At 4-6, the Miami Dolphins are still alive in the AFC playoff hunt.
The first-place New England Patriots are riddled by injuries, and the Jets and Bills are just as erratic as the Dolphins. However, the 'Phins have looked awful in the last three weeks, and their upcoming schedule isn't particularly friendly.
Call me a pessimist, but the best-case scenario I can envision for this team is a 7-9 finish. And that's a best-case scenario. When is the last time the Dolphins actually found themselves in a best-case scenario?
In all likelihood, Miami will once again pick somewhere around 10th overall, which gives it another chance to add an elite player. The Dolphins can also add immediate contributors with their two second and two third-round picks.
The outlook of this draft class is subject to change drastically as free agency plays out. With Jake Long, Randy Starks, Reggie Bush, Sean Smith and 16 other players slated for free agency after this season, the anatomy of the Dolphins roster could change with the departure of one or two starters.
Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan is, in a word, a freak.
Jordan was a hotly-recruited 4-star tight end out of high school. After redshirting in 2008 and riding the bench in 2009, he converted to defensive end in the spring of 2010. Just two years after the transition, he has emerged as one of the most explosive defensive players in the nation. This season, he has registered 42 tackles and five sacks.
Though Jordan is listed at 6'7", 243 pounds, he maintains incredible athleticism. Check out the workout numbers he posted last spring (via GoDucks.com):
Notched a 33.5-inch vertical leap, a 1.71-second electronic 10-yard, a 2.79 second electronic 20-yard, a 4.08-second shuttle and a 7.23-second “L” run to lead all defensive linemen in winter conditioning
The Dolphins desperately need a pass-rusher to complement Cameron Wake. Olivier Vernon has shown flashes but his productivity is lacking, and he's becoming less of a factor as the season wears on (has played only 31 percent of defensive snaps in the last two weeks). He has just two sacks and 10 quarterback hurries in 200 pass rush attempts. Plus, his upside pales in comparison to Jordan's.
Meanwhile, Jared Odrick is one of the least efficient pass-rushers in the entire league, and Randy Starks can only generate so much pressure as a defensive tackle.
Jordan is a truly special talent who can become a perennial Pro Bowler with the right development.
(Side note: Because Terrance Williams will likely be off the board at this point, here are two other names to watch: Arkansas' Cobi Hamilton and Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson. Both should be available when the Dolphins pick here and both are very real possibilities.)
The Dolphins use their first-round pick on an elite defensive talent, but their main priority from here on out is getting Ryan Tannehill some weapons.
Baylor's Terrance Williams is exactly what they need.
He's 6'2", 205 pounds, runs a sub-4.5 40 and has already caught 82 passes for 1,518 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. His blend of size, speed and production may boost him into the first-round come April, but he's hovering on the fringe right now.
Williams has the tools and talent to become the alpha wide receiver Miami so desperately needs. He can grow with Ryan Tannehill and present a matchup issue for opposing secondaries—something no current Dolphins wideout does.
Baylor's offense emphasizes short, quick routes much like a West Coast offense. Not only can Williams burn defensive backs with straight-line speed, but also with precise route running in the short and intermediate areas of the field. And of course, his background in a WCO makes him a natural target for the Dolphins.
Finally, Jeff Ireland is a Baylor alum, so there's always a chance he'll channel that pipeline (even though he is yet to draft a player from his alma mater).
All factors considered, Williams is a perfect fit for the 'Phins. Although he'll most likely end up going somewhere in the first round, the Dolphins do have plenty of ammo (two second round picks, two third-round picks) to trade up and grab him anyway.
With so many holes to fill, Miami can literally go in any direction with the second-round pick acquired from Indianapolis in the Vontae Davis trade. But again, surrounding Ryan Tannehill with talent should be the team's foremost priority.
Teams around the league are investing in a new breed of freakishly athletic tight ends—Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, Kyle Rudolph, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis—and it's time for the Dolphins to do the same.
Anthony Fasano should be re-signed, but he's never going to give the Dolphins outstanding production or threaten defenses with athleticism.
