Don't look now, but the regular season is just around the corner. Tonight, the Dolphins play their final "meaningless" game of the 2008 preseason. Of course, the term "meaningless" is a relative term - and in fact, this game isn't meaningless at all. There are still roster spots to be won and progress to be made on both sides of the ball. So below are some of the things to consider when watching tonight's preseason finale:
STARTERS TO PLAY
While most teams usually sit their starters in their final preseason game, the Dolphins are taking the opposite approach. In fact, Tony Sparano is expected to play everyone who is available to play. Says Sparano:
"Oh we're gonna play people. I'm not of the opinion that you should sit players right now, I think you start coaching scared a little bit and that can get you in trouble."
"Our players need to play and they'll play in this game."
This is an interesting move by Sparano, especially in light of all the recent injuries to big-name players over the past week or so. Many, like myself, like the idea that this coaching staff isn't "coaching scared." But would that change if one of Miami's key players suffer an injury?
It's a risk, no doubt. But I think it's a calculated risk that does need to be taken. So while I'll surely be angry and upset if a player does suffer some kind of injury, I won't go back and blame the coaching staff. Like Sparano says, this team work and the starters need to play.
"SAFE PLAYERS" TO WATCH
With that said, let's talk a little bit about which players who are not on the roster bubble we should pay extra attention to during tonight's game:
Chad Pennington - This will be Chad's 3rd game working in this offense with these players. How is he progressing? Does he continue to look improved and more comfortable? And how is his timing with the receivers?
Ronnie Brown - Ronnie will be playing for the first time since suffering a sprained thumb in Jacksonville. To this point, Brown has carried the ball just 5 times for 6 yards. And even Tony Sparano knows he needs to see more of Ronnie out there:
"I need to see more of Ronnie before I make that decision. If I don't see a whole lot more Ronnie, then Ricky will start."
We'll all get to see more of Ronnie later tonight. How will he look? How's the knee holding up? Is he still explosive through the hole? Can he cut back when he needs to? This is Brown's final chance to at least earn a 50/50 workload split with Ricky Williams entering the regular season. But if Ronnie was to explode tonight, could he still win the starting job? Sparano seems to think so - which is probably why he hasn't named Ricky the starter just yet.
Charlie Anderson - With Joey Porter out until at least the start of the regular season, Anderson is expected to fill in as the weak side outside linebacker. Charlie has been slowed by a hamstring injury since August 9, and Sparano admits he needs to see more from Charlie. So tonight, Sparano plans to play Anderson until "his tongue is dragging." Anderson, you'll remember, was praised during OTAs and very early on in training camp. But now it's time to prove he can rush the passer in an actual game. Now Charlie does admit that his hamstring still isn't 100%, but he knows he needs to show what he can do. A big night from Charlie could cement him as Porter's weak side replacement should Joey miss time for an extended period of time.
Matt Roth - Roth has played quite well at his new position so far. But this week will be his chance to prove that he can play well consistently ween in and week out at the outside linebacker spot. Consistency is the key and is what separates the above-average players to the good/great ones. Can Roth get as much pressure on the Saints' QBs and he did to Kansas City's? If so, I know I'll be one step closer to declaring this experiment as a complete success.
Michael Lehan - Lehan's roster spot is safe, but his role is clearly undefined right now as he continues to make his return from that ankle injury that caused him to miss two-thirds of camp. Last week, Lehan made a great read on a route and picked off a pass. This week, he's going to have to show the surprisingly solid coverage skills he flashed last season if he wants to at least open the season as the team's 3rd corner.
"BUBBLE PLAYERS" NEED TO SET THEMSELVES APART
There are still roster spots to be won or lost and this game will be the determining factor for a number of players. Let's talk about some of them.
Ernest Wilford - Make no mistake about it: Wilford has been the biggest disappointment of training camp. And right now, his acquisition is looking like the worst move this front office made all off-season. But, likely because of the guaranteed money he was handed, Ernest still has one final chance to make an impression with this regime. He's likely going to see a ton of work tonight - possibly including plays specifically designed to get him involved. If he can flash just some of the ability that he's showed in Jacksonville, he'll likely cement himself a roster spot. But in what role remains to be seen.
Justin Peelle/Sean Ryan - The battle for the final tight end spot is going to come down to tonight. Neither has done too much to set themselves apart. Both are better blockers than either of the other 2 TEs already on the team. But while Peelle is the more experienced player, he has a much more hefty price tag than Ryan. So if Justin can't set himself apart from Ryan, would this regime choose the cheaper player (and one who has no ties to the previous regime)?
Boomer Grigsby/Reagan Mauia - This is one of the more interesting battles. And I say that not only because both have performed well in terms of lead blocking but also because there's a 3rd scenario out there in which neither player makes the team. Now I think it's unlikely, but it wouldn't be surprising to see this regime decide to use the tight ends a lot as H-backs, which would essentially reduce the need for a full back and open up another roster spot for another position. Of course, I do think that's unlikely, mostly because Grigsby is a special teams play-maker and this regime loves those "specials." In all honesty, I think this is Boomer's job to lose right now.
Rod Wright/Paul Soliai/Edmond Miles/Quentin Moses/Rob Ninkovich - I have all 5 of these players listed because any combination of them could make this team - and a good showing tonight would help cement their spots. The bottom of the defensive line and linebacker depth chart, though, is one of the more fluid situations. And I say that because I think that those are just 2 of the positions in which waiver pickups could come in here and take roster spots away from these guys. But if you assume no waiver moves and just keep the roster as it, I think Soliai and Wright are not just battling against each other for a roster spot. Instead, both could make the team if the Dolphins decide to keep one less linebacker, which means Mikes, Moses, and Ninkovich could be battling for as little as one roster spot. Interesting stuff to unfold, for sure.
Well I've gone on long enough. If you've read this far, then kudos to you! Be sure to tell us all what you think. What will you be watching for in tonight's preseason finale?