Breaking Down the Miami Dolphins' Roster After the 2014 Draft
We’ll go position-by-position, highlighting the additions, the departures and the lingering concerns. After free agency and the draft, it’s a good time to look at the current state of the Dolphins' roster and depth chart.
Don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments section.
Starter: Ryan Tannehill
All eyes are on Tannehill entering the 2014 season, as he gets ready to begin one of the most critical seasons in Dolphins history.
With a career record of 15-17, Tannehill hasn’t yet asserted himself as a franchise quarterback, but he’s also been in less-than-ideal circumstances.
When comparing his rookie season and his sophomore campaign, Tannehill improved his completion percentage by 2.1 percent, improved yards per game by almost 39 yards, doubled his touchdown total and improved his quarterback rating by 4.6 percent.
He also finished as the seventh-best quarterback in Pro Football Focus’ positional grades (subscription required).
He accomplished this, despite tremendously poor play by his offensive line, which allowed a total of 58 sacks in 2013. Oh, and he didn’t have a running game to help balance the game plan, as evidenced by the fourth-fewest rushing attempts.
Now, we know statistics don’t tell the entire story for any player, and Tannehill hasn’t proven to be an elite quarterback yet.
He struggled mightily to connect with star wide receiver Mike Wallace on deep passes, despite Wallace having his defender beat on multiple occasions.
He is also prone to locking on to his pre-snap read instead of reading the defense after the ball is snapped, leading to forced throws and interceptions.
But for a young quarterback who wasn’t even supposed to start as a rookie, Dolphins fans have underappreciated Tannehill. With all of the physical tools needed to take the next step, and now under a new, less predictable offense under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, it’s time for Tannehill to make the next step into the top-10 quarterback discussion.
This is the situation for the Dolphins: It takes years to develop an effective consistent quarterback, and even Super Bowl-winning ones took years to develop and have poor seasons. Instead of picking apart Tannehill to the point of annoyance, let’s see what he can do with an improved offensive line and receiver group in 2014.
Backups: Matt Moore, Pat Devlin, Brock Jensen
With Moore and Devlin entering contract years and Moore making a ridiculous $5.5 million, the most for any backup in the NFL, undrafted free agent Brock Jensen was brought in to challenge Devlin and possibly replace Moore in 2015 as the primary backup.
For 2014, Moore is a perfectly capable backup in case an injury happens to Tannehill. With good accuracy and decent arm strength, Moore has shown toughness and character by always being ready to play when asked to.
With Tannehill firmly entrenched as the team's starting quarterback for 2014, Miami has high hopes for more improvement in Tannehill’s game. Year three is usually when the game slows down for quarterbacks, so let’s hope he fulfills his potential this upcoming season.
Starter: Knowshon Moreno
After signing with the Dolphins this past offseason, Moreno brings experience and toughness to the backfield. He’s not a lightning-quick back, or considered powerful, but Moreno does everything well enough to win the starting job.
"Knowshon [Moreno]...was just nothing short of awesome for us this past year and was a great teammate..."
Although I don’t expect Moreno to receive more than 60 percent of the Dolphins' total carries, he is a good veteran with upside, giving the team more weapons to utilize.
Backups: Lamar Miller, Mike Gillislee, Daniel Thomas, Marcus Thigpen, Damien Williams
Miller, the team's 2012 starter, should still see a lot of action this season. With the team utilizing more inside/outside-zone running plays under Bill Lazor, Miller’s home run ability will balance Moreno’s more consistent, bell-cow-back approach.
Second-year back Mike Gilislee should be able to beat out Daniel Thomas, as Gilislee is more suited for a power, short-yardage role, and quite frankly, he is more talented. Thomas might be in a battle with rookie Damien Williams in training camp, if Williams can prove that he’s past his Oklahoma troubles.
Marcus Thigpen will compete with other positional players for the kick- and punt-returner duties after he had a poor 2013 season returning kicks. He made a number of bad decisions in fielding punts and kicks too far back in Dolphins territory, leaving the offense in a terrible position to start drives.
You’d think that a year after dropping $100 million on receivers, the Dolphins would be set for awhile at the position, but in the 2014 NFL draft, they added two receivers to an already solid group.
But was it really a solid group?
Looking deeper at the individuals that former general manager Jeff Ireland splurged on, we can see the flaws of the 2013 major contributors.
Star Mike Wallace showed that he isn’t a dominant No. 1 receiver, as he doesn’t like to fight for jump balls.
Brian Hartline continues to be the model of consistency, but is a receiver who wins with precise underneath routes really worth around $6 million per year?