Charles Clay was supposed to emerge as that seam-threat tight end this season, but he's not getting the job done. Rather than wait and hope Clay develops into a productive player, the Dolphins should grab Stanford tight end Zach Ertz.
At 6'6", 252 pounds, Ertz poses a nightmarish mismatch for defenses. He's too big for safeties to cover and too athletic for linebackers to cover. Installing him into Miami's offense would draw attention away from wide receivers and running backs. And, perhaps most importantly, it would give the Dolphins a dynamic red-zone target, which is something they're sorely lacking right now.
Cornerback will be atop Miami's list of needs entering this offseason whether or not the Dolphins re-sign Sean Smith.
The Dolphins could add a cornerback in the first or second round, but it'll be difficult for them to pass up on some of the talent available. Plus, Jeff Ireland (or whoever replaces him as Dolphins GM) may be reluctant to invest so much into the position after whiffing on Vontae Davis (first round) and Sean Smith (second round).
Even if Ireland decides to wait until the third round to draft a cornerback, he can still grab a potential starting-caliber player. San Diego State's Leon McFadden has prototypical size (5'10", 190 pounds) and caught the attention of Sports Illustrated's Tony Pauline:
McFadden has been steadily rising up draft boards since the start of the season and is another who is exceeding expectations in 2012. He's a feisty cornerback with next-level size and the ball skills to match. McFadden has intercepted three passes this season, broken up 10 throws and has 57 tackles to his credit. He continues to improve on the field and several scouts feel McFadden will be a top-75 pick in next year's draft.
If Nolan Carroll continues progressing, Richard Marshall comes back strong and Sean Smith re-signs, then the Dolphins won't necessarily have to splurge for a cornerback.
Another offensive skill player?
Unless the Dolphins spend big on a free-agent wide receiver such as Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace, they have to make a serious effort to supply Ryan Tannehill with a legitimate arsenal. Considering Joe Philbin appears intent on building through the draft—and history suggests spending big on free-agent wide receivers is unwise—don't assume Miami will pursue one of these blue-chip wideouts.
Plus, way back in January 2011, Jeff Ireland told the Miami Herald, "Obviously in the skill positions, [speed] is a dynamic that you have to have. We’re looking to increase total team speed.”
Yet Ireland drafted only one skill player in the 2011 draft (Clyde Gates). He drafted four in the 2012 draft, but one was cut (B.J. Cunningham), one hasn't cracked the active roster (Michael Egnew), one has shown flashes but rarely sees the field (Lamar Miller) and the jury is still out on the fourth (Rishard Matthews).
Anyway, this pick almost makes too much sense.
From 2010 through 2011, Ryan Swope—not Jeff Fuller—was Ryan Tannehill's go-to target at Texas A&M. The pair connected 161 times for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. This season, the 6'1", 206-pound senior has caught 57 passes for 758 yards and six touchdowns.
Tannehill's rapport with Swope makes him an obvious target for the 'Phins, but the connections don't stop there.
Swope was also recruited by offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and played under him for three years. Hence, he'll enter the league with a thorough understanding of Miami's complex offense. Don't underestimate how significant that is. It took 11-year veteran Jabar Gaffney nearly a full month to get comfortable with Sherman's scheme—and it's worth wondering if his inability to grasp the concepts is one reason why he was released.
But here's the thing: The Dolphins don't need another slot receiver, and that's exactly what Swope projects as. However, he can play along the boundaries. And, as the Dolphins transition to a more spread/pass-oriented offense, they can definitely utilize two quick, shifty wide receivers in four-receiver sets.
Plus, you can never have too many weapons, right?
I know some of you are thinking: "You can't wait this long to draft a lineman."
Well, actually, spending high draft picks on offensive linemen doesn't automatically equate to success. In fact, the Dolphins may be better off waiting until the fourth round. Take a look at where Pro Football Focus' top 10 guards were drafted:
(Side note: If Jake Long doesn't re-sign with the Dolphins, then the entire landscape of their draft changes. In that scenario, Jeff Ireland has to draft an offensive tackle in the first or second round. However, I believe Long will be back next season. Hence, Miami can afford to wait until the middle rounds of the draft to address its offensive line.)
