Roster Roundouts ’10: A Miami Dolphins Season Preview
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Miami Dolphins (projected finish: 9-7)
Team synopsis: Two seasons ago, the Dolphins were an injury-ravaged 1-15 team who won that game in overtime. Then they brought in Bill Parcells, drafted Jake Long, and pulled a jedi mind trick (you need Brett Favre) on the division rival Jets to land Chad Pennington. That, plus a weak schedule, resulted in a 10 win increase. Two years later, this is about a .500 team. The talent level is night and day from the Wannestedt/Saban/Cameron days, but probably still on the bottom half of the NFL spectrum. Luckily, the team is above the median level in the NFL, as a group.
- RB Ricky Williams (trade — New Orleans/2001 & 2002 1st round picks)
- LT Jake Long (drafted — Michigan/2008 1st round pick)
- C Jake Grove (signed — Oakland/2009 free agent)
- NT/DE Randy Starks (signed — Tennessee/2008 free agent)
- LB Channing Crowder (drafted — Florida/2005 3rd round pick)
- LB Karlos Dansby (signed — Arizona/2010 free agent)
- QB Chad Henne (drafted — Michigan/2008 2nd round pick)
- WR Brian Hartline (signed — Ohio State/2009 undrafted free agent)
- LG John Jerry (drafted — Ole Miss/2010 3rd round pick)
- DE Jared Odrick (drafted — Penn State/2010 1st round pick)
- LB Cameron Wake (signed — CFL/2009 free agent)
- LB Koa Misi (drafted — Utah/2010 2nd round pick)
- CB Vontae Davis (drafted — Illinois/2009 1st round pick)
Of the best players on the Miami Dolphins, a high percentage of them were signed as free agents or acquired in trades. Out of all teams in the NFL, only the Vikings and the Redskins (and possibly the Bears) truly compare to the Dolphins in terms of the type of talent they have acquired through means besides the draft and undrafted free agents.
They didn’t have a lot of choice. The drafts between 2004 and 2007 did not return very many parts of this team. Arguably the best player to come out of those four drafts still on the team is LB Channing Crowder (the other could be 2004 first round RT Vernon Carey). RB Ronnie Brown is very, very good when he’s healthy, which is not often. At age 28, Ronnie Brown is less productive than his backfield mate Ricky Williams, who is 33 and still pretty fresh in the legs after playing not quite a whole season from 2004 through 2007. Williams was acquired for the teams first round picks in 2001 and 02. That’s three first round picks spent in the first five years of the decade dealt for this backfield tandem. Fortunately, it’s a tandem that makes up the motor of these Miami Dolphins.
That’s where their first round picks prior to 2008 have been used. The second round picks have been used to trade for pieces to bolster the passing game. Pieces like A.J. Feeley, Daunte Culpepper, and Pat White have been selected in the second round between 2004 and 2009. That trend continues this year as the Dolphins traded multiple second round picks to acquire Brandon Marshall. Right away, it feels like more of the same from the Dolphins. Marshall’s abilities are unquestioned, but his skills related to football receiving can be very questioned.
We now have two offensive head coaches who have used Brandon Marshall in their offense, and have been unable to improve on the 13.0 yard per catch figure he posted in 2007 when he posted a career high 1,325 receiving yards. So far, the solutions from coaches Shanahan and McDaniels towards the Marshall conundrum has been to increase his workload, which, in turn, has truncated the vertical element of the offense. As a point of comparison, TE Tony Scheffler was a more dynamic downfield threat than Marshall in both the 2008 and 2009 season, and caught a higher percentage of his targeted passes, with two different head coaches. So far, attention given to Marshall has yet to result in a playoff berth.
The Dolphins feel like they can alter his role and turn him into a very valuable player. I mean — just look at the talent that’s there! Problem is, it appears that Brandon Marshall needs fewer passes, and fewer deep passes to increase his value per play, and that essentially would make him a non-premium receiver who does his best work in the intermediate field in a rushing offense. You try getting two second round picks’ value ($50ish million?) out of that player.
Marshall is supposed to fill a hole in elite talent on this team. Ricky Williams was an elite player when he was younger, and last year, he performed at an elite level, but at 33, I think the expectation is that he can merely still be valuable. Brown is sometimes, when his legs allow him to be. But neither back is an explosive player. In this respect, Marshall reminds me a lot of Plaxico Burress, in that perhaps his best asset is that when you pair him with a young quarterback, he plays like a dependable safety valve no matter where he is on the field. He doesn’t take a rushing team and make them a passing team, but perhaps that’s the idea. Brown and Williams are still the center of the offense, and Marshall is an expensive “quarterback’s best friend”. Last year, the Broncos figured out how to use him in the red zone (6 TDs from inside the 20), so there’s that improvement.
The offensive line remains a strength, as the team is doing a bit of a carousel at it’s guard position: shipping Justin Smiley to Jacksonville, acquiring Richie Incognito (also a backup C), and drafting John Jerry, pairing them with incumbent Donald Thomas. But Long, Grove, and Carey are good infrastructure on the OL, and barring unit-wide injury, the group remains a strength. Next to them is a group of tight ends that is used (as a group) far more than any other in the NFL. Anthony Fasano is the stud, but the Dolphins always play with two, and that means an increased role for either Joey Haynos or Kory Sperry. John Nalbone is the long-term small-school prospect. The Dolphins are the only team in the AFC, besides perhaps the Jags, that can justify keeping four TEs.