And Brandon Gibson, who ended the season on injured reserve, looked solid in his first season with the team. But is he healthy, or is the recent talk of him being ahead of schedule just agent talk?
The real truth is that the 2013 receiving group was solid, but inconsistent, and it wasn’t entirely its fault for being average.
With an offensive line that allowed just 2.62 seconds, per PFF (subscription required), for its quarterback to throw the ball, the receivers didn’t have much ability to get open.
Wallace, after an offseason dedicated to improving his chemistry with Tannehill, should play much better in 2014.
Hartline will be pushed by incoming rookie Jarvis Landry, from LSU, but will continue to be a solid receiver serving as a safety net.
Oh, and Landry, don’t be surprised if he takes Gibson’s slot position in training camp. With excellent hands and toughness, Landry is poised to become a favorite of fans, coaches and his quarterback.
Also, don’t sleep on fellow rookie Matt Hazel, or returning receiver Rishard Matthews. They’re similar players, but they're able to make a difference in 2014 with their polished games.
As for Gibson, he could be the odd man out if his knee isn’t fully healed. Miami can cut him anytime and rely on a cheaper, healthier rookie.
This offseason has shown that head coach Joe Philbin wants to build his receiver core like Green Bay, who has a number of similar skill set players who have good hands and run precise routes. With a timing-based offense, having such players is critical to success.
Overall, receiver is a deep position for Miami that should benefit from a better running game and offensive line play in 2014.
Starter: Charles Clay
The incumbent starter, Clay, had a monstrous breakout season in 2013, totaling 69 receptions and 759 yards. That's not too bad for a player who was thrust into the role after a season-ending injury to Dustin Keller in the preseason.
With a full offseason to prepare and rest, expect Clay to have another solid season. Lazor will likely move Clay around more than what former offensive coordinate Mike Sherman did, which could lead to bigger mismatches in the passing game.
Backups: Arthur Lynch, Michael Egnew, Dion Sims
The acquisition of Arthur Lynch in the fifth-round of the NFL draft is bad news for former fourth-rounder Dion Sims. Lynch is a better blocker and similar receiver to Sims, despite being a lesser athlete.
But Lynch will improve Miami’s running attack due to his in-line blocking ability, allowing Clay to be moved to slot receiver or halfback on some plays.
Egnew is looking to become more consistent, in what is a make-or-break year for the former Missouri Tiger. He’s a receiver in a tight end’s body and played fullback in a few games last season. He needs to be utilized more in the red zone, as he has tremendous size, and his confidence could use the opportunity.
Starters: Branden Albert (LT), Shelley Smith (LG), Mike Pouncey (C), Billy Turner (RG), Ja'Wuan James (RT)
As addressed earlier, the Dolphins have done significant work to improve the offensive line. Instead of signing stopgap linemen like they did for 2013, they hired zone-blocking scheme guru John Benton to coach the offensive line.
Then, they gave Benton the talent he needs to produce a solid offensive line.
By signing big-time free-agent left tackle Branden Albert and athletic guard Shelley Smith, as well as drafting tackle Ja’Wuan James and Billy Turner, Miami has an opportunity to become a top-10 offensive line in time.
Sure, James and Turner need to develop, but the talent is much younger and a better fit than former starters Bryant McKinnie, Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, John Jerry and Tyson Clabo. None of those players were offered a contract extension by the team.
Oh, and they have Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.
Suffice to say, the offensive line is much better than it was just four months ago.
Starters: Cameron Wake (RDE), Olivier Vernon (LDE), Randy Starks (DT), Jared Odrick (DT)
The Dolphins lost nose tackle Paul Soliai, but they were badly outbid by the Atlanta Falcons. Instead of re-signing a player who is one-dimensional, they re-signed pass-rusher Randy Starks and added former Houston Texans defensive tackle Earl Mitchell.
Combined with veteran Jared Odrick and youngsters Aaitui Isaako and A.J. Francis, UDFA Anthony Johnson could also join the active roster if he performs well in training camp.
At defensive end, Miami has star Cameron Wake at the strong side. 2013 breakout Olivier Vernon returns and is looking to improve his run defense. Former No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan is also fully healthy and ready to make an impact, and I’m sure he’s going to be stealing snaps, as his development is crucial for the team.
With the size, athleticism and speed Jordan has, he must be allowed to play more than he was in 2013. He has unlimited upside in coverage and the ability to rush the passer already.
Veteran Derrick Shelby and rookie Terrence Fede round out the active roster, providing depth and upside, respectively.
Starters: Philip Wheeler (WLB), Dannell Ellerbe (MLB), Koa Misi (SLB)
The much-maligned pairing of weak-side linebacker Philip Wheeler and "Mike" linebacker Dannell Ellerbe return for 2014, alongside strong-side ‘backer Koa Misi.