Pro Football Focus ranks incumbent starters Richie Incognito and John Jerry 58th and 53rd, respectively, among offensive guards. Jerry might've earned another year as a starter, but can he keep his weight down over an offseason? And, while Incognito is reliable, his six penalties are second most on the team and the Dolphins would benefit from adding a more nimble, athletic guard.
Georgia Tech's Omoregie Uzzi fits the bill. At 6'3", 300 pounds, he's a little bit undersized. However, he anchors an offensive line on the nation's fourth-best rushing offense. This season, the Yellow Jackets are averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game.
The Dolphins have one of the NFL's worst run blocking offensive lines, which makes Uzzi an even more perfect fit.
Miami's starting linebackers have all stepped up this season.
Karlos Dansby is finally playing like a premier middle linebacker, Kevin Burnett is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season and even Koa Misi has rebounded from his disappointing 2011 campaign. However, if any one of these three went down with a severe injury, then the Dolphins would be in serious trouble.
Can the Dolphins trust Austin Spitler, Jason Trusnik or Jonathan Freeny, who have collectively played only 63 snaps this season, to handle a starting role?
It's time for Miami to start developing another crop of young linebackers who can eventually develop into solid special teams contributors, backups and maybe even starters down the road.
Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor could've entered last year's draft, but he suffered a lisfranc foot sprain midway through the 2011 season. The injury required surgery and forced him to stay in Blacksburg for his senior season. This, combined with an extensive injury history, will knock Taylor into the latter rounds of this year's draft.
Despite his durability issues, Taylor has remained productive. He has registered 64 tackles and 4.5 sacks this season, and his leadership traits make him worthy of a late-round selection. He took responsibility for the Hokies' embarrassing performance against North Carolina in October.
Here's what CBS Sports' Dane Bugler has to say about Taylor:
Taylor is a balanced athlete with a strong upper body and very good instincts to diagnose the play and attack. He lacks elite lateral range and natural explosion, but is quick in pursuit and rarely misses tackles. When healthy, Taylor is the emotional leader of the Virginia Tech defense and has the skills to be an early round pick. But his right foot is something to keep an eye on.
Don't expect Reggie Bush to return next season.
He turns 28 in March, and Daniel Thomas has steadily eaten into his workload over the last four weeks. With Thomas and Lamar Miller in the fold, the Dolphins have a nice young duo of running backs to move forward with.
Sure, neither are proven, but look at Bush's numbers. He's just not effective right now. He rushed for 302 yards on 50 carries in the first two two-and-a-half games of the season (left midway through Week 3 with a knee injury). Since then, he has accrued only 273 yards on 86 carries.
If Bush in fact departs, then the Dolphins should look to add another running back through the draft. The back end of this year's running back class features a slew of interesting prospects, but Notre Dame's Cierre Wood might be the best of rest.
Though he's stuck in a crowded Notre Dame backfield, he has rushed for 1,822 yards on 319 carries in the last two seasons combined.
I can breakdown Michael Mauti for you, or I can let PennLive.com's Pete Young do it instead:
When, amidst the greatest and most shocking of scandals, your legendary coach dies, you represent the current generation of Nittany Lions and speak at his memorial, in front of a packed arena - and nail it, off-the-cuff, no notes, pure and unvarnished, with humor and grace and class.
This is a legacy.
When the NCAA lifts all transfer restrictions to try to entice the Penn State players to leave PSU after levying the harsh sanctions against the football program, you step to the forefront and lead the exodus right back to State College. The vast majority stay.
This is a legacy
On the field? Yes, you were great there, too, when injuries didn't prevent you from playing. In 10-plus games this season: 95 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles.
Mauti's intangibles are impeccable. The only thing preventing him from being a top-end selection is his injury history. He has already suffered three grisly knee injuries which may knock him into the undrafted free agency pool. But, if teams believe his knees can hold up, then he should garner a late-round flier.
The Dolphins may be the team to give Mauti that chance because Jeff Ireland has developed a Penn State pipeline. He drafted Jared Odrick and signed UDFA A.J. Wallace in 2010, signed UDFA Brett Brackett in 2011 and signed UDFA Derek Moye in 2012.