As the Miami Dolphins get ready to take a five-week vacation after OTAs and minicamp, I've decided to take a look into which unit is the deepest on the team. Now remember, there is a difference between depth and quality depth. Also keep in mind that I only include players who I project will have a shot at the 53.
Olivier Vernon, primed for a Pro Bowl season, recorded two and a half in Thursday's scrimmage, beating new left tackle Branden Albert multiple times. Vernon is in line to hold the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, Dion Jordan, to a bench role for a second straight season.
Cam Wake was also wreaking havoc in practice, taking 2014 first-round pick Ja'Wuan James to school (keep in mind the players were not wearing pads). Wake is a perennial Pro Bowler who will greatly benefit from the depth of this group as he will have to shoulder less of the load during games, get to stay fresh for the fourth quarter and be less susceptible to injury at his ripe old age of 32.
Derrick Shelby was held out of the scrimmage due to an undisclosed injury, but head coach Joe Philbin praised Shelby after the second day of mini-camp saying, "The thing about Shelby is you watch him on film and the cut ups at the end of the season and then you probably gain a better appreciation for him than you do during the year. He's very very disciplined. He really carries out his assignments and his technique well. He's smart. He's in the right spot. I'm excited about what he can do for us this year as well."
Shelby is a quality rotation player who sets the edge of the defense well. He may not be the flashiest guy, but he will find playing time in this defensive end rotation for all the reasons coach Philbin mentioned.
Terrance Fede's highlight of his Dolphins career so far has been an incredible interception during mini-camp on a zone-blitz in which he showcased his athleticism. Fede could eventually develop into a decent player with his skill set and a coach like Kacy Rodgers, but he is likely a practice squad option right now unless he flashes more in camp when the pads come on.
The aforementioned Dion Jordan was used in a multitude of ways this summer. Dropping back as a linebacker in the Dolphins' "speed" package is still on his plate, as it should be, but Jordan also saw work as a defensive tackle during mini-camp.
The performance of Vernon makes is going to make it hard for Jordan to get on the field as a defensive end, but a guy with his type of athleticism will be utilized.
Now, if you thought the defensive ends were loaded, wait until you see where the real beef of this defensive line lies. The defensive tackle spot is packed with talent and depth.
Randy Starks re-signed with the Dolphins this offseason after speculation that both he and Paul Soliai (who did in fact go elsewhere) were going to leave in free agency. Starks is a versatile player who has played three different positions in his time with the Dolphins and spent some time at defensive end during mini-camp. Starks, a two-time Pro Bowler, will, like Wake, benefit from the depth at his position and the resulting rotation due to his climbing age.
Jared Odrick has been limited for most of the offseason due to an undisclosed injury. Odrick is a similar player to Starks, though he may be even more versatile. Odrick played the most snaps out of any defensive tackle last season and may be the best pass rushing DT on the team.
Some say Odrick, a former first round pick, has had a disappointing career so far but I think he has been solid on top of being a fan favorite. However, Odrick will need to prove his worth in 2013, the final year of his rookie contract.
Earl Mitchell is one of the most alluring players on the team in my opinion. Mitchell signed with Miami to essentially replace Soliai as the big, run-stopping DT in the middle of the defensive line, but Mitchell is quite quick on his feet for a big man. Mitchell, who switching from a 3-4 nose tackle to a 4-3 defensive tackle, fits this new system much better and has said he can't wait to showcase his pass rushing skills.
AJ Francis flashed all throughout the summer and the preseason in 2013, but he was waived in the final cuts only to be scooped up by the New England Patriots who I thought were going to turn him into the next Vince Wilfork or Richard Seymour. The Patriots stashed Francis on their practice squad but the Dolphins rescued him a month later.
Francis is now back in the same position he was in 2013, but he is now better. Francis is one of the most athletic big man on the team, providing highlight plays in offseason events such as game-winning three-run home run in Jimmy Wilson's charity softball game. Francis has competition to make the team but he will likely find his way in as the fourth man in the DT rotation if he holds off the challengers.
Anthony Johnson, a once-highly-rated prospect from LSU who went undrafted following a failed drug test at the NFL Scounting Combine, is one of the guys pushing Francis for the fourth spot in the DT rotation. Johnson isn't the tallest but he is stout, strong and plays with good leverage. Johnson, who has already impressed during the offseason, needs to have a solid training camp and preseason to solidify a rotation spot or, at least, a roster spot.
