Final Grades for Every Miami Dolphins Starter in 2011
Although most Miami Dolphins fans have been in "Draft Mode" since the team stumbled to an 0-7 start, the first order of business for this offseason should be self-evaluation.
After all, we have the next four months to talk about the 2012 NFL Draft and speculate about which prospects and free agents the 'Fins will pursue.
So, let's take a look at the Dolphins starters from this past season and hand out a grade to each.
Despite finishing with a 6-10 record, Miami's players performed well individually. However, those who earned the lowest marks will likely join the unemployment line in the next few weeks.
Quarterback: Matt Moore
When Chad Henne went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4, backup Matt Moore stepped into the starting lineup. A few weeks later, pundits were contemplating whether or not he could be the franchise quarterback the Dolphins have been searching so long for.
Needless to say, Moore exceeded everybody's expectations. He led the Dolphins to three straight victories—briefly igniting some playoff hope—and threw only eight interceptions in 13 starts. However, let's not forget that Moore collapsed in crunch-time against the Broncos, Giants, Cowboys and Patriots.
Running Back: Reggie Bush
The departures of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams left the Dolphins with a gaping hole at running back. After losing out on blue-chip free agents like DeAngelo Williams and Ahmad Bradshaw, Miami settled for a surprising consolation prize: Reggie Bush.
Hoards of critics insisted that Bush "can't be an every-down running back," but after rushing for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns, that notion has been dispelled.
Reggie deserves an A+ for his play during the second half of the season, but we have to look at the whole picture. Bush played abhorrently through much of Miami's first six games. Excluding Week 5, Bush ran for just 161 yards on 50 carries.
Fullback: Charles Clay
When the Dolphins drafted Tulsa H-back Charles Clay in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, nobody knew exactly how he would be used. Clay fits the physical mold of a fullback and a tight end, so the 'Fins had to use their best discretion when installing him into a position.
Miami decided to plug him in at fullback, and it was clearly the right decision. Clay already looks like one of the most dynamic fullbacks in the league, but he needs to stay healthy and shore up his run blocking before he earns high marks.
Wide Receiver: Brandon Marshall
The Dolphins' most polarizing player is also the toughest to grade.
In his second year with the 'Fins, Brandon Marshall recorded over 1,000 receiving yards and doubled his touchdown total from 2010. Marshall also stayed out of trouble and didn't become a distraction despite the team's struggles.
Everything sounds great, but there's one massive caveat: Marshall dropped 12 passes. Many of those dropped passes would have been crucial touchdowns and first-down conversions. Marshall is the centerpiece of Miami's offense, and ranking amongst the league leaders in drops is inexcusable.
Wide Receiver: Brian Hartline
Jeff Ireland hasn't drafted particularly well since he took over as Dolphins G.M. in 2008, but he has drafted a few late-round producers, including wide receiver Brian Hartline.
After catching a combined 74 passes in his first two NFL seasons, 2011 figured to be a great year for Hartline. Oddly, though, he regressed, catching just 35 passes and one touchdown. Hartline vanished for a huge chunk of the season as well. Between Weeks 8 and 13, he caught a measly eight passes.
Fortunately, he rebounded over Miami's final three games, reeling in nine receptions. Hartline always seems to make incredible catches when the 'Fins need it most, but his inconsistency might put Miami in the market for another wide receiver during the offseason.
Wide Receiver: Davone Bess
Ever since the Dolphins signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2008, Davone Bess has been a symbol of consistency. When Chad Henne needed a completion in crunch time or a crucial third down, Bess was the first wideout he looked for, and he rarely dropped a pass.
Bess reeled in a combined 153 passes between 2009 and 2010, but his production hit a steep decline this season. With Matt Moore at the helm, Bess posted career lows in receptions and receiving yards, all while dropping six passes.
Tight End: Anthony Fasano
Whether by choice or misfortune, Jeff Ireland has left Anthony Fasano to serve as Miami's No. 1 tight end since 2008. Fasano might be sure-handed, but he poses very minimal threat to opposing defenses and reeled in only 28 receptions this season.
The Dolphins must pursue a seam-threat tight end this offseason to bolster the passing game.
