With all the talk about free agency and the draft, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the players already on the team. In terms of talent, the Dolphins are about middle of the pack compared to the rest of the NFL. The Dolphins could stand to add more talent at key positions, but they aren’t scraping the bottom of the barrel either.
Since the team will look different within the next few weeks, I thought it would be a good idea to rate the current roster in terms of talent and potential. I’m breaking up the rating system into tiers, with the top tier being the best players and each subsequent tier representing players I think are rated lower. The tiers are as follows:
1. Elite Talent
2. Elite Potential
3. Good Players
5. Roster Filler
NOTE: This does not include impending unrestricted free agents such as Paul Soliai, Kendall Langford, or Vernon Carey. It does include restricted and exclusive rights free agents as they will most likely stay with the Dolphins.
TIER ONE: ELITE TALENT
Players in this tier are some of the best players in the league at their respective positions. Based on talent alone, these players command large contracts and would require high draft picks to acquire in a trade. These players are pillars of the franchise that you build around. You would ONLY get rid of players in this tier if there were extenuating circumstances.
Jake Long: This is a no-brainer. Long plays one of the most important positions in football at a high level. He has been voted to the Pro Bowl every season he has been in the league and earned All Pro honors in 2010. Injuries caused Long to have a sub-par 2011 season, but when healthy, he is arguably the best left tackle in football.
Cameron Wake: Wake’s career path is well noted amongst Dolphins fans and is a testament to faith and hard work. After failing to make it on the Giants as an undrafted free agent, Wake exploded on the Canadian Football League scene. After two seasons and 39 sacks later, he signed a deal with the Miami Dolphins to play rush linebacker. He proved to be effective in a limited role in 2009 and became the starter in 2010. He earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2010. Profootballfocus.com rated him the best 3-4 OLB in the NFL in 2011 for his ability to consistently generate pressure.
Brandon Marshall: I know this will stir up dissension with some fans because of Marshall’s history and his issues with dropping passes. However, in terms of talent alone, Marshall is one of the most devastating receivers in the league. He’s not a speed merchant, but plays fast enough. His size and strength make him a formidable weapon that defenders struggle to defend. Yes, he has drop issues, but so do some other big time receivers (Welker, White, D. Jackson). After struggling to start the 2011 season, he stepped up later in the season, earning a Pro Bowl start. He dominated the Pro Bowl earning MVP honors, displaying the ability fans hope he can display every Sunday for the Dolphins. Like him or not, Marshall is an irreplaceable talent that helps drive the Dolphins offense.
Brandon Fields: It's unusual to think of a punter as an elite player, but Fields is one of the best in the league at his craft. When the Dolphins offense has sputtered (and it has A LOT recently), the team could always count on Fields flipping field position and not giving the defense a short field. Fields' punting average for the past few seasons have been up there with other Pro Bowl punters. The ONLY issue with Fields has been that he tends to out-kick his coverage at times and that can allow for a big return. However, the coverage teams have been improving and thanks to them (and special teams ace Julius Pruitt), Fields is now able to boom the kicks away and give the defense good field position.
Karlos Dansby: I seriously struggled with putting Dansby in the elite category. Yes, he's a very good linebacker with a very good skill set. He is scheme diverse and can be a playmaker when called upon. He is a leader in the locker room and on the field. But is he "elite"? Is he a guy that I wouldn't trade for anything? In my opinion... no. He has never made a Pro Bowl. He's only had 3 seasons with over 100 tackles. However, I think for THIS team, he would be considered elite. He has been a key component to a stingy defense over the past two seasons. I also think he would be a better fit as an OLB in a 4-3 (which we might be switching to). He would be able to drop into coverage more and be in better positions to make plays. While I think the Dolphins could find a younger talent to replicate his production, I think his leadership would be missed the most. So I will put Dansby in the first tier RIGHT NOW. However, I think he could easily move from here to the 3rd tier by the end of the 2012 season.
TIER TWO: ELITE POTENTIAL
These are players that have the talent to be elite players, but haven’t fully realized their potential. The players in this tier have elite skill sets, but for some reason or another, just haven't put it all together yet, or are young players on the rise. These are players that you want to keep and build around, but only if they get to the elite status. You won't get rid of them unless you can ABSOLUTELY find an upgrade.
Reggie Bush: Bush could easily fit into the first tier, but the reason he falls here is that he's only had one season of truly elite play. While wasting away as a specialist back for the New Orleans Bounty Hunters, he didn't get the touches he needed to be considered elite. Whenever he would get going, injuries would derail his progress. When Miami
stole him from New Orleans traded for him in the 2011 offseason, many fans and "experts" questioned if he could really be an "every down" back. After a slow start (thanks in part to bad coaching), Bush erupted with his first season over 1000 yards rushing and 6 TDs. He averaged an insane 5.0 yards per carry, with 5 games over 100 yards (he had only had one 100 yard game in his career prior to the 2011 season). He became the catalyst for a resurgent and actually potent offensive attack for the Dolphins. If Bush can stay healthy and keep this up over the next season, he will move up into the first tier without question.