What the offense lacks in superstardom, the defense gains back in potential. It would be correct to say that the defense is free agent-heavy, but Randy Starks was almost like a draft pick on his own, coming over from Tennessee just after his 24th birthday. The Titans were foolish to give up on Starks so early in his career, and the Texans should take similar note with Amobi Okoye: Randy Starks is what Okoye will look like in two years. Starks moves to nose tackle this year in the Jay Ratliff mold, where he will be very disruptive. There’s plenty of youth on either side of him, but Phillip Merling will miss the season — and he could be facing a make or break 2011 season for his career, which stalled last season. However, between Kendall Langford and Jared Odrick, there’s plenty of youth here to make the 26 year old Starks look like an elder statesman. DL is a strength, or at least it will be as soon as Odrick can pick up the pro game, he’s a true dominant 3-4 force in the making in the mold of Richard Seymour.
It’s a little hazier at linebacker, where Karlos Dansby and Channing Crowder should make a great duo: Crowder is the every-down tackle machine, and Dansby is a playmaker. The problem isn’t that this match will not work, it’s that they are bound to get old together. Crowder, at least, is three years younger. The team will need to find two smaller edge rushers to make this work, in the absence of Jason Taylor, and to replace Joey Porter. CFL product Cameron Wake is going to lock down one side as a starter, we’ll wait and see what he can do. The other side, eventually, will go to 2nd round pick Koa Misi. Charlie Anderson or Quentin Moses could be the Week 1 starter.
The secondary is still a minor concern, but the final true pro-level piece of Ron Zook’s 2007 Rose Bowl team at Illinois, Vontae Davis, is well on his way to being a no. 1 corner in the DeAngelo Hall/Asante Samuel playmaker with mediocre cover skills mode. The team would be thrilled if 2009 2nd rounder Sean Smith could be the no. 2 corner, but he’s probably more of a number three: he just can’t cover no. 1 types the way Davis can. He should improve a bit.
There’s one spot at free safety for one of the following players: Reshad Jones, Chris Clemons, Tyrone Culver. Positional depth, clearly, is not an issue here, but deep coverage probably will be.
Long-term, Chad Henne is an excellent QB prospect, every bit as good as Matt Ryan, and though he might need to get past Brandon Marshall in order to reach an elite level, his INT numbers will be down significantly this year thanks to a weaker schedule and Marshall breaking down opponents coverages. I don’t know if they will score more points than last year, but the defense will be better and they should win more games. This team, not the Jets, is the favorite to finish in second place behind the Pats in the AFC East this year.
Fighting for a spot on the roster
This seems like a good spot for a Pat White mention. He was a 2nd round pick in 2009 because as much as anything, he was a very good quarterback prospect. However, the Dolphins found out that as a wild”Pat” back, he was surprisingly useless in the role. The Dolphins will keep three (if not four) quarterbacks, but without a bad player on the roster at the position (some think third string QB Tyler Thigpen deserves to be a starter in the NFL), Pat White is a tough use of a roster spot for a team with Henne and Thigpen. If the team can get a fourth rounder for Thigpen in a trade, that would be a dream scenario. But I guess: yeah, Pat White could be trade bait.
With two guys that the Dolphins would like to never carry the ball in the preseason, they are obviously loaded at the position. Patrick Cobbs will remain RB3 for another season, but Kory Sheets, Tristan Davis, and Lex Hilliard probably have one spot to win between them. Hilliard came off the practice squad to provide the Dolphins with quality runs at the end of the year, and he’s the favorite of this blog to be RB4 on opening day.
Even though I don’t like Brandon Marshall as a no. 1 receiver, the Dolphins may be better 1-4 at WR than any team in the NFL. Brian Hartline went undrafted last year, and could be the stud downfield receiver the team needs. Greg Camarillo is still a phenomenal possession target. Davone Bess is a jack-of-all-trades slot receiver who isn’t out of place as a no. 2 wide out. Camarillo, Bess, and Hartline were all undrafted receivers (2007, 2008, 2009 respectively), which more than makes up for the first round pick spent on Ted Ginn becoming a 5th round pick three years later. If the trend continues, the 5th receiver on this team will also be an undrafted free agent. That means Marlon Moore, Roberto Wallace have a great chance to make a team, which could spell trouble for Patrick Turner.
The Lydon Murtha/Andrew Gardner battle for backup LT could be interesting. Gardner was a 6th round pick of the Dolphins, Murtha a 7th round pick of the Lions, both in 2009. Last year’s RG Nate Garner is probably going to play a RG/RT swingman, so the backup LT will likely be a one-position specialist. Cory Proctor can back up at LG and at C, and I expect John Jerry and Richie Incognito to start at the guards. However, Garner could beat out Incognito, who is a walking false start penalty.
The other interesting roster crunch comes at corner, where the top three guys are comfortably Davis, Smith, and veteran Will Allen. Remember, however, 2006 1st round pick Jason Allen. He’s looking like a bust, but he’s back at corner now, where the team isn’t very deep. Nolan Carroll was a draft choice out of Maryland who will have a difficult time cracking the roster. No one else took the field in the secondary for the Dolphins, so those are the favorites, but it’s a wide open race in the secondary.