Left Tackle: Jake Long
Jake Long just finished his worst season as a pro. Fortunately, Long's worst season would qualify as a career year for most other NFL offensive linemen.
Still plagued by back and shoulder injuries suffered last season, Long was a fraction of his former self in 2011; yet, he still played like a stud. Long surrendered five-and-a-half sacks and committed five penalties—four of which came in one game.
Long's injuries hampered his run-blocking abilities, but he deserves decent marks nonetheless.
Left Guard: Richie Incognito
While most eyes were glued to marquee names like Jake Long and Mike Pouncey, Richie Incognito quietly enjoyed an excellent season.
Incognito started 15 games at right guard and was instrumental in helping Reggie Bush surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Moreover, Incognito allowed only one sack—a vast improvement from the five he yielded in 2010—and was flagged for a modest six penalties.
Center: Mike Pouncey
Some fans might want Stephen Ross to fire Jeff Ireland—and there is plenty of credence to their cause—but give credit where credit is due.
Remember when everybody thought the Dolphins would draft Mark Ingram in the first round of the 2011 draft? Well, Ireland passed on Ingram and made the "boring" selection—Florida center Mike Pouncey.
But after excelling in his rookie season, that "boring" pick looks like a franchise center. Pouncey started all 16 games for the Dolphins and played like a veteran, committing just four penalties and surrendering only two sacks.
Right Guard: Vernon Carey
Tony Sparano was frequently criticized for his failure to assemble a stout offensive line, but he deserves credit for moving Vernon Carey from right tackle to right guard during the preseason.
Carey served as Miami's starting right tackle from 2004 to 2010, but a lack of depth at guard forced Sparano to shift him inside. Despite playing in uncharted territory, Carey excelled. In fact, he was rated the 10th-best run-blocking offensive guard in the NFL midway through the season by Pro Football Focus.
Right Tackle: Marc Colombo
It's impossible to tell who decided to sign Marc Colombo and make him Miami's starting right tackle. Maybe it was Jeff Ireland, maybe it was Tony Sparano.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter—this was one of the regime's worst signings.
Colombo was a huge liability for much of the season. Even though he improved towards the end of the year, here's some statistical perspective: Colombo surrendered 10.5 sacks in 2011. No other Dolphins lineman allowed more than 4.5.
Defensive End: Randy Starks
In 2009, Randy Starks established himself as a menacing pass rusher. He racked up seven sacks and 42 tackles, and seemed destined for great things with the Dolphins.
The 'Fins abruptly moved Starks to defensive tackle in 2010, and while the experiment was mildly successful, Miami moved him back outside for the 2011—and Starks returned to prior form.
He ranked fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks and registered 34 tackles, making him one of the defense's most productive players.
Nose Tackle: Paul Soliai
After meddling on Miami's depth chart for three seasons, Paul Soliai had a breakout season in 2010, setting himself for a big payday last summer. The 'Fins slapped Soliai with the franchise tag, making him one of the highest-paid nose tackles in the league.
Soliai garnered much more attention from opposing offensive lines in 2011, and his impact was hence diminished. Still, Soliai remained a disruptive force, compiling 27 tackles on the season.
Defensive End: Kendall Langford
Kendall Langford's 2011 season played out similarly to the rest of his three other NFL seasons—it wasn't flashy or record-shattering, just consistent and productive.
For the first time in his young career, Langford saw playing time at defensive tackle. Langford performed admirably, all while continuing to prove himself as a solid 3-4 defensive end.
Outside Linebacker: Cameron Wake
It would've been nearly impossible for Cam Wake to replicate the success he had in 2010. Wake racked up 14 sacks last season, so offensive lines were inclined to double team him all season long.
Despite this newfound attention, Wake still recorded a team-leading 8.5 sacks. And don't think that just because his sack total declined, Wake's impact was diminished—he generates chaos on nearly every play.
Although he still hasn't become a great run-stopper, Wake remains one of this defense's most valuable assets.
Inside Linebacker: Karlos Dansby
Karlos Dansby might not be the best linebacker in the NFL, but he established himself as the best linebacker on the Miami Dolphins in 2011.
