Miami Dolphins: Position Battles
On the heels of some front-office shakeups within the Dolphin organization, most notably the news of the Estefans becomming 5-percent joint owners of the franchise, let's delve into the pre-training camp rivalries that will define the rest of this preseason.
With 2008's 11-win season spawning high expectations within the Dolphin faithful, the team's 2009 draft and free-agent classes have the opportunity to become instant fixtures. Some incumbents will be resilient this summer, and others...well...
Let's start at the top.
If Chad Pennington (pictured) retired today, he'd be recorded as the most accurate passer in NFL history (66.0 percent completion rate) and one of the top six in rating.
He's the reigning starter in Miami, and after the job he did in '08 with limited weapons and a morale dictated by the 1-15 record around him, there's no question Pennington is still the guy.
So, why haven't we moved on to the next skill position?
Well, there are a couple items to note. West Virginia Mountaineer Pat White was, of course, drafted in the second round, and he's listed at No. 2 on the depth chart, meaning Chad Henne needs to impress this preseason if he wants to suit up with 52 colleagues on Sundays.
Henne should get playing time, at least, in the summer months, as Pennington averaged under two drives per game during the first three preseason contests last year, and White certainly needs to get his feet wet before he sees significant time.
Reports from mini camp were more of his (White's) errant passing than anything positive he did.
But with White brought in to presumably run the Wildcat formation for the incoming duration, and Henne not even that far ahead of White in experience, with only 12 NFL passes to his credit, the signs on the wall aren't too optimistic for the former Michigan Wolverine.
Lastly, there are those rumors of Bill Parcells being interested in free agent, but still-suspended, Michael Vick.
I don't know what makes former NFL, and now UFL San Francisco coach, Dennis Green, an expert on Dolphin relations, but he was quoted earlier in the week by Yahoo! as more or less saying Parcells gets what he wants...and he wants Vick.
Stay tuned. Pennington is a free agent after this year.
If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated the troubled passer and Miami scooped him up, expect a long cultivation period to ensue with Vick probably not suiting up for quite some time.
Who knows, his skills may have deteriorated.
To boot, Goodell has shown no haste in tending to the Vick reinstatement, and a 29-year-old idle for two seasons, who never learned to throw well from the pocket, makes a rather bitter mid-season signing, should he not be eligible until then.
But, it is worth remembering that Pennington is about a $4-million per year starter in the last year of his contract with only 12 career passes between the two backups behind him on the depth chart.
Pennington just turned 33 years old last week. Is the prospect of bringing in Michael Vick a proverbial yellow card for White and Henne, denoting a big mistake or two and this team is going with the more proven guy?
Again, stay tuned.
Running Backs: All Three Heads Have Their Say
The mini camp provided much optimism, as starting running back Ronnie Brown reported with less body fat and seemingly more muscle than a year ago when he was fresh off an ACL tear.
In 2008, Brown quarterbacked the Wildcat, while racking up over 1,200 all-purpose yards (passing numbers included) despite splitting time with two other able backs.
Expect Ricky Williams and Patrick Cobbs (both pictured) to play extended roles once again.
Williams registered nearly 700 yards (659 on the ground) in '08, while Cobbs was the team's sixth-leading receiver and most prolific one during the Wild Card loss to Baltimore.
The advantage to sporting three reliable backs? Expect to see Brown at full strength whenever he's on the field.
The Dolphins' fullback and lead blocker is still Lousaka Polite, an oft-injured yet very reliable pass rush cog for Pennington to utilize.
Expect to see Polite on the field plenty in '09, because his backup is an undrafted, natural tight end (Chris Brown).
This running game combined for about 1,900 rushing yards last season, and with Williams now back into the groove and Brown completely over his bum knee, that previous bar might just get hurdled. Dream big.
Despite a couple of nice surprise performances from rookie Davonne Bess and the tight end corps, Miami's passing stats were efficient under Pennington, yet lacking in substantial real estate.
Pennington did rack up over 3,650 yards, but much of that had nothing to do with the wide receivers, in which nobody tallied more than 790 (Ted Ginn, Jr.).
