Predicting the Final Miami Dolphins' 2012 53-Man Roster
Free agency is all but over. The draft is done.
Jeff Ireland was panned for free agency and praised for his draft. Minicamps are rolling and training camp is on the horizon. We can almost taste preseason football.
With a new 90-man roster, the Miami Dolphins have plenty of talent to evaluate and make decisions on the 37 players who will not make the team.
Which players will make the cut? Here are my predictions on a positional basis.
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Starter: Matt Moore
Indeed, the Dolphins signed David Garrard and drafted Ryan Tannehill, but Moore played well enough last season to hang onto the starting gig, even with a new coaching staff running the show. He went 6-4—not to mention he realistically could have gone 8-2 if his defense had held two leads—and was 12th in the league with an 87.1 NFL quarterback rating.
He may not be the starter for long, though, especially if the Dolphins start off on the wrong foot and Ryan Tannehill holds his own in practice and the preseason.
Backups: Ryan Tannehill, David Garrard
Tannehill is certainly not going anywhere after being drafted eight overall. In fact, his knowledge of the offensive system gives him a serious shot at the starting job in Week 1.
Garrard could find himself on the bubble if he does not perform in the preseason, but the Dolphins will likely value his veteran presence on the roster over still-developing Pat Devlin.
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Starter: Reggie Bush
The oft-maligned back quietly put together an excellent season for the Dolphins last year, getting past the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, at an excellent 5.4 yards-per-carry clip. As Dolphins fans can attest, having a 1,000-yard running back is not common in Miami.
Bush will be playing for a new contract this year, as he is in the second year of his two-year contract with the Dolphins. There has been talk about using Bush in the slot, which would make total sense considering Bush's skill set.
Backups: Daniel Thomas, Lamar Miller, Steve Slaton
Thomas was a disappointment as a rookie, largely due to injuries. Considering Jeff Ireland traded up to get him in the second round, he should have a relatively long leash to be the thunder to Bush's lightning. Another season like his rookie's, however, and he could find himself on the hot seat.
My guess is Miami was not planning to draft a running back in the draft—at least not one of Lamar Miller's caliber. The Dolphins lucked into him in the fourth round, though, and they now have the luxury of letting him develop behind Bush and Thomas. If he can develop quickly, he will be perfect for Joe Philbin's zone-blocking scheme. Miller has a shot to return kicks also.
Speaking of returning kicks, that is pretty much all Steve Slaton will be doing, though it is intriguing to see if they will try using him in the slot like Bush.
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Starter: Charles Clay
It took time for Clay to get going last season, mainly because of nagging injuries, but he flashed his ability in the latter part of the season.
Clay is not a traditional fullback. He is more athletic and has better catching ability than most, and he should be lining up all over the field as a result.
Backups: Jerome Messam
Messam might find himself the odd man out after Miami drafted Lamar Miller, but I have a feeling he will stick as a fullback because Clay will be be more of a tight end.
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Starters: Brian Hartline, Clyde Gates
Jeff Ireland has made re-signing Hartline a goal this offseason, showing the Dolphins have faith the fourth-year wide receiver will break out.
Gates was a disappointment as a rookie, as he was extremely raw. He did not impress as a kick returner, and all he practically did as a wide receiver was run "go" routes. Hopefully a full offseason and new management will help with his development, but he will likely be a starter in title only, with Hartline, Davone Bess and two tight ends seeing the field early.
Slot: Davone Bess
Many expected Bess to build on a good 2010 season, but that was not the case last year. He gets a chance at redemption this season in a new offensive system. He should also get a reprieve from punt-returning duties, where he has never excelled.
Mike Sherman and Joe Philbin's West Coast-style offense might just suit Bess the most out of all the wide receivers.
Backups: Rishard Matthews, Jeff Fuller
Let's face it, Legedu Naanee is not exactly a premier signing. Sure, he posted career highs last season with the Panthers, but those amounted to 44 catches and 467 yards. He was the worst-rated receiver, according to Pro Football Focus.
Matthews was a bit of a draft steal all the way in the seventh round, and Fuller might stick simply because of his rapport with Ryan Tannehill. If he can revert to his form as a junior, when he racked up 72 receptions for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns, he certainly has a good shot.
If Fuller still has the dropsies through camp and preseason, however, B.J. Cunningham could still be a better choice than Naanee.
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Starter: Anthony Fasano
Making starter money, Fasano will have one last opportunity to show that he is worth it with the Dolphins.
The big tight end showed flashes of brilliance last season, making some dazzling catches during the two games in which he really produced good numbers. He has not shown enough, though perhaps that is a function of his offense and quarterbacks through the years.
