I'm getting this column up a day early this week because I'll be busy skiing during my usual posting day on Thursday.
One of the aspects of baseball that I think is missing to some extent from the NFL is any sort of true developmental league. Obviously, the long player progression timeline in baseball makes minor-league teams an essential. In football, rookies are generally older and more prepared to play then their baseball counterparts. But there still exists a section of young, untested players in the NFL that should be considered prospects.
The only difference between a football prospect and a baseball prospect is that the football prospect is generally stuck behind a player or two on the depth chart and is only able to show their abilities in practice or in limited on-field opportunities. In baseball, minor leaguers get to play every day down on the farm as they work their way up through the system until they reach the big league club.
In both sports, the value of obtaining great prospects is key to the long term success of the team. Obviously, these are young players and thus they will be more likely to help the team in the future than some past-his-prime free agent. Second, they are cost-controlled in the sense that they are usually on their rookie contract or some very modest free agent deal. Having players like this rise to become prominent role players or even enter the starting lineup is the basis of constructing a great team because of how much salary relief it provides. Think of the production that a player like Channing Crowder or Davone Bess has provided this team. Then consider that those guys cost the team a combined $1.31 million this season. The top free agents we signed at each position, Reggie Torbor and Ernest Wilford, on the other hand, cost the team $12.11 million in 2008.
A dollar in the primary free agent market simply cannot come close to the value of a dollar in the draft or in what I'll call the "dented cans bin" (aka undrafted free agents, waiver wire pickups, AFL/CFL signings).
That is where true value comes from, and as Crowder and Bess have shown, it's where the price of purchase is only pennies on the dollar compared to their actual worth.
With all that being said, I think now is a prime time to look at the Dolphins roster and see what kind of prospects we have to keep an eye on.
To be considered for this list, a player must meet the following criteria (borrowed from PFP's definition of a prospect):
- Drafted or signed in 2006 or later
- Drafted no earlier than round three
- Less than five career games started
- Still on a free agent contract or their original contract
The fourth rule is there to rule out players like Patrick Cobbs. Once you sign an extension with the team, you can't be considered a prospect anymore since you've obviously proven yourself at that point.
So without further ado, I present to you the first Dolphins Top 5 Prospect List:
5. S Tyrone Culver
It's clear that the coaching staff likes Culver since he basically assumed the role of the extra defender in most dime packages and some nickel packages by the end of the year, passing guys like Joey Thomas and Jason Allen on the depth chart. He made the most of his limited playing time as well, recording 35 tackles, 3 passes defensed and 1 interception. Even though he was released once during the season, he was brought back the very next week. He played a big role on special teams too, with 9 tackles.
Given the paucity of quality safeties currently on the team and the fact that one or both of last year's starters (Bell and Hill) may not be brought back, Culver is looking at a significant increase in playing time. That increased opportunity may be all he needs.
4. G/C Andy Alleman
Alleman was originally a third-round draft choice of the Saints in 2007, but when he was released in the final roster cut-downs this offseason, Miami jumped on the chance to submit a waiver claim for him. He started seeing game action quite quickly, when it became obvious that Ikechuku Ndukwe was struggling mightily to hold down the right guard position by himself. So a rotation of Ndukwe and Alleman was instituted, gradually exposing Alleman to increased game snaps. When Justin Smiley was lost for the season in week 13, Alleman had proven enough that he took over the left guard spot and started there for the rest of the year, even while the coaches experimented with playing Samson Satele at right guard while Al Johnson played center.
Given his rapid ascendency this season, it's still quite amazing to think how raw he is as an offensive lineman. [Check out this pre-draft story on Alleman to learn a little more about him.] It's important to remember that Alleman started off his college career as a defensive end at Pitt before switching to defensive tackle. He then transferred to Akron where he began the conversion to guard. He has only been playing guard for three years really, and even when he came to Miami, the coaching staff had him playing a lot of center.
With another offseason to learn all the intricacies of his new position, I feel that Alleman will be an important member of this offensive line in the future. Not necessarily as a starter, mind you, but as a swing guard who can play either position in a pinch and who can reliably be called on to start if injuries strike again.
3. WR Brandon London
Another waiver wire find by Parcells and Ireland, London is a valuable prospect primarily for his size. Quite frankly, Miami has its share of small receivers already (Ginn, Bess, Camarillo) and desperately needs a big-bodied complementary receiver. Ernest Wilford was a gigantic bust and nobody really sees him sticking around next year. London saw playing time over Wilford throughout the season largely because London could play special teams. He finished with 6 special teams tackles.
But it's his promise as a receiver that gets him on this list. I talked a few weeks ago about how important a WRs' height/BMI combo is to his eventual performance ceiling, and London has the type of frame that could potentially put him into one of the four elite categories (tall). He's currently listed as 6'4", 210 lbs. But he entered the draft at 215 lbs., and his exact height was given as 6044 (6 feet, four and four-tenths inches). If he could get his weight up to about 221 or 222, he would fall into the "tall" category of elite receiver. He's a bit of a bean-pole at the moment, so putting on that much extra weight may not work for him, but it's something to try this offseason.
Other coaches have raved about his potential, and if he can tap into all of it, he just may become the best WR on this team. [Note: He still hasn't signed that new contract yet, so he's still eligible for this list.]
2. OLB Cameron Wake
Signing Wake from the CFL was akin to a baseball team signing a dominant player from one of the Dominican or Japanese leagues. The talent level he faced up there obviously doesn't compare to what he'll see in the NFL, but dominance is dominance, and I'm interested in any young player who has already achieved that kind of production on a professional level. He may not be any good against the run, but he's a top prospect because of his singular ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
With Miami, he will have to transition to outside linebacker, but his role will be almost entirely to rush the QB. Charlie Anderson was pretty bad this year, and it's hard to believe Wake can't at least match what he did on the field. He has a lot to prove if he wants to start in the future, but he has the potential to be this team's next David Bowens, which isn't too shabby.
1. G Donald Thomas
There's really not much at all to go on when it comes to Donald Thomas, but his potential upside is tremendous. Thomas is similar to Alleman, in that they are both still extremely raw and adjusting to new positions. But Thomas is unique in that he is so new to the game of football itself, not just his position. Thomas walked on at UCONN (having never played before) and began his career as a defensive tackle and end. He then switched to tight end before finally settling in as a guard. Taken in the sixth-round last year, nobody really expected Thomas to be the starting right guard by day one, but a lack of better alternatives and Thomas' great training camp offered him a golden opportunity.
Of course, he only ended up playing in that one game, before being placed on Injured Reserve. But the reviews from coaches, teammates, and even opposing players have already been amazing. They talk of the amount of force he hits his man with and how "heavy" his blocks feel. That's definitely an encouraging sign for someone so young and raw and for a line that needs a lot of work run-blocking. He even made Gil Brandt's midseason all-rookie team.
Of course, it will be a question if Thomas can return to full strength in time for training camp and if he can get right back on track where he left off. It's also a fair question to ask whether his ultra-small sample size of game time last year was a fluke or the real deal. I have him as this team's best prospect for a reason - I think he's the real deal.
So that's my list of Miami's top 5 prospects. What do you think of it and how would your list look?