Miami Dolphins: 9 Players Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2011
Before every season begins, fans scour their respective teams' rosters. Fingers trace up and down the depth chart, making pit-stops at a select few players: "If this guy can turn it on this year, there's no way we don't make the playoffs."
It's a treacherous course, but fans are the ultimate optimists.
Like every NFL team, the Dolphins have a share of players facing make-or-break seasons. If these players can fulfill their potential, there's no telling how far Miami can go this year; however, those who flop likely won't return for the 2012 season.
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After making halfhearted runs at free agents Ryan Clark and Antrel Rolle, the Dolphins entrusted starting free safety duties to 2009 fifth round draft pick Chris Clemons.
In 2010, his first season as a starter, Clemons was solid but hardly spectacular. He was often a liability up the middle of the field, and even though the Dolphins boast a fantastic core of defensive backs, they need Clemons to serve as a safety blanket.
Youngsters Reshad Jones and Jonathan Amaya have both shown promising glimpses, so Clemons must be rock solid in 2011, or he could lose his starting job.
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Concerns over Chad Henne's statistics, character, leadership and mechanics have been recited, recycled and reprocessed.
Everybody knows Henne absolutely must produce this season or he will be on the outs. The Dolphins have already announced their intentions to bring in a veteran quarterback, so there is a slight possibility he won't even get a chance to regain this team's trust.
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Since Miami drafted Lex Hilliard in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft, we've continually heard whispers about the running back's potential.
At 5-foot-11, 231 pounds, Hilliard certainly has an NFL build, but he hasn't shined when given ample opportunity. In 2009, he registered 23 carries for 89 yards and one touchdown, and tacked on 20 receptions.
His career yards per carry average is a very mediocre 3.9, and Hilliard's best chance to garner a significant role with the Dolphins may be at fullback. Now that Daniel Thomas is in the fold and another free agent back will likely arrive during free agency, 2011 might be Hilliard's final chance to prove his value.
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Anthony Fasano will be a Dolphin for the next three seasons, at least. Miami inked the tight end to a three-year extension midway through the 2010 season.
However, he has compiled just 104 receptions for 1,321 yards and 14 touchdowns over a three year span. Respectable numbers, but not exactly jaw-dropping.
Most of the NFL's elite offenses have a dangerous tight end in their arsenal (See: Chargers, Patriots, Packers, Falcons, Jets, etc.), and Fasano won't ever ascend to such a level.
Miami's philosophy doesn't seem to emphasize tight ends heavily, but at some point, they're going to have to invest in a real upgrade (Charles Clay probably isn't the answer). If Fasano can up his production, he an secure his post as the team's primary tight end; however, another year in mediocrity could have him taking a secondary role.
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Once Miami drafted Edmond Gates in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Brian Hartline's status with the Dolphins immediately came into question. There's a very slim chance he will be cut before the 2011 season, but Gates is expected to assume many of Hartline's duties.
In just two years in the league, Hartline has caught 74 passes for 1,121 yards and four touchdowns. Those are great numbers for such a young wide receiver, especially considering the learning curve normally associated with the position.
Unfortunately, Hartline lacks the lethal vertical speed that Gates has, and his ceiling does not appear to be very high. Hartline needs to become a Greg Camarillo-type player—a precise route runner who never drops passes—in order to retain a role with the Dolphins.
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Three years into an unspectacular career, Phillip Merling is remembered for two things: Scoring the game-clinching touchdown against the Jets in '08 and beating his pregnant girlfriend last summer.
It's not the kind of byline the Dolphins hoped Merling would assemble when they drafted him in the second round of the 2008 draft. A sports hernia dropped the former Clemson defensive end out of the first round, and everybody praised Miami for scooping up such a steal.
However, he hasn't been entirely ineffective. Merling amassed 33 tackles and 2.5 sacks in '09, but missed almost all of last season due to injury, and proceeded to rack up a measly three tackles. The Dolphins already have Kendall Langford, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick in the rotation, so unless Merling shows that he is ready to breakout, he could easily become expendable.
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Kory Sheets earns the title of "Mystery Man" this summer.
Throughout all of the speculation over which running back Miami will pursue in free agency, Sheets' name consistently surfaces as a potential solution to the team's scat-back/third down back need.
The former Purdue star reportedly showed impressive flashes before suffering a season-ending Achilles' injury just days into training camp.
Despite all of the hype, nobody, including Miami's coaching staff, has any idea if Sheets is actually good at all. While Sheets could prove to be an invaluable asset, he needs to prove his worth first. If he doesn't show he can make an impact during camp, expect Sheets to be cut.
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Dolphins fans love to hate Channing Crowder. At least that seems to be the consensus around town. Although, maybe "hate" is the wrong word; maybe "frustrated" is a better choice.
Regardless, Miami fans seem to have grown wary of Crowder's big mouth-small production pattern. Not to mention, he has missed a combined 10 games over the past two seasons alone.
Setting aside his shortcomings, Crowder provides invaluable swagger, leadership and football I.Q. to a young and budding Dolphins defense. His intangibles cannot be measured in statistics, and you have to give him credit for continually retaining his starting job from all of the potential replacements brought in over the years (Tim Dobbins, Reggie Torbor, etc.).
But if Crowder can't stay healthy, his durability concerns will hit a tipping point, and Miami will cut the dead weight.
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In 2009, Lousaka Polite was all the rage in Miami.
He was a one-man wrecking crew, paving rushing lanes on the NFL's fourth best rushing attack and, more famously, posting a perfect conversion rate.
But 2010 was a different story.
Miami's running game ranked just 21st (not entirely his fault, obviously), and Polite was nowhere near as effective with the ball in his hands. Polite's job security may have been in question before the draft, but once the 'Fins selected Charles Clay, things got increasingly gloomy.
Miami will absolutely give Polite a chance to retain his job. He is only two years removed from a Pro Bowl-worthy season. But with two potential replacements (Lex Hilliard, Charles Clay) on the roster, Polite will have to great, or he could be cut.