For weeks before the NFL Draft, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland hinted his team was hunting for a running back. With Kansas State's Daniel Thomas still on the board at the tail end of Round 2, Ireland made his move, sending Washington a third, a fifth and a seventh-round selection to move up and nab the 230-pound back.
"He's our kind of guy," said Ireland, "he's very physical and once he gets to the second level he can make linebackers and secondary players miss. He's a one-cut runner but he's very physical and he punishes defenders when he gets his pads down."
At Kansas State, Thomas flexed his versatility as much as his muscle. He was recruited to play quarterback but found a home in the backfield, where he gained more than 1,200 yards rushing and caught 25 or more passes in each of his two seasons. Now a part of Miami's rebuilt offense, Thomas is happy to do whatever will get him on the field. As he told reporters in April, "I can catch the ball in the backfield. I can run between the tackles and go outside. Whatever they need me to do."
Miami may need him to do all of the above; the team has hinted it is not committed to signing either Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams, leaving the running back position wide open.
Dissecting the depth chart: In six seasons with the club Brown has been a major disappointment. The former No. 2 overall pick has logged just one 1,000-yard season and has made it through a full 16-game slate just twice. Last season he gained just 3.7 yards per carry -- by far the worst total of his career. Williams has been productive since returning from his hiatus/league suspension but began to show his age last year. At 34, there isn't much sand left in his hourglass. Brown and Williams are the only two Miami backs with more than 40 carries in each of the past three seasons -- there's a chance, though, neither will return. In May, Ireland also hinted he still plans to shop for running backs when free agency opens. Thomas is the future; it's just a question of when his day will arrive.
Just the stats: Thomas averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 30 touchdowns in two seasons at Kansas State. He began his senior season with a 234-yard performance in a win over UCLA, and scored twice in each of the Wildcats' first three contests. He gained 90 or more yards rushing in 17 of 25 career games, and scored three touchdowns in his final collegiate contest -- a loss to Syracuse in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Projection for 2011: 190 carries, 925 rushing yards, 30 catches, 275 receiving yards, 7 TDs.
2010 rookie comparison: LeGarrette Blount
Like Blount, Thomas is a back with the ability to break a long run on occasion. Blount did most of his damage in just 11 games last season (1,007 yards) and finished with 100-yard efforts in three of his last five showings. Thomas could catch fire the same way, especially if he earns a starting spot early into the season.
Interesting fact that won't help you: Thomas spent time at three junior colleges -- Northwest Mississippi Community College, Butler County Community College and Manhattan Christian College -- before he was academically eligible to join the Wildcats.
What he's worth: Thomas could be the breakout rookie of 2011. The Dolphins have some nice blockers to lead the way up front -- including '11 first-round pick Mike Pouncey -- and if the team can find the right quarterback, its weapons in the passing game should prevent defenses from crowding the box.
Thomas has the opportunity and talent to become a nice No. 2 running back in traditional leagues, but he's a much safer bet if selected to serve as a No. 3.
Mike Beacom is a contributing writer for FootballDiehards.com.