With the way Green Bay liked to utilize tight ends during Joe Philbin's time there, Fasano could finally see that breakout season Dolphins fan have hoped for. Just don't hold your breath.
Backups: Michael Egnew, Jeron Mastrud, Charles Clay*
Though the Egnew pick in the third round had some fans scratching their heads, he will provide excellent pass-catching ability as the second tight end out of the gate. He may lack blocking experience, but the Dolphins could and should choose to line him up in the slot and even out wide.
Mastrud is a blocking tight end, pure and simple.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a fullback
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Starters: Jake Long, Jonathan Martin
Miami's All-Pro left tackle has been hampered by injuries recently, but he says he is on the mend. Hopefully he can stay healthy and return to form this year. Other than that, there is not much more to say about Long. He is one of the biggest locks to start in the NFL.
Martin, meanwhile, was a great value for the Dolphins in the second round of the draft, and he should shore up the right side of the line. Though he has not played right tackle since high school, the transition should not be too difficult to achieve for the first-round talent.
Backups: Lydon Murtha, Artis Hicks, John Jerry*
It is too bad for Murtha, who had been penciled in as the starter at right tackle, but Martin's presence allows the Dolphins to have great depth with Murtha being a backup. He filled in nicely for Long while he was injured last season.
Hicks was brought in from Cincinnati as a depth player, and that is precisely what he will be. Hicks is better suited for guard, but he can be used at tackle in a pinch. Hopefully Miami will not need to do that.
*Listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a starting guard.
Starters: Richie Incognito, John Jerry
Incognito did a decent job at left guard last season after signing a new three-year contract. He is due to be paid $3.3 million this season, which could make him a cap casualty if Miami feels the need to trim salary, but his play was solid enough to keep him.
Incidentally, per Ben Volin of The Palm Beach Post, Miami is $5.49 million under the cap right now and appears to need just $2.36 million to sign its rookies. It could also save more if it re-signs Jake Long, who is making $11.2 million this season. Incognito should be safe.
Jerry, though, is a bit of an enigma. After a horrible rookie season, most did not expect anything out of him last season. He somewhat defied those expectations—or lack thereof—and actually played well down the stretch.
Jeff Ireland is still not sold on Jerry as a starter, though, so this is a tenuous prediction. He is not the most athletic guard, which is less ideal for the ZBS, but if he can continue to build on a solid season he should be named the starter.
Backups: Nate Garner, Ray Feinga, Artis Hicks*
Is this the year Feinga finally sticks to the roster for good? The poor man has been cut and re-signed so many times there is a record label named We Are All Rey Feinga Records (WAARF).
Garner is a solid player who will give Jerry a run for his money at guard. He could even find himself starting opposite Jerry if the Dolphins do cut ties with Incognito.
The Dolphins signed Hicks away from Cincinnati this offseason, and his versatility gives Miami options at multiple positions.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as an offensive tackle
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Starter: Mike Pouncey
Pouncey performed well as a rookie and should be a rock in the middle of that offensive line for years to come. He is the starter for the foreseeable future unless he regresses terribly. Considering his brother's success to go along with his own, I expect Pouncey to be just fine.
Backup: Ryan Cook
Cook is a decent backup. There is not much more to say other than the Dolphins need to employ a backup center.
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Starters: Paul Soliai, Randy Starks
After placing the franchise tag on Soliai in 2011, the Dolphins signed the big defensive tackle to a lucrative, albeit short two-year deal. It remains to be seen how he will handle the switch from playing nose tackle to three-technique, but he is a clear starter.
Starks, on the other hand, played 3-4 defensive end last season and will likely be moving inside alongside Soliai. He is a good pass-rusher, and if he can provide pressure from the interior the Dolphins' pass rush as a whole will have a big boost.
Backups: Tony McDaniel, Ryan Baker, Jared Odrick*
Massive McDaniel was not terribly good as a backup this season, but hopefully a move inside will benefit him the 6'7" defensive lineman.
Baker was given little opportunity last season and will likely be at the end of a rotation that includes Odrick, who should play outside on early downs.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a starting defensive end
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Starters: Cameron Wake, Jared Odrick
The Dolphins did well to re-sign Wake to the contract extension he deserved. He may be 30, but he is probably the most vital player on the entire team at this point in time.
He was the top-rated 3-4 outside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus last year despite just nine sacks, and that is because he does a lot of things well that do not necessarily make it onto a stat sheet.
