We closed last week by focusing in on the defensive line in our most recent "training camp primer." To kick off our primers this week, we'll remain on the defensive side of the ball and turn our attention to the linebackers.
The coaches will have to make some tough decisions this year in camp. And without question, the cuts at linebacker will be among the toughest for this staff to make. There are a number of players on the bubble that possess some value to this team - either as guys possessing serious potential or as major special teams contributors. What this means is that the "bubble players" are going to have to step up their performance beginning on Sunday.
THE QUICK BREAKDOWN
Virtual locks to make the roster: Joey Porter, Channing Crowder, Akin Ayodele, Matt Roth, Jason Taylor
Likely to make roster: Reggie Torbor
On the bubble: Cameron Wake, Charlie Anderson, Erik Walden, William Kershaw
Long shots: Quentin Moses, Tearrius George, J.D. Folsom, Orion Martin
Two players are likely to get the most attention during training camp. One is Cameron Wake. We're all going to be wondering how this CFL superstar pass-rusher handles converting to outside linebacker in the NFL. You don't tally 39 sacks in two seasons in the CFL without having some talent. But how will his talent translate to a new position against elite talent?
Jason Taylor figures to be the other most closely watched players in camp. His return has rejuvenated Dolphin fans everywhere. But we aren't getting the "'06 JT" or even the "'07 JT." We really don't know what to expect from Taylor following the worst season of his outstanding career in Washington. How will Taylor be used and how effective will he be?
Other questions that will be asked during camp include which linebackers prove they can contribute on special teams, Matt Roth's potential contract extension, and how well Joey Porter can hold up and reciprocate his outstanding '08 season.
THE NUMBERS GAME
The biggest question of all in terms of how the linebacker unit shakes up will be how many players the Dolphins decide to keep. Coming out of training camp last year, the Dolphins kept seven linebackers on the 53-man roster - and all were active on gameday. But by the end of the year, the Dolphins had ten linebackers on the 53-man roster - with eight being active in week 17.
If you assume that those listed above as "virtual locks" or "likely" to make the roster do indeed make the roster, we've used up six roster spots already. That means the guys like Cameron Wake, Erik Walden, Charlie Anderson, and William Kershaw will be battling for two - or, at most, three - roster spots. My money is on two - to be honest.
WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
I'm expecting eight linebackers to make the roster, meaning either Wake, Anderson, or Walden won't make the team. So lets focus on these three for a minute.
Wake signed a 4 year, $2.318 million contract with the Dolphins back in January. The total value of the contract is on par with a late 3rd or early 4th round draft pick while the guaranteed money is on par with an early 3rd round pick. So it's best to view Wake as a 3rd round draft pick. What does that mean? It means that while it's unlikely Wake fails to make the roster, he's certainly not a lock. He has to prove that he can at least contribute right away on special teams while developing as a situational pass-rusher. He showed the outstanding ability to get down field in a hurry in kick coverage during non-contact OTAs. If that can translate well once the pads go on, Wake should have a very good shot at sticking.
Walden was a 6th round pick in 2008 of the Dallas Cowboys. The Dolphins claimed Walden off of waivers in late November and he instantly upgraded Miami's special teams play. We haven't seen anything from Walden out of the base defense, however. I wonder if he'll have to prove to be more than just a special teams guy in order to make the team over Wake. After all, waiving Walden will cost the Dolphins nothing in terms of a cap hit.
The Dolphins signed Anderson last offseason to a 3 year, $7.35 million deal. It was expected that Anderson would become a good nickel pass-rusher in Miami's defense. After struggling early on, Anderson did become a factor during the second half of the season. In the team's final 8 games of 2008, Anderson had 2.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. But is that enough to keep him around at a hefty $1.7 million salary in 2009?
THE KEY BATTLE
Obviously, the key battle among linebackers will likely be a 3-way fight for two roster spots among Charlie Anderson, Cameron Wake, and Erik Walden. You could also throw William Kershaw into the mix. But I think he'd really have to impress for him to stick.
Like I said above, special teams play and salaries could play a pivotal role in which two stick and which is handed a pink slip. If Anderson doesn't stand out, it'll be hard to justify keeping him on despite having the highest salary of the three. He is also not nearly as good as Walden on special teams and is older with less "upside" than Wake. To me, all of this is just the recipe to being cut barring a very good performance in camp and in the preseason.
With that said, the coaching staff might want to see more than just solid special teams work from Walden if he is to stick. And if Wake proves to be just "ordinary" in camp, is there a chance the Dolphins look to trade him to one of the numerous teams who were scouting him this winter?
Like I said, I think eight linebackers will be kept on the 53-man roster. Joey Porter, Channing Crowder, Matt Roth, Akin Ayodele, Jason Taylor, and Reggie Torbor are all probably safe bets. And I'd say my money is on Cameron Wake and Erik Walden to make the final roster - with Charlie Anderson being one of the final cuts.
I'd also look for one of the two rookies - J.D. Folsom or Orion Martin - to make the practice squad.