Isaako Aaitui is the last DT pushing for Francis' spot. Aaitui is a guy you can't help but root for. After being released from the Dolphins in the finals cuts of 2012, and having it documented on Hard Knocks, Aaitui was signed by the New York Jets only to tear his MCL and ACL in his first practice as a Jet.
Aaitui has had a tough road back but he is competing once again in training camp for a roster spot. The guy can play, there is no doubt about it, but can he stay healthy and be able to beat out his competition?
No matter what happens at the bottom end of the depth chart of the defensive line, the unit will likely be stacked from top to bottom which features multiple bench players who demand playing time.
The Dolphins' wide receiver unit is one of the deepest and most talented in the NFL, a far cry from the receiver starved Dolphins from just two years ago.
Mike Wallace is primed for a big season after a disappointing 2013. Wallace has expressed his excitement to play in this offense, describing it in one word-- fast. Wallace is the last one on the practice field everyday, work that will pay off this season.
Brian Hartline is back from his knee injury and will likely pick up where he left off, running crisp routes, converting third downs and being Ryan Tannehill's go-to target.
Brandon Gibson is also back from his knee injury (which, unlike Hartline's, required surgery). Some proclaim that Gibson is on the hot seat due to the depth at this position, but Gibson is a savvy route runner in the slot who was developing into one of Tannehill's favorite targets before his injury in Week 7 of last year. Gibson will likely pick up where he left off last season, but his role as slot receiver isn't guaranteed and he will likely be splitting reps.
Rishard Matthews replaced Gibson as the slot receiver last season and retained that role throughout OTAs. Matthews is a physical receiver with strong hands to make spectacular catches. Philbin singled out Matthews, a former seventh round pick, as one of the players who has made a huge leap this offseason. Expect Matthews to be one of the main redzone targets as well (depending on who makes the final 53-man roster).
Matt Hazel, a rookie sixth round pick out of Coastal Carolina, has impressed so far in offseason workouts. Hazel is smaller than expected, but he runs clean routes and has been documented making a number of ping catches throughout OTAs. Hazel was once considered a long shot to make the roster, but if he can impress during training camp and preseason he may push for playing time.
Jarvis Landry, a second round pick from LSU, has had mixed reviews about his performances in summer workouts (still more good than bad), but the consensus is the same when discussing his future. Everyone I've talked to thinks Landry will be a star for the Dolphins, some going as far to say that Landry will be Tannehill's favorite target by the end of the season.
I think that praise may be a bit to generous for the kid (especially with Hartline and Charles Clay around), but Landry will be exhilarating to watch for years to come.
Armon Binns was touchdown machine in the Dolphins' 2013 training camp before an unfortunate and untimely ACL tear which sidelined him the entire season. While Binns hasn't quite reached the same level as last year, he has still impressed this offseason and Binns also caught Tannehill's only touchdown of the day.
The non-related Williams brothers, Stephen and Damian, each have flashed during offseason workouts and each bring something interesting to the team. Stephen is a 6'5" monster of a receiver that this team presently lacks, which helps his chances of making this team. However, Stephen isn't the most physical receiver and has had many passes knocked away from his hands by smaller cornerbacks.
Damian is a long shot to make the roster but I included him because he has had a solid offseason and scored multiple touchdowns in OTAs. Damian also adds competition for the next member of this unit I will talk about, Marcus Thigpen, as a returner. And with that, we are done referring to players by their first names.
Marcus Thigpen, a former Canadian Football League standout, has made the full-time switch to wide out this offseason. The Dolphins seemed to want to replace Thigpen, or at least provide competition for him, but Thigpen has responded by proving himself to be the most reliable punt returner/fielder (catching a punt isn't easy).
Thigpen also is very intriguing in terms of how he fits into the Dolphins new offense. This offense is all about speed, and Thigpen has plenty of it. He is quick in the slot and can provide huge chunks of run-after-catch yards given some space (which happens to be another key component of this offense).
Rantavious Wooten, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia, has also been making noise in this summer with his quick feet in the slot. Again, speed kills in this offense.
The Dolphins will have tough decisions to make regarding this batch of pass catchers. Wallace, Hartline and Landry are all safe for sure, but from there it is up in the air. Each one of these receivers bring something different and desirable to the team.
Whichever route they go, it can be said without doubt that Tannehill will have viable targets all over the field at any given time in 2014.
Brent Grimes returns to the team on a three-year contract after a Pro Bowl season in 2013. Expect Grimes to continue shutting down the left side of the field.
Cortland Finnegan, a former shutdown cornerback looking to regain his form, is the front runner to win the job opposite of Grimes. Finnegan brings a ton of energy to the game and an edge to the defense that is fun to watch. Finnegan was once highly disliked and regarded as one of the dirtiest players in the league, but when that guy is on your team you love him.