That being said, his partner on the other side needs to perform well or teams will continue to double-team Wake. With the switch to a 4-3, Odrick is the right choice to start, but he may be sliding inside on passing downs to make room for a better pass-rusher on the outside.
Backups: Olivier Vernon, Jacquies Smith, Josh Kaddu, Randy Starks*
Having three rookies back up the defensive end position is not ideal, but the Dolphins have some flexibility with Starks' ability to slide outside if necessary.
Vernon was Miami's pass-rushing draft pick in the third round. Ireland calls him a developmental player, however, meaning he will not be ready for a starting role unless injuries pile up on the defensive line.
Smith has a strong chance to be the second undrafted free agent to stick on the 53-man roster because of his versatility on the line—he can slide inside in passing situations.
Kaddu will be more of an emergency guy at this position. He will likely practice more as an outside linebacker.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a starting defensive tackle
Hopefully this is not a familiar scene in 2012
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Starter: Kevin Burnett
Mike linebacker in a 4-3 is a much different animal than playing middle linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and the Dolphins appear to be ill-prepared to fill that position adequately.
Though Karlos Dansby is being paid the big bucks, Burnett is better-suited to play the Mike in this defense. He scored 96 tackles last season to Dansby's 84, though he was on the field for about 100 more snaps.
Backup: Gary Guyton, Karlos Dansby*
Guyton was brought on as a depth player, and he will provide that behind Burnett.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a starting outside linebacker
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Starter (Sam): Karlos Dansby
Dansby will fit in better as an outside linebacker in the new 4-3 defense. He is good against the run, and he is better than Burnett in coverage.
Whether it is Burnett or Dansby here and at middle linebacker, both of them are sure to start on this team.
Starter (Will): Koa Misi
His role hinges on the outcome of his criminal trial, but Misi should have a starting job waiting for him if all goes well. This may be his last shot, however, after being relatively disappointing for the Dolphins thus far.
Perhaps moving to a 4-3 scheme will help him become the player Ireland envisioned when he drafted Misi.
Backups: Jamaal Westerman, Jason Trusnik, Josh Kaddu*
These three will make a bigger impact on special teams than anything, but they will provide solid depth behind Dansby and Misi.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a backup defensive end
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Starters: Vontae Davis, Sean Smith
The self-proclaimed "best cornerback tandem" in the NFL fell quite short of that gaudy goal last season.
Davis and Smith are entering their fourth seasons, and they need to prove they are worthy of long-term commitments.
Particularly, Smith needs to rebound from a poor season—there has been talk about moving him to safety after playing so poorly last year. That is unlikely, so he had better step up and deliver.
Nickel: Jimmy Wilson
This is a bit of a tossup considering Wilson is playing free safety at minicamp right now, but he is well-suited for the nickel role, especially considering his smaller size.
Backups: Nolan Carroll, Vincent Agnew, Richard Marshall*
Carroll was awful at the beginning of last season, but he quietly improved as the season wore on.
The fifth cornerback slot is truly up for grabs between 2011 undrafted free agent Agnew, Jonathan Wade and Trenton Hughes. Unless Miami signs someone else between now and the regular season, I will give Agnew a leg up after a solid rookie minicamp.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a starting free safety.
Once again, hopefully this scene is not repeated in 2012
Strong Safety: Reshad Jones
Strong safety is in flux for Miami after the release of veteran Yeremiah Bell, and Jones should win an open competition.
The third-year player has largely been a disappointment at free safety, mainly because he is not particularly proficient in coverage. Moving him to strong safety will alleviate some of the coverage pressure on him and allow him to do what he does best: hit.
Free Safety: Richard Marshall
He is a versatile player, but his experience will make him a better choice at free safety than second-year man Jimmy Wilson.
Alternately, if Marshall really impresses during training camp at cornerback, Miami might try Sean Smith at free safety and see what Marshall can do as a starting cornerback. This does not seem likely, however.
Backups: Chris Clemons, Tyrelle Johnson, Jimmy Wilson*
Tyrone Culver is not good enough to warrant his salary, and with all the players Miami has vying for spots on the roster a safety, he will be the odd man out.
Of course, if Tyrelle Johnson is as bad as he was for Minnesota, he may convince Ireland to keep Culver instead.
*Already listed on the predicted 53-man roster as a starting nickelback
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Punter: Brandon Fields
This is the punter. There is nothing more to say about the punter.
Kicker: Dan Carpenter
Curiously, Carpenter has been the subject of cut speculation as he is making a pretty penny at $2.5 million this year. A reliable kicker is sometimes difficult to replace, however, hence I do not see this happening in Miami.