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Predicting the Miami Dolphins 53-Man Roster: Defense & Special Teams

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A pre-training camp prediction of how the Miami Dolphins' defense and special teams will take shape on the 53-man roster.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins will report for training camp today, and begin practices tomorrow, with 90 players on their roster. By the time they kick off the season, 37 of these players will be shown the door and 53 men will remain.

Training camp is a time where players go from back-ups to starters, a time where anything can happen as players compete to earn any opportunities to impress the coaching staff. It's the players that succeed in not only sticking their foot in the door, but completely bursting through the door once they see an opportunity that becomes starters (and stars) in this league. But, it all starts in training camp.

Anything can happen in camp, so it's tough to predict. Nonetheless, I present to you my predictions for who will make the roster from the defensive side of the ball and on special teams for the Dolphins. The offensive make-up of the 53-man roster can be found here.

DEFENSE

Linebackers

Players: MLB Koa Misi, SLB Dannell Ellerbe, WLB Philip Wheeler, WLB Jelani Jenkins, WLB/MLB Jordan Tripp, MLB Jason Trusnik

Misi, who will start at MLB for the foreseeable future as a part of an "experiment" to improve the run defense which allowed 1,998 yards in 2013, Ellerbe and Wheeler are all safe as the starters.

I presume that Jenkins is also safe as he has earned praise for his improvement during the offseason and has become a bigger part of the defense's plans throughout his short career due to his coverage skills and athleticism. Jenkins role with the team could vastly increase in 2014 if Wheeler continues his struggles from 2013. Jenkins has put on muscle and is less of a liability against the run yet still possesses his athleticism, so stealing snaps from Wheeler at WLB should not only be a goal for Jenkins but the bare minimum for his season.

Tripp will likely be safe as well, but don't expect him to contribute in 2014. Tripp has potential to become a solid playmaking WLB (the team is stacked at WLB), but in order to earn his roster spot this year, Tripp must play special teams and play it well to have value to the team. Tripp is a gamer and I believe he will succeed in this new aspect and will be active on gamedays because of it.

Trusnik is the Dolphins only back-up middle linebacker behind Misi (besides Ellerbe, who will be starting at SLB). Trusnik has value for this reason. Trusnik, who is a thumping, run-stuffing linebacker who doesn't have great movement skills or athleticism, is also a key special teamer. For these two reasons, Trusnik will be on the 53-man roster.

The Dolphins will have a tough decision to make regarding SLB Jonathan Freeny, who is a special teams ace. Will the team carry Freeny or a sixth cornerback? It will depend greatly upon how Tripp performs on special teams.

Quantity: 6

Cornerbacks

Players: Brent Grimes, Cortland Finnegan, Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Jimmy Wilson, Walt Aikens

This group is the easiest to predict. Everyone listed above is an asset that the Dolphins either can ill-afford to lose or invested to much in to get rid of.

Grimes, a Pro Bowler, is a lock and falls into the "ill-afford to lose" category. Grimes signed a new deal in the 2014 offseason and is expected to shut down the left side of the field like he did in 2013.

Finnegan, a former Pro Bowler, is in line to start opposite of Grimes if he can