However, Finnegan will face fierce competition from the young up-and-coming Jamar Taylor.
Taylor is one of the players that Philbin specifically singled out as showing the most improvement during the offseason. Taylor, a 2013 second round pick, was plagued by persistent groin injuries during his premier season in the NFL. However, he is hobbled no longer and ready to make his mark after what he calls his most difficult year of football ever in 2013.
Taylor still needs to beat out Finnegan, but he could be on his way to doing just that as Finnegan missed some time during mini-camp due to an undisclosed injury (none of the specifics of these injuries are ever revealed, if you haven't noticed). Taylor still needs to, like all these players looking to move up the depth chart, have a strong showing in training camp when the pads come on.
Will Davis, the other cornerback taken in the 2013 draft, was also hampered by injuries in his rookie season but was mainly held back by his lack of strength and discipline. Davis is a risk-taker and a gambler, and as we all know sometimes that pays off and sometimes it doesn't. Davis is said to be an interception machine in practices but has been beaten a fair share of times in practices that media have witnessed.
Davis right now is looking to compete for the nickel spot, but right now it is Jimmy Wilson's spot to lose.
Wilson, who is officially a safety on the roster, is the slated to be the starting nickel corner for the third year in a row. Wilson has always had a reputation as a play-maker but, as all young players, had to go through an adjustment period. Wilson seemed much more comfortable in his role last year and has made plays in practices (in Allen Iverson's words, "we're talkin' 'bout practice......")
I couldn't resist that one, but regardless I see Wilson making a lot of impact plays this upcoming season whether it's from the nickel spot or if he's forced into action as a safety.
Walt Aikens, a 2014 fourth round pick, has had mixed reviews about his camp, much more so than Jarvis Landry. Aikens has been praised by some for his athleticism and size, but others say his footwork needs serious work. Obviously the truth is a mixture of both, but that's what you get with guys with big-school talent who transfer to small-schools.
We will likely see Aikens from a special teams role this season unless injury forces him into the lineup. Aikens size could prove to be a useful matchup tool during the season though.
Steven Clarke and Demetrius Wright represent the long shots to make the roster, but both have made plays during the offseason workouts. If the two can carry this over throughout preseason and training camp they will force the coaches hand to make a tough decision on them.
Jalil Brown is the real original long shot who has the best chance at making this roster. Brown's name hasn't been mentioned without the word "impressive" next to it this entire offseason. This former fourth round pick could be this year's Dimitri Patterson, who seemingly came out of nowhere and not only started but thrived (when he wasn't injured).
Now, I'm not saying this will happen, but Brown has been an intriguing prospect. The best part about Brown is he provides depth and a solid back up in the case that one or more of the younger cornerbacks aren't ready or healthy when needed.
Don Jones is also listed as a cornerback, but in all honesty I think Jones is fighting for a roster spot at this time.
This unit will likely be much deeper and more talented in 2014. The unit will also be older and more experienced (which is a good and bad thing). But, I think it is safe to say that even with an injury barrage such as the one that took place in the second game against the Patriots last season, the Dolphins cornerback unit would still field a capable group.
The term "quality depth" is what kept this group out of conversation with the three units above, but Charles Clay, Michael Egnew, Dion Sims, Arthur Lynch and undrafted rookie Harold "Gator" Hoskins provide an interesting and deep combination of tight ends in this offense that will use tight ends in creative ways.
This group is definitely atop the "best of the rest" pile. Philbin & company will have difficult decisions to make regarding who stays and who goes with this group. Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno are safe, but outside of the it will be fascinating to see what happens.
An intense battle will soon ensue between Daniel Thomas, who has been working hard this offseason as he knows where he stands with this team (not very good), Mike Gillislee, who has six career attempts, and undrafted rookies Damien Williams and Orleans Darkwa, who both have impressed in their time with the team.
The defensive line unit is the deepest in my opinion, but this is one of the most difficult questions I've had to answer this offseason. Wide receiver is an extremely close second, but I think that depth may benefit the team more. That's alsoa a tough call though as these are three important areas to have ample depth at.
All of these units will benefit from the amount of depth as it creates quality competition from the top of the depth chart to the bottom.
Each player gets better from the raised competition level and the Dolphins benefit as a whole because unforeseen injuries to starters won't cripple the team and rotations can be created to keep players fresh for pivotal points in a contest (something Philbin said is great about having a deep defensive line unit).