Now, as a third year vet, Ginn is once again slated to start, this year opposite Greg Camarillo (both pictured).
One of the more cumbersome complaints from pundits is that both of these starters have the sleek bodies of deep threats, while Pennington has made a career out of throwing the quick route after a three-step drop.
As a result, the tight ends and running backs become more utilized, so the receivers are asked to do a little more blocking than the norm on some other teams.
Did this contribute to Camarillo's left knee shredding in the New England game last November?
Interestingly, the team started their five-game winning streak and prance toward the playoffs immediately following Camarillo's ACL tear, as Davonne Bess stepped into the starting lineup.
Bess is also a speed guy, but his high catch tallies and relatively low average yard per catch stat tells me he is a more comfortable fit as the possible long-term possession receiver so craved by Pennington, along the lines of what he had in Laveranues Coles with the Jets.
Miami drafted a pair of potential starting wide receivers this April in USC's Patrick Turner and Ohio State's Brian Hartline. Both guys have big game experience from their college days.
They also signed an undrafted special teamer in Anthony Armstrong, another guy to compete for backup time behind last year's underachieving Brandon London, whose playing time increased after Camarillo's injury.
Unfortunately, London was only able to register a pair of catches during the ensuing winning streak, meaning his role is disposable.
Expect to see Davonne Bess spelling Greg Camarillo a lot this year.
In addition, Patrick Turner's natural height (6'5") and bulk (220 lbs.) immediately separate him from the rest of these receivers, especially when it comes to naming a goal-line specialist to run fades and block in small package formations.
I think we'll see him enough, too, perhaps primarily to block.
How much we see Hartline, London, and Armstrong remains to be determined by preseason progress and how they physically match up against opposing corners.
Again, this unit is still undersized and the offense will continue to rely on other positions for passing stats. Bess is truly playing the x-factor.
Last year, Dallas Cowboy-export Anthony Fasano (pictured) proved himself one of the gutsier Dolphins, as he collected seven touchdowns while effectively run blocking and never missing a game.
He and backup David Martin were the team's fourth and fifth leading receivers respectively, serving an increased but paramount role for Chad Pennington and the passing game as the wide receivers struggled.
Both Fasano and Martin out-gained every running back as far as receiving yards and combined for more receptions than any one wide receiver.
Expect the carousel to continue to turn steadily in 2009, as Fasano is in a contract year.
David Martin did miss OTA time, as he deals with the recovery from a sports hernia operation he underwent in late May, but he should be fine for the regular season.
Martin is not the blocker Fasano is, but he did unseat the longtime incumbent, Bubba Franks, while in Green Bay, which is certainly something to brag about.
Expect 6'8", 270 lb. load Joey Hanos to take starting reps in the preseason with Martin ailing and Fasano worth preserving for the games that actually count.
If Miami didn't rely on their tight ends to receive so much, Hanos would make an enticing starting option with his vast size.
Offensive Line: Reasons To Be Optimistic
Despite some issues on the right side, the offensive line looks tight with the offseason addition of former Raider center Jake Grove. He'll anchor the line while Jake Long and Justin Smiley (pictured, along with the aforementioned, David Martin) make a formidable and battle-tested duo on the left side.
Long is heading into his sophomore season after being named to the Pro Bowl for his rookie act.
Main backup for both Smiley and Grove, Andy Alleman, is ailing with a sore back. Yahoo! reported that he missed all of the mini-camp sessions. Due to this, don't expect to see much of Smiley or Grove in the preseason, as injuries to them would leave a gaping hole.
The right side of the offensive line is looking at another handicap as, for the second time in as many years, coveted 2008 draft pick Donald Thomas is leaving an injury void at right guard.
This time, he severely pulled a pectoral muscle in offseason workouts.
He is expected back by the second month of the season, but, of course, that's not written in stone. In the meantime, a four-man tryout has ensued to take Thomas' place, as highlighted by my initial report of the guard's chest injury in May.
It seems offensive coordinator Dan Henning is leaning toward going with size over speed, in tentatively promoting former Houston Texans tackle Brandon Frye to the starting spot, currently lining up next to mainstay right tackle Vernon Carey.
