If it takes two to three seasons to fairly analyze a draft, then a referendum is soon coming on the Dolphins’ 2011 class, which has produced only one current Dolphins starter: center Mike Pouncey.
But the Dolphins firmly believe two others from that class — Daniel Thomas and Charles Clay — can develop into key, consistent cogs in their offense this season.
Coach Joe Philbin has been complimentary of Thomas, whose first two seasons were marked by injury, inconsistency and a 2012 preseason admonishment from Philbin, which was aired on HBO’s Hard Knocks.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said he’s excited about pairing Clay with starting tight end Dustin Keller, because the Dolphins can run any of their formations with that tandem.
Expectations differed somewhat for both after that draft — the Dolphins traded up to select Thomas 62nd, whereas Clay was picked in the sixth round and is a success story of sorts by simply surviving.
But their careers have had somewhat similar arcs — flashes of promise and exasperating mistakes, plus knee injuries and surgeries that sidelined each for the final two games of 2012.
Last season, no NFL running back with as few carries as Thomas fumbled as much (three times in 91 attempts). Meanwhile, no NFL tight end targeted as few times as Clay dropped as many passes (five, compared with 18 receptions, in 27 targets).
The stakes ratchet up for both this season. Though Lamar Miller remains the favorite to start, Thomas continues to receive some first-team reps, and Sherman said the running back competition is “pretty close.” Thomas expects one to be “1A, one 1B.”
Thomas’ best NFL games remain the first two of his career — an 18-carry, 107-yard eruption against Houston (the second-most yards by a Dolphins running back in his first game, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 115) and a 23-carry, 95-yard outburst the following week against Oakland.
He hasn’t matched those yardage totals in any of his 23 games since and overall has averaged an underwhelming 3.5 yards per carry, which he calls unacceptable, after averaging 5.2 in his two seasons at Kansas State.
Last season, only four running backs with as many carries averaged less per carry than Thomas’ 3.6: Alex Green, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings. In his career, Thomas has converted less than half of his third- and fourth-down runs with 1 or 2 yards needed.
He missed games because of a hamstring injury in 2011, a concussion last October and last December’s knee injury to his meniscus.
“It feels like I had injuries all the time, and I had never gotten hurt before,” he said.
Thomas trained in Arizona with a group of players, including Terrell Suggs and Tim Tebow, this past spring, because “I wanted to get my legs back stronger [after knee surgery]. I’ve been very inconsistent. This is the year I’ve got to put everything together.”
Early signs are encouraging. Thomas had 8- and 9-yard runs to help fuel the Dolphins’ first-quarter touchdown drive in Jacksonville and was impressive in Monday’s practice, with two forceful runs in red-zone drills and a nifty catch along the sidelines.
“I like what he’s doing this camp,” Philbin said. “I’m very happy with the way he’s practicing. He’s running the ball hard. He’s been doing a good job in pass protection.”
After last season’s fumble issues, he has only one fumble in camp and none in either game. He added six pounds, to 236, and “I feel quicker and faster. I am a better back than I was the first two years.”
He’s also a more responsible one. Last August, HBO cameras showed Philbin scolding Thomas for being late for a flight, not abiding by the dress code and reporting 15 minutes late to weightlifting.
“This kind of stuff can’t happen,” Philbin told Thomas a year ago. “You got to take responsibility for your own career. I’m getting a little queasy about you.”
But Thomas has matured.
“He’s going about his business in a very professional manner,” Philbin said Monday.
As for Clay, he has been working at fullback and tight end and “really has stepped it up,” Sherman said.
The Clay/Keller tandem intrigues the Dolphins because both have a knack for finding seams in the middle of the defense.
“We talk all the time about the weapon we can be together,” Clay said. “I want to say we can be the top tight end duo in the league. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him.”
Keller said Clay’s value is not only his positional versatility, but also that “he does everything well. He can block well. If you put a safety or linebacker on him, you can take advantage of that matchup.”
As for the rest of that 2011 draft beyond Pouncey, Thomas and Clay, a second-rounder was dealt as part the Brandon Marshall trade; Clyde Gates (picked 111th) and Frank Kearse (231st) are long gone; and Jimmy Wilson (235th) is the Dolphins’ No. 3 safety.