After a lackluster start to the season, Dansby exploded in Week 7. He finally became the domineering force that the Dolphins defense so desperately needed, finishing the season with over 100 tackles, a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
Inside Linebacker: Kevin Burnett
Miami shocked everybody by cutting Channing Crowder last summer, but it opened the door for the Dolphins to reel in an upgrade at inside linebacker. Jeff Ireland inked former Charger Kevin Burnett to a $21 million deal in late July, a move that promised to solidify Miami's front seven as a top-flight unit.
Burnett, however, was dreadful through the first few weeks of the season. He was a liability in pass coverage and failed to make a notable impact in run defense. But like Karlos Dansby, Burnett blossomed late into the season, specifically in Week 8 against the Giants.
After that game, Burnett became one of Miami's most productive defenders, finishing the year with 105 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception.
Outside Linebacker: Koa Misi
Following a great rookie campaign, Koa Misi seemed primed for stardom. He ranked fourth amongst rookies in sacks in 2010, but for some reason, Misi's play declined in 2011.
He finished the year with just 34 tackles and one sack, and wasn't as explosive as he was last season. Jason Taylor cut into Misi's playing time quite a bit, and perhaps he was playing with an unreported injury. Either way, this was a disappointing season for the young Dolphins linebacker.
Cornerback: Sean Smith
Sean Smith was quietly one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2010. He tied for the league lead in dropped interceptions with five, and used his 6'3" frame to shut down some of the NFL's best wide receivers.
It only seemed logical that Smith would start catching those INTs and become a Pro Bowl-caliber corner in 2011.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen, but Smith still had a respectable season. He intercepted a career-high two interceptions, was reliable in coverage and racked up 62 tackles. Smith still hasn't become the player we hoped he would be by now, but he still has huge upside.
Strong Safety: Yeremiah Bell
How many active safeties have accrued four straight 100-tackle seasons?
The list must be short, but Yeremiah Bell is on it.
Bell, easily the most under-appreciated and underrated player on the Miami Dolphins, registered 107 tackles in his second season as a team captain. He also tacked on a pair of sacks and became a vocal leader in the locker room.
Free Safety: Reshad Jones
The free safety position was completely overlooked during the 2010 offseason, but that was clearly a mistake. Incumbent starter Chris Clemons figured to play serviceably in his second season as a starter, but injuries sidelined him for much of the year, leaving second-year safety Reshad Jones to inherit the job.
Jones' season got off to a horrific start in Week 1 when the Patriots shredded the Dolphins secondary for 517 passing yards, and things didn't get much better from there. As the season progressed, Jones did as well, but his aggressive style of play proved very detrimental to Miami's defense.
Cornerback: Vontae Davis
Prior to the start of the season, Vontae Davis declared himself and Sean Smith "the best [cornerback] tandem in the league."
Davis' bold assertion raised expectations for his season, but he failed to deliver during the first half of the season.
Then, prior to Miami's Week 9 game in Kansas City, Davis showed up to practice hungover and was consequently banned from making the trip. After the incident, Davis finally started to play like a dominant cornerback, intercepting four passes in the Dolphins' final eight games.
Kicker: Dan Carpenter
Dan Carpenter missed six field goals in the final five games of the 2010 season, spawning some concern that the Dolphins kicker was losing his touch. And that concern drifted into the start of the 2011 season, when Carpenter missed a combined three field goals in Weeks 2 and 3.
After those two rough weeks, however, Carpenter became automatic—literally. He missed only two field goals for the rest of the season, 23-of-25 in a 11-game span. Carpenter also nailed a crucial 58-yard field goal against the Jets in Week 17.
Punter: Brandon Fields
If somebody were to ask you who the most valuable player on the Miami Dolphins was this year, the first names to cross your mind would likely be Matt Moore or Reggie Bush. But how about Brandon Fields?
He dropped 31 punts inside of the 20-yard line, ranking him first in the league. He also ranked third in the league with 48.9 yards per punt and 10th in the league with 3,618 total yards.
Special teams often go overlooked, but they are a vital aspect of the game. Fields dug the Dolphins out of so many holes this season, and his outstanding play should not go unnoticed.