After playing through one-fourth of last season injured, Ellerbe should be more physically comfortable in 2014 and, thus, not such an eyesore in the run game. Miami has to get more production out of Ellerbe to be successful.
Misi has been a solid player for the Dolphins for a few seasons, and despite the recent rumors of a position change, per Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post, he should remain Miami’s primary run-stuffer.
Wheeler was one of the worst-performing Dolphins in 2013, due to his complete inability to fill his role competently.
He couldn’t reach the quarterback when rushing, notching only one sack. He struggled mightily in coverage, often blowing assignments against tight ends. Despite totaling over 100 tackles, most were five yards downfield because he doesn’t diagnose plays well, so he’s ineffective against the run as well.
So Miami drafted Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp, who is a great athlete with recognition ability. He is likely a weak-side linebacker due to his short arms and lack of functional strength, but he will see the field in 2014 because of his abilities in nickel sub-packages.
The backups, Jelani Jenkins, Jason Trusnik and Jonathan Freeny should all be special teams players for the season, with only Jenkins having some upside.
Miami should see better play out of the linebackers, if only for the fact 2013 seemed to be uncharacteristically bad for Wheeler, especially.
Starters: Brent Grimes, Jamar Taylor, Cortland Finnegan (SCB)
Who is No. 1? That’s Pro Bowl corner Brent Grimes. Grimes bounced back from an Achilles tear while with the Falcons in 2012 to become a shutdown defender for Miami. After a new, team-friendly contract, he returns to lead the Dolphins secondary once again.
After allowing 2013 starter Nolan Carroll to depart via free agency, Miami signed nickelback Cortland Finnegan from the St. Louis Rams, in hopes he rebounds from his two injury-plagued two seasons with the team.
Finnegan was once an elite nickelback, using his tremendous foot speed and quickness to mirror receivers and annoying them with his feisty attitude. He’s a locker-room leader, as players love to play with him, but they hate to face him (ask Andre Johnson).
Finnegan is a low-risk signing, because if he stinks, Miami has some young talent to fall back on.
2013 second-round pick Jamar Taylor is someone I highly value, as he has excellent hip flexibility and strong technique to match his solid athleticism. I expect him to easily win the No. 2 cornerback spot.
Will Davis, the 2013 third-round pick, will compete with 2014 fourth-rounder Walt Aikens for the team's No. 4 receiver spot. Davis is more of a slot, and Aikens is more of a boundary, but they are talented players who need refinement. Aikens has considerably more upside due to his ball skills and physical profile (read more here), but Davis has the potential for a long NFL career if he develops.
Once again, expect the cornerbacks to be a Dolphins strength.
Starters: Reshad Jones (FS), Louis Delmas (SS)
This is where the Dolphins might’ve regressed as we enter the 2014 season.
Miami let starter Chris Clemons walk away in free agency, which isn’t a major loss, considering he was an average starter who couldn’t convert turnover opportunities with his hands of stone. Clemons was also ranked the 19th safety in the NFL, per PFF (subscription required).
Clemons was, however, a reliable player who didn’t allow big plays.
The same cannot be said for the new safety brought in from Detroit, Louis Delmas.
Delmas is a high-risk, high-reward player who will bite on deceptive plays, but he also converts the aggression into big plays, such as turnovers, so there is a bit of a gamble with him.
Considering he was an aggressive safety who previously played strong safety, so it seems Miami could either be employing mirror safeties, where each safety shares similar roles, or Reshad Jones moves back to free safety. Jones switched from free safety to strong safety in 2012, enjoying a Pro Bowl season. He struggled early in 2013, but ended the season with a strong final six weeks.
Backup safety Jimmy Wilson is a solid option if Delmas gets hurt or doesn’t play well, as he has good range and instincts. At the very least, he’s good enough to get Miami through 2014 without being a liability.
The Dolphins benefit from having one of the top punters in the NFL, Brandon Fields. Averaging over 48 yards a punt, Fields has been a Dolphins' Pro Bowler due to consistency and his ability to alter field position.
At kicker, 2013 fifth-round pick Caleb Sturgis needs to perform much better to retain his roster spot. He made only 76.5 percent of field goals last season, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, which was well below the NFL average of 86.29 percent, per Sporting Charts.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Sports-Reference.com/cfb and Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com. Additional draft information courtesy of NFL.com.
Ian Wharton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Miami Dolphins. Be sure to check out his entire archive, including draft analysis and insight on the 2014 NFL draft.
You can follow and interact with Ian on Twitter: @NFLFilmStudy