The Miami Dolphins are coming off a most disappointing season. They lost star RB Ronnie Brown to injury, and struggled down the stretch, losing their last 3 games, all of which would have been critical victories. This team was not far off from a postseason berth, and as a lifelong fan, coming off of a Division Championship and following it with a 7-9 record was devastating. However, a bright future awaits this Dolphins squad. Fresh off owner Stephen Ross’s comments declaring this team a “Super Bowl team,” the Dolphins have gotten more press in the last week than this fan can remember since the days of Dan Marino. There was Ricky Williams reassuring that his team had what it takes to secure playoff victory. There was Chad “will be the best Quarterback in Miami Dolphins history, and you what that will mean” Henne, who, while entering his first full season as a starter, mentioned that he has a lot of ground to cover, but is up for the challenge in leading his team. Lastly, coveted free agent acquisition Brandon Marshall, who will take on the jersey # of the dreaded Ted Ginn Jr., made headlines for participating in his first non-bike bound practice in Aqua and Orange. However, as we get closer to Training Camp, I’d like to take a look at our roster. This team has gone through a humongous overhaul since the Trifecta (Parcells, Ireland & Sparano), and I can’t remember the last time a Dolphins team had this much depth. Here is a look at the current team, and how I think it will all play out.
Starting with the offense, and arguably the most important position for the Miami Dolphins success, is QB. While the 2 Chad’s (Henne, Pennington) are no doubt locks for the 53-man roster, there will be a bit of a battle between Pat White, last year’s 2nd Round Pick, and former Kansas City Chief Tyler Thigpen. Chad Henne is the unquestioned starter and Pennington was resigned primarily to serve as a coach, but also as one of the most serviceable back-ups in the league. Meanwhile, as little success as Pat White has found (I found myself yelling at the TV whenever he went into a game), his status as a draft pick, let alone a high pick from just last year, will likely save him from being cut. Too much time has been invested in Pat to give up after one year, no matter how bad he played or got destroyed by the Steelers. The guy has a lot of talent though, so there may still be room for a ‘WildPat” package. However, he has to show the coaching staff he is capable of being a valuable member of the team, especially when a proven starter is behind his back. Tyler Thigpen has shown, as Dolphins fans saw back in 2008, that with a little effort, he can really play decent. However, I’m not sure, with his competition, that decent will cut it for this organization. Luckily, there is a chance that a QB-needy team (Bills?) with an offer to sign Thigy, but I would rather bet money that Tyler Thigpen will not remain on the roster by the end of camp.
The second key position is that of RB & FB. Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams & Lousaka Polite form one of the most explosive ground games in the NFL. In fact, it is my opinion that Polite was robbed of a Pro Bowl appearance last season, when he converted all of his 3rd or 4th and short runs throughout the season, likely due to the increased national coverage of the Baltimore Ravens and Rolando McClain. While Ronnie is recovering from surgery, and Ricky, who was awarded team MVP for his 2009 effort, is still blazing past defenders in older age, I am most interested in what happens with
Patrick Cobbs, Lex Hilliard & Kory Sheets. All of these players were members of the 2009 team, each impressing me with their effort (Cobbs was injured early tearing his ACL, but he has shown to be an “every position” sort of player and a Sparano favorite. Don’t believe me? Watch highlights from the 2008 Texans game). The Front Office has also signed Tristan Davis & Rolly Lumbala to serve as competition during camp.
First off, I do think that more than Lex Hilliard and Patrick Cobbs will both be on the team come September 12th. However, there is an outside possibility that these two end up fighting for one roster spot. If Cobbs doesn't regain his previous form, the Dolphins may decide to cut him, trade him, or place him on the PUP. Still, I could see him keeping his spot as mostly a special teams contributor, something this team seems to relish in. Yet, I also thought Lex Hilliard did a great job when he was forced into action late in 2009. I attended the game vs. the Texans, and in person, this kid is fast. He has valuable experience and this regime likes him. However, Hilliard also was a former 6th round pick in 2008 who didn't make the team out of training camp. So, as he's been cut before, it stands to reason he can be cut again, especially if Patrick Cobbs shows flashes of his old self, and one spot remains. Kory Sheets was on the roster late-last season and has potential as a return specialist, a threat the Dolphins lost with the trade of Ted “the Ginnja” Ginn Jr. Sheets actually has an outside chance of making the roster as a return man, or if he vastly improves as a RB, because I can’t imagine the FO placing all return responsibility on Davone Bess. I have a hard time seeing Cobbs being released, and an even harder time seeing Hilliard being cut. Still, neither player is a lock because there always is that chance that Miami decides to only keep 3 Running Backs this season. Rolly Lumbala and Tristan Davis are merely fodder, and probably won't even make it past first cuts, but hey, I’m open to surprises.
Speaking of surprises, the Miami Dolphins WR core has instantly become one of the brighter spots on the team with the addition of #19, Brandon Marshall. Along with BM, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess & Greg Camarillo will be key contributors, boosting their efforts with less coverage. Parcells and Co. also have Patrick Turner, Ryan Grice-Mullen, Julius Pruitt, Taurus Johnson, and Marlon Moore & Roberto Wallace. Obviously, the team only needs so many recievers, but I am sold on the idea that they keep 6 on the final 53. Last year’s stars will easily return (keep an eye on Hartline, who continually impressed me), but the team still needs to fill out their second and third teams for camp. I am not saying there is 0% chance Pruitt, Johnson, Moore or Wallace will emerge as an unknown like Bess did a few years ago. However, it is highly unlikely. Then there is Turner and Grice-Mullen.