Mike Pouncey: Pouncey was not a popular pick for the fans who were looking for the Dolphins to draft a QB or another skill player in the first round (I was one of them). Some thought that 15th overall pick was too high to draft an interior lineman (I was one of them). However, Pouncey solidified the center position after years of searching for the right guy. Most fans now appreciate the contribution that Pouncey has brought and will bring in the future (I am one of them). Pouncey started off really well, but after a few starts, his play dropped off some. That was expected however as he was a rookie with a shortened offseason. With a full year under his belt, Pouncey should start to ascend into the elite center category. VERY few centers have the athleticism that Pouncey possesses and one commentator during a game likened him to Dermontti Dawson (a 2012 HoF inductee). He and Long will be the Dolphins anchors for their offensive line for years to come.
Davone Bess: Bess has been considered by most Dolphins fans the best slot WR in the game for a couple of seasons now. He had a 2010 season that looked much like that of a #1 receiver (79 recs, 820 yds, 5 TDs). However, his numbers dropped in 2011. Some of that can be attributed to a new offensive scheme and some can be attributed to the fact he and Matt Moore didn't have the same chemistry that Bess shared with Chad Henne. In any case, Bess has the skill set to become an elite slot WR. He doesn't have great straight line speed, but has the quickness and shiftiness to give nickel corners fits. He is a great route runner and is a great weapon for a QB looking to pick up a first down. With an elite QB at the helm, Bess will become an even bigger weapon and can push into the first tier.
Vontae Davis: Davis was drafted to be a cover corner that can lock down opposing WRs. He has shown flashes of elite coverage ability, but also has shown lapses in concentration and desire. He was suspended one game in 2011 for showing up to practice hungover. He and Brandon Marshall had a incident that resulted in Marshall throwing a ball off of Davis' face. After that situation, Davis looked like he turned the corner (no pun intended). He started playing with a passion that had only been seen in spurts previously. He started locking down WRs more consistently and became a terror as a run defender. Our new defensive coordinator is a secondary specialist and has the most out of his players, including some that were previously considered busts. I fully expect Davis to continue to grow and mature and move up into the first tier.
Jared Odrick: Another pick that left some Dolphins fans scratching their heads. Odrick was fighting for a starting job his rookie year, but ended up on IR after one game. Odrick played up to the potential we expected in his first full season, accumulating 6 sacks as a rotational player (and breaking out the ridiculous Pee-Wee Herman dance). He has potential to be a pass rushing force on the inside of a 4 man front, or as a edge rusher as he did damage there as well. Odrick should excel in any scheme and the expectations for him will grow as the Dolphins look for him to be an anchor on the defensive line. Look for Odrick to be an interior presence that can move up into the first tier.
Dan Carpenter: Carpenter is a very good kicker and was a huge part of our 2010 offense (FIST PUMP!!!). I hope to see Carpenter as the Dolphins kicker until he retires. Carpenter has a strong, accurate leg and has proven to be very reliable in any conditions. Between he and Fields, the Dolphins are set in the special teams category.
THIRD TIER: GOOD PLAYERS
The players in this tier are quality players who are key starters for the team. These players have a very good skill set, but for some reason, just aren't elite players. Maybe their age holds them back or maybe the scheme holds them back. Whatever the reason, these players are very good players, but may never make it into the elite category. These are players that I wouldn't trade unless I have to, but I would not be opposed to making that move.
Anthony Fasano: Fasano is an all around good tight end. He's a better blocker than most receiving TEs and he's a better receiver than most blocking TEs. Fasano will never be a threat in the passing game like Gronkowski, Gates, or Graham (what is it with TEs whose last name starts with 'G'?). What Fasano will be however, is a reliable secondary TE that can make some plays and be successful in the right scheme. I personally wouldn't trade him because of his overall skill set. But I wouldn't hesitate to find a true #1 TE to supplant him in the starting lineup (Coby Fleener anyone?)
Sean Smith: Another tough call here with Smith. He started out his career starting all 16 games as a rookie. His numbers for his first two seasons indicated that Smith was on his way to being a lockdown corner. The 2011 season wasn't quite as good. PFF rated Smith as one of the worst CBs in the league. He looked lost many times and he never plays as physical as one would think he would with his size. In fact, it looked like his size was more of a liability than an asset. It's very possible that a move to free safety is in Smith's future. However, like with Davis, I think Coyle can work with Smith and get the most from him. Even if he moves to safety, I think Smith will be a very good player for the Dolphins. I just don't think he'll ever be an elite player.
