Now that we've hit the midway mark of the 2012 NFL season, let's take some time to reflect back on the first eight weeks of the year and evaluate which Miami Dolphins player is worthy of "The Crown", bestowed to the team's most valuable.
Some of the Dolphins' most notable names might carry league-wide recognition, but that doesn't make them worthy.
So, despite their ascensions into fantasy football relevance, Reggie Bush and Brian Hartline didn't make the cut. Neither did Sean Smith, who has shown marked improvement in an expanded role this season, or Brandon Fields, who's one of the NFL's preeminent punters.
Instead, the five finalists for The Crown are players who have played with the utmost consistency and efficiency, made an impact when it counted most and posted unparalleled production. Some do the dirty work that swing games in the Dolphins' favor and some are marquee names playing up to the reputations they've garnered.
Don't look now, but Reshad Jones is having a breakout season.
Although the Dolphins initially looked foolish for not pursuing a safety through free agency or the draft, it all makes sense now. Jones has made tremendous progress from last season and Miami's brass clearly foresaw his potential.
Opposing quarterbacks have completed only 46.2 percent of passes thrown in Jones' direction. In total, opposing QBs have a dismal 39.7 rating when throwing into his coverage. He also has two interceptions this season, which matches his total from the first two years of his NFL career.
Jones isn't perfect. He's still susceptible to big plays and he's still not an omniscient ballhawk. However, he's the closet thing the Dolphins have had to a great safety in a long time and he still has so much room for growth.
Prior to the start of the 2012 regular season, Karlos Dansby was falling out of favor in Miami.
In 2010, the Dolphins made Dansby the highest paid inside linebacker in NFL history by inking him to a five-year, $43 million deal. For that kind of money, Dansby should've become a franchise middle linebacker, a face of the franchise, and a perennial Pro Bowler.
He fulfilled no such prophecies, however.
Instead, he showed up to camp 27 pounds overweight in 2011 and hardly justified his monstrous contract.
But, something—perhaps the transition to the 4-3—has reinvigorated Dansby. He's finally playing like a dominant middle linebacker, registering 40 tackles and 28 stops (fourth most among NFL inside linebackers) in six games. Unlike prior seasons, he's also an asset in pass coverage, yielding receptions on just 62.9 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage.
Dansby needs to finish this season as strong as he started in order to fully redeem himself, but he should be working his way back into your good graces.
No player has benefitted more from the switch to the 4-3 than Randy Starks.
Playing alongside Cam Wake and Paul Soliai has allowed Starks to wreak havoc—particularly in pass rush situations. Starks' seven quarterback hits are the most amongst interior defensive linemen, his three sacks fourth most, and his nine quarterback hurries fifth most.
Beyond that, Starks has 10 stops and an interception that helped swing Miami's Week 5 game in Cincinnati in its favor.
Although success is nothing new to Starks, he's never enjoyed a season quite this spectacular.
Consequently, he's finally garnering the recognition he has deserved all along.
When the Dolphins drafted Mike Pouncey in the 2011 NFL Draft, Jeff Ireland told the Palm Beach Post:
“I don’t want to use the word safe, but since I already used it, I’ll use it. I think it’s a good, safe pick...I think I know exactly what I’m getting with Pouncey, and that makes me feel pretty good that we’ve solidified an offensive line here."
Even Ireland underestimated Pouncey.
He wasn't just a "good, safe pick"—he was a great one.
Pouncey is already playing at an elite level. Pro Football Focus ranks him the third best center in the NFL. He has surrendered only one quarterback hurry and one quarterback hit, which is extremely important now that Ryan Tannehill is under center.
Dolphins running backs are also at their best when rushing behind Pouncey. So far this season, they've they've accrued 149 yards on 30 carries when running into the "A" gaps on either side of him.
Pouncey isn't just one of the Dolphins' finest players, he's on his way toward NFL stardom.
The Dolphins handed Cameron Wake a four-year, $49 million contract extension in May and he's proving worth every penny.
Wake is literally terrorizing opposing offenses on a weekly basis. And he's not only doing it as a pass rusher. He's evolving into a complete player who can generate a chaotic pass rush and stuff the run. Take a look at Wake's stats (via Pro Football Focus):
|Stat||Total||Rank (Among NFL DEs)|
PFF not only ranks Wake as the NFL's best 4-3 defensive end, his overall grade more than doubles that of the second-rated 4-3 defensive end, Atlanta's John Abraham.
Without Wake, the Dolphins defense wouldn't be where it is today. He's a special player having a special season, and he deserves way more recognition and praise than he's currently receiving. Perhaps "The Crown" will help create some celebration for a player that most definitely deserves it.