Carey, at 350 lbs., is the heaviest guy on the O-line, but he lacks mobility and speed from the snap.
Despite, this line, as a whole, did a fine job of keeping the sack total on Chad Pennington to exactly one and a half per game in '08.
Better health, and increased synchronicity between the offense and Pennington in his second year as a Dolphin should lead to an eclipse of that marker.
Miami's defense, behind second-year NFL defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, post one of the meaner 3-4 defenses in the league.
They are, without a doubt, anchored by a voracious linebacking corps of four-time Pro Bowler Joey Porter and career ironman Akin Ayodele, who has never missed a game in his impressive seven-year run in the league.
These two combined for 117 tackles, about 100 yards of sack output, and a pair of picks for good measure in 2008.
The left side of the linebacking unit pits steadily improving Channing Crowder and Matt Roth side-by-side. Crowder has been rewarded for his efforts with a new three-year, $6.1 million contract.
Of course, the re-signing of Jason Taylor leaves the prevalent possibility that Roth, the weakest link of the linebackers, could see a more limited role as Taylor is expected to see snaps at DE and LOLB.
The latter position is where he's currently listed on the team's depth chart.
On the three-man defensive line, the criminal implications for Randy Starks and the release of Vonnie Holiday leave Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling the, more or less, uncontested starting ends.
Langford is a second-year guy trying to drop some of the adverse poundage that led to his poor sack total and lack of burst in his rookie season.
Behind him is the talented and more toned, yet oft-injured, Tony McDaniel, who played his longest season with Jacksonville in 2006.
Phillip Merling is the second piece of Miami's 2008 resuscitation of their defensive line, as Merling was drafted one round ahead of Langford.
Merling, like his classmate, has plenty room to improve but has the frame to get where he needs to be.
Merling sports a trim 290 lb. body and a 6'4" figure with even longer arms, perfect for doing things like, say, intercepting Brett Favre and taking it to the house, as he did on Dec. 28 in the game that booked Miami's first postseason ticket in seven years.
Another Dallas-export, Jason Ferguson, is once again slated to start at nose tackle, really out of optimism, as the 12-year OL veteran (that's like 100 in kicker years) has had a tough go of it health-wise since 2007.
Last year, despite dressing 16 times, Ferguson missed a handful of games due to an oblique injury. It was his first season as a Dolphin.
Benefiting from his missed time is Paul Soliai, who only recorded three tackles through 14 games in 2008.
Despite this, Miami didn't draft anybody else for the position. They, instead, waited until after Draft weekend to sign Louis Ellis, a 320-pounder out of Division-II.
Ellis has little wear and tear after four years of D-II ball with Shaw University, and, at the very least, should push Soliai for Ferguson's backup role.
The fact that the team did not draft or pick up via trade or free agency a more notorious anchor tells me that a.) Ferguson felt good in his offseason preparations, and b.) Ellis is a guy Miami scouted up there in Raleigh, and they felt confident he'd be available post-draft.
However, really be sure and watch the race between these three guys this offseason, as the ability to plug the middle of the field would really free things up for the blitz packages the linebackers like to execute on the wings.
Otherwise, they have to drift toward the middle and play the run.
Certainly, we've talked about it before, and the Achilles heel for this franchise remains their ability, or lack thereof, to stop the pass. Last year, they ranked 25th in the league in doing so.
To troubleshoot, the team did three things this offseason.
First, they signed Gibril Wilson at free safety, another Oakland export, but a worthy one. The Raider pass defense was 10th in the league last year, ironically the same ranking Miami's run defense enjoyed.
Then, they locked up the lone bright spot, starting strong safety and team-leading tackler Yeremiah Bell, and, more recently, his backup, Tyrone Culver, to four- and two-year deals, respectively.
Lastly, on draft day, the team spent a first and second round pick toward bolstering the cornerback unit.
Not to go under the radar was the team's signing of corner Eric Green from the defending NFC champion Cardinals, as the 'Fins look to sure up the hole left by Andre Goodman (Denver via free agency).
