NFL players make the biggest jump in development between their first and second pro seasons. Part of the improvement can be attributed to a full offseason of training and conditioning under the watchful eye of a pro staff. Moreover, a young player has a better feel for the speed and tempo of the NFL game after logging a few snaps as a rookie.
For Miller, all of these factors undoubtedly will make him a better player as a first-time starter in 2013. When he occasionally displayed a disciplined running style in Year 1, the results were highly encouraging, as evidenced by the 22-yard scamper in the video just above. But inexperience begets inconsistency. Now, Miller understands how quickly holes close at the point of attack, which will lead to fewer moves in the backfield and a more decisive approach as a runner. This should result in fewer negative plays, which will keep the Dolphins' offense on track and ahead of the chains.
Miami's decision to upgrade its passing attack this offseason also will help Miller become a highly productive back in 2013. Last season, opponents crowded the line of scrimmage with eight defenders and dared the Dolphins to win with the pass. Without a legitimate deep threat on the outside or a credible playmaker between the hashes, the running lanes were clogged between the tackles. This should change with Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson coming onboard.
Wallace is arguably the fastest receiver in the NFL, with the burst to run past defenders routinely on vertical routes. Keller and Gibson excel at exploiting voids over the middle, tempering the aggressiveness of linebackers and safeties. With the aerial attack keeping the second level of the defense at bay, Miller will find bigger lanes on draws and delays, like in the video to your right. The Dolphins needed more of these types of runs in 2012; they'll get them in 2013 with a more mature runner and a better supporting cast.
Impact on the team: Miller's ascension to the starting role has flown under the radar, but he will critical to the Dolphins' playoff hopes as the feature back for a vastly improved offense. There's a reason Miami didn't think twice about allowing Bush to depart in free agency -- this kid can play. If he can muster seven or more 100-yard games over the course of the season, the Dolphins will be a 10-win team in 2013.
Projected 2013 stat line: 250 carries, 1,250 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns; 35 receptions, 400 receiving yards.
Other Running Backs to Watch
David Wilson, New York Giants: Wilson quickly showed the football world he has the tools to become one of the most electric runners in the NFL, popping five runs of 20-plus yards in only 71 rushing attempts as a rookie. In addition, Wilson averaged nearly 27 yards per kick return, displaying a dazzling combination of speed, burst and elusiveness that makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Given more opportunities to touch the rock as a feature back, Wilson's explosiveness should result in big numbers, with opponents hell-bent on shutting down Eli Manning and the Giants' dynamic aerial attack.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons: The arrival of Steven Jackson will keep Rodgers from stepping into the starting lineup, but that doesn't mean Quizz's role will shrink in 2013. Rodgers is a dangerous change-of-pace back with the speed and burst to make an impact as a runner or receiver in the open field. Dirk Koetter capitalizes on those skills by frequently using him as a versatile weapon in the passing game, particularly on screens and swings. With the dangerous trio of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez commanding the defense's attention, Rodgers' exceptional open-field skills should lead to more big plays from the Falcons.
Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos: The inclusion of Hillman on this list might be a little odd, considering the arrival of Montee Ball, but the second-year pro remains a vital part of the Broncos' plans as a change-of-pace weapon. Hillman possesses the speed and burst to turn the corner on outside, making him a threat to score whenever Denver runs the stretch play from open formations. Factor in the attention Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas will receive in the Broncos' "11" personnel package (one back, one tight end and three receivers), and Hillman will have plenty of chances to exploit the edges of nickel and dime defenses.