I hate to say it, but I may agree with Mel Kiper. I am disappointed in the Patrick Turner experiment. He has physical tools, but so far he has shown that that's about it. He was frequently a disappointment in college at USC, and so far in the NFL, he has been a bust. Still, as a 3rd Round Pick just last year, this regime has to give him every chance to make this team. His best bet this season isn’t even much, likely as a 5th wideout who fights his way into a role on Special Teams, but he is most likely to land on the practice squad. I think he has a decent chance at making the team, just because of his potential and draft status, but if so, he is likely to be inactive again. Yet, this regime has proven it accepts its mistakes quickly (see Wilson, Gibril). For Grice-Mullen, the former teammate of Davone Bess at Hawaii, the situation is far simpler; as it is likely he will follow DB’s footsteps and get an opportunity to fill the KR position. If he succeeds, I predict he will make the team and be active on game days. If not, it’s likely back to the CFL, where he posted solid numbers, or another NFL Practice Squad. Those in Dolphins’ Nation who think he can be as effective as Davone Bess should ease their expectations.
The Tight End position may be the most interesting positional battle on offense. Although he showed some slippery hands last year, I still think Anthony Fasano will be the starter on opening day. He got better as the season progressed, and probably is still the best option the Dolphins have. However, he is arguably one of the best blocking TE's in the game and the Dolphins are still a run first team. Having a complete TE like a Vernon Davis or Jason Witten is ideal, but far from necessary on this team, especially when you have Brandon Marshall. Unless you have a top-tier TE, which, unfortunately, Fasano is not, then you should be happy to have a player at TE who is effective as either a blocker or pass catcher. Would I like to have Davis or Witten, or even Visanthe Shiancoe instead? Yes. But, this team has far more pressing needs, which the Front Office addressed in April’s draft. I expect Fasano to regain his form now that he doesn't have to stay in and block as frequently. However, he has some closer than expected competition in Joey Haynos, John Nalbone, & Kory Sperry, all of whom will be competing for roster spots. Theoretically, they could all make the team, but it depends on their progress in camp. Obviously, Joey Haynos has an edge with plenty of game experience, and he was the #2 TE last season, and his size is also a huge plus. Still, his dropped passes and his lack of elite skill set make him liable to be surpassed if he doesn't continue to improve.
John Nalbone is an important guy to watch during this training camp. This regime took him in the 5th round just a year ago, so they obviously saw something in him they liked. Still, he was released shortly after 2009 training camp, and spent the year on the Practice Squad, where undrafted TE Kory Sperry surpassed him when Fasano was injured. Either he does what Lex Hilliard did a year ago, and makes this team a year after failing to, or this regime will officially give up on him. He has the potential to emerge as a pass catching backup TE who compliments Fasano, just as he has the potential to fall out of the league all together. Meanwhile, Sperry is a guy with valuable game experience (scored a TD last season) but has a lack of elite tools. He has a chance to stick if he continues to improve but could easily be the odd man out if Nalbone starts to finally emerge.
Lastly, there is the heart of this time, the OL, which I predict will be made up of T Jake Long, T Vernon Carey, Rookie G John Jerry, C Joe Berger, C Jake Grove, G Richie Incognito, G Donald Thomas, and T/G Nate Garner. There will be a lot of competition at guard and center in training camp, as Berger, Grove, Incognito, Thomas and Garner all have plenty of talent and experience. For them, camp will be a matter of who is a starter and who is a quality reserve. Still, it will be interesting to see how many O-lineman the Dolphins keep. Teams generally keep a minimum of 8 and as many as 10 players, but as this team saw against the Carolina Panthers in 2009, sometimes backups are necessary. Yet, I already have 8 as locks, so its possible that none of the others will make the team. However, all four of them (G Cory Proctor, T Andrew Gardner, T Lydon Murtha, G Andrew Hartline) spent time on either the Dolphins’ or another team's rosters last season, and they all will have a shot at making the team. Cory Proctor is the most likely to make it, as he is a quality backup with starting experience in Dallas and is relatively young. Sparano also coached him previously, and he was signed just this offseason. Though Andrew Gardner was on the roster all season last year and was a 6th Round Pick by the Trifecta, Nate Garner & Vernon Carey make having Gardner unnecessary, unless he shows himself to be too valuable to let go. Murtha and Hartline both were on the team at certain points last season, but frankly, this unit is so deep that they have little chance at sticking, even though they are both still Practice Squad eligible. Dmitri Tsoumpas and Ray Feinga are prototypical camp placeholders, and I don’t expect much noise out of them.
Having suffered through the era of Nick Satan and Cam Cameron, I have to say I am shocked by the progress made so quickly by this team. Going into training camp, this team has a young, polished franchise QB, two supremely talented RB's, a punishing lead blocking FB, and a new #1 wideout. There is still a great mix of complimentary receivers, a talented and underrated starting TE, and backups with potential, and possibly the deepest O-line in the league highlighted by one of the best blind side protectors in the game in #77, Jake Long. A bad team goes into training camp trying to find out who their starters are. A good team goes into training camp trying to decide who their backups are going to be. The Dolphins are a good team. Outside of competition at G and 2nd WR between talented and proven players, all the other competitions will all be focused on the back end of the roster. It is a relief to be talking about who will be our 5th receiver this year, and not our 1st (really, when was the last time a fan could say that?). Every team needs competition, and the Tuna has kept this, but having the most hotly contested battles at 3rd string RB, backup TE, and 5th wideout means this regime is moving in a good direction. While I’m not gonna follow in the footsteps of the owner, I will say with a more potent offense, this year, the Dolphins will be vastly improved. Stay on the lookout as I review the defense.