The Green acquisition allows rookie first rounder and former Illini Vontae Davis to go after Will Allen's starting spot.
Allen, often made a victim suspect to the deep routes with the trendy propensity to jump patterns since back from his New York Giant days, is on thin ice with fans and likely Pasqualoni alike.
Expect Allen to start at left corner on opening day against Atlanta, with the arduous task of having to slow down Roddy White, as Davis, fellow rookie Sean Smith, and last year's third-down corner Nathan Jones wait for their chance.
On the right side, Eric Green will acculturate while veteran Jason Allen (no relation to Will), who knows this defense well, should get the start.
Allen's best season came in 2007, when he totaled 62 tackles. Of course, nobody in the secondary was exactly preventing guys from making the catches ahead of them.
The remnants from Miami's horrid 1-15 season of two years past are slowly being weeded out, and presumably replacing the two Allens with Davis and Green should be nearly the final dose of that.
If the Dolphins want to get to the second round this year, they have to take some pressure off the front seven and bolster at least a top-20 pass defense with a better propensity for turning the ball over. Clock control is again key for this team.
Miami's special teams were quite good in 2008. The coverage teams could improve a little, but, generally, Miami won the field position battles and added to the score board when they needed to.
Kicker Dan Carpenter (pictured) had an impressive rookie campaign, converting all 11 of his field goals inside 40 yards.
His overall percentage dropped outside of that range, but his touchbacks, extra point efficiency, and 50-yard bolt in windy Buffalo on Dec. 7 all point toward a bright future.
Punter Brandon Fields was tied for 10th in the league with downing punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line, and he more than doubled his total here from 2007.
Davonne Bess and Ted Ginn put in extra time as the punt and kickoff returners. Bess had more success than Ginn, averaging 12th in the league for his totals, whereas Ginn was the third least effective kickoff returner.
The two receivers are expected to resume these roles.
Still absent from the team is a typical backup defensive back or disposable wideout willing to double as a kick returner. The stakes are high when important role players like Ginn are handling return duties (we all remember Jason Sehorn, right?).
However, due in large part to Miami's need to carousel their secondary depth to make up for inefficiencies with the starters, there really is no available roster spot for a return specialist à la a Joshua Cribbs, Devin Hester, or an Antwaan Randle El.
As the young corners acculturate, that should change.
The Sun Sentinel released the team's training camp schedule this past Sunday.
As Aug. 1 readily approaches for Tony Sparano, the players, Stephen Ross, the Miami Sound Machine, and everyone else who may be involved in this year's campaign, the anticipation felt is a justifiable one, as more good days should be on the horizon.
The Dolphins knack to ground-and-pound, control the clock, and out-hit the opposition are all missions hardly impossible.
The strengths of the offense remain difficult factors for opposing defenses, and being able to start four playmaking linebackers is always a foremost objective for any 3-4, yet one usually impossible because of free agency.
The downside is that I do not feel the glaring weaknesses at wide receiver and in the secondary have been completely met.
I do like the addition of Gibril Wilson, and he's played with Will Allen in the past (NY Giants). But, bear in mind, this is a unit that will play two games a piece against the T.O./Evans duo and the Moss/Welker/Galloway tandem, with their weakness being a susceptibility to the big play.
They may have a long-term starter in Ted Ginn, Jr., but the team still lacks a typical possession receiver more reliable on quick and shorter routes.
Tight end Anthony Fasano served Pennington well in this role last year, and the emergence of Davonne Bess down the stretch, while all three running backs chipped in too, made the transition season a successful one for Pennington.
But, to take the next step beyond the Wild Card round, the team appears more vulnerable to the big, dynamic play than they're making their opponents.
The challenges of recharging their receiving and defensive-back corps certainly could not have been done overnight, and I believe the team is well on their way to more division winning days in the impending seasons.
The core of Pittsburgh and New England is pretty tight, but that of Miami's is younger and consists of a better running game with an improving offensive line.
This aspect is so frequently what championship runs are built on, and what sustained the team during their five-game winning streak to end 2008.