On draft weekend 2011, the Dolphins thought they had their man.
Plenty of running back options were available when they went on the clock in the second round. Oklahoma bruiser DeMarco Murray was on the board. Stevan Ridley, an LSU prospect, also had not been picked.
But then-general-manager Jeff Ireland and the Dolphins were so smitten with Daniel Thomas, they moved up 17 spots to get the physical runner from Kansas State.
Ireland explained the pick after he made it, saying: “[We] like the player; very physical kind of guy, our kind of guy, very physical. Once he gets to the second level, he can make linebackers miss, he can make [the] secondary miss. He is kind of a one-cut runner, but very physical. He punishes defenders when he gets his pads down.”
Three and a half years later, it’s fair to say Ireland overvalued Thomas — and undervalued the players that followed him in the draft. Murray and Ridley each have had 1,000-yard rushing seasons with the teams that selected them.
Thomas has consistently underwhelmed. His yards-per-carry average his first three seasons: 3.5, 3.6 and 3.7.
Now the big question: Will he get a fourth season?
Thomas has one last chance to salvage his career in Miami. After missing the first three preseason games with a hamstring injury, he will play and likely get a heavy workload in the Dolphins’ preseason finale Thursday against St. Louis.
And if he’s going to make this team, he will have to earn it. The people who drafted him — Ireland and then-coach Tony Sparano — are gone. And their replacements — Dennis Hickey and Joe Philbin — have shown no compunction about removing the mistakes of the past.
Just ask Michael Egnew. Some 28 months after Ireland selected him in the third round, the tight end is gone, cut by the team last week.
Thomas and a handful of other players drafted by Ireland could be next. The team must get down to 53 players by Saturday, and Thomas is firmly in the cross-hairs.
“I haven’t been out there in a while, so I want to show coaches that my hamstring’s good and I’m feeling good and ready to play good,” he acknowledged Tuesday.
“I haven’t played any this preseason, so I feel like I have a lot to prove.”
Simply moving the pile would be a good start. Thomas is easily the biggest running back on the Dolphins’ roster. But he gained an average of just 2.0 yards after contact last year. By comparison, Arizona’s Andre Ellington — who weighs about 35 pounds fewer than Thomas — averaged 3.2.
It's a big reason why Ellington is a starter and Thomas is in a battle with an undrafted rookie for a spot on the Dolphins’ third string. Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller, assuming they stay healthy, will get the vast majority of carries this year.
That could leave just one roster spot at the position — and Damien Williams, the rookie out of Oklahoma, is doing his best to claim it. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry against the Cowboys on Saturday and also was effective in the return game.
In years past, anything close to a tie would go to the second-round pick on pedigree alone.
But it’s a new world in South Florida, and these other Ireland selections would do well to make a strong closing argument against the Rams:
• Kicker Caleb Sturgis, fifth-rounder in 2013: It’s hard to envision newcomer Jake Rogers winning the job, but the Dolphins have had an in-house competition for weeks, indicating a willingness to look elsewhere. If Sturgis isn’t their choice, veteran kickers Jay Feely, Rob Bironas and Rian Lindell are among the available options.
• Defensive back Don Jones, seventh-rounder in 2013: His anti-gay tweets from the spring are now water over the dam, so if he doesn’t make the team, it would be performance-based. Jones has worked with the third-team defense in practice, but his versatility — he can play both corner and safety — and special-teams history could get him past the finish line.
• Wide receiver Rishard Matthews, seventh-rounder in 2012: Once in the doghouse, Matthews beat out Armon Binns to survive the first round of cuts. He has caught five passes for 83 yards this preseason — perhaps enough to edge out Damian Williams, the receiver, for the fifth spot on the depth chart.
• Linebacker Jelani Jenkins, fourth-rounder in 2013: In his battle with Jonathan Freeny for a roster spot, it might come down to who plays better on special teams.