Randy Starks: I personally think Starks could be a player that vaults into the top tier. He has been a beast as a 3-4 DE and that might be his best position. I'm not entirely sure he'll be the same force as a 4-3 DT. I don't think he'll be successful as a NT (as has been rumored if we stay with a 3-4 hybrid). I believe the 2012 season will reveal if Starks can be dominant in either scheme (like I expect Odrick will be). If he cannot, then he will not get any higher than the good player tier.
Brian Hartline: Hartline is what he is... a good, not great WR. He's never going to be a #1 target. He's not the best #2 target. I think he's be a better slot WR than anything else. He's the type of WR that teams like though. He's going to give you 100% every play and he does the little things that make him valuable (like forcing CBs into interference calls or making those crazy sideline catches). Most fans feel the same about him: they like him, but think we could upgrade from him.
Richie Incognito: Incognito is simply a good player. He's never going to be an elite guard, but teams don't necessarily need that. Since coming to Miami, he has kept his notorious temper under control for the most part. He has played LG and even center for us, showing his versatility. He's a starting quality guard that you can win games with. His 2011 season saw an improvement in the pulling department and in pass protection. Unless you can get an upgrade (and at a decent price), their is no reason to move on from Incognito.
Other players in this tier: Kevin Burnett, Yeremiah Bell, John Denney
TIER FOUR: POTENTIAL
Players in this tier are nothing more than players that have potential to be good, but don't appear to have elite skill sets capable of making them a top player in the league. These can also be young players that just haven't shown enough to be considered elite potential yet.
Charles Clay: Clay was a steal in the 6th round of the 2011 draft. He's a dangerous matchup weapon that has shown to be a devastating downfield blocker. He's too small currently to be considered a true in-line TE. He flashed some potential in his rookie season and should improve with our new coaching staff. He didn't show enough to be any higher in the rankings though. He could move up the tiers after this season.
Matt Moore: I know some of you will balk at this, thinking Moore should be higher (or lower). But I think Moore is firmly entrenched in this tier. He has some potential and I think a good coaching staff can bring that out. However, I don't see Moore ever developing an elite skill set to be considered one of the best QBs in the league. I don't see Moore as anything other than an average starter in the league and will be a premier backup for some team, possibly us.
Daniel Thomas: Thomas was supposed to be the big bruising back that would enhance the Dolphins power rushing game. He started out very strong, with a 100 yard rushing game in his debut. However, it started going downhill from there. He only average 3.5 yards per carry and looks at time as though he struggled to find open rushing lanes when they were there. He also struggled with injuries his rookie year, missing some games with a groin injury. He doesn't have great breakaway speed and MUST learn to see the hole and go. There is still plenty of hope for Thomas, but he's not someone that can't be replaced.
Clyde Gates: Gates was drafted to be the speedster on the outside that the Dolphins lacked. He got most of his reps as a kick returner however and didn't get many reps at WR. He will turn 26 before the season starts which could limit his upside. He needs to improve and do it quickly if he wants to be a major contributor on offense. With Gates' speed, he could vault into the top two tiers, but as it stands now, he's in the fourth tier.
Lex Hilliard: I'll admit... I'm a Hilliard fan. I think he's an underrated talent on this team. Hilliard is never going to be an elite RB. He's never going to be a monster FB. But Hilliard offers the team a good back who can run well and block well as a FB. He is also a capable receiver out of the backfield. Hopefully, Philbin will give him a chance to shine and Hilliard can produce when called upon. Word 'round the campfire is that Philbin likes to feature a FB in his offense so I expect Hilliard to get more opportunities now.
Julius Pruitt: Many will think Pruitt isn't deserving of a spot in this tier. Many may think that Pruitt isn't worth a roster spot. My advice to them is to go back and watch our punt coverage. You'll see a certain #11 flying down the field and was ALWAYS the first player to reach the return man. Pruitt was a monster on special teams in the second half of the 2011 season (Ben Volin called him a "demon" on special teams). In my opinion, Pruitt has the upper hand on the 5th WR slot at the moment. I think his special teams contributions will keep him on the team and hopefully Philbin and crew can bring out Pruitt's potential. He is still very raw at WR, but has the size (6'2" 206) and speed to be a quality WR if properly developed.
Other players in this tier: John Jerry, Lydon Murtha, Chris Clemons, Reshad Jones, Tony McDaniel, Koa Misi, Jimmy WIlson, Nolan Carroll, Tyrone Culver, Marlon Moore, Roberto Wallace, Phillip Merling, Nate Garner
TIER FIVE: ROSTER FILLER
Players in this category aren't guaranteed a roster spot from season to season. These are guys that are practice squad material, camp fodder, or bottom of the roster filler.
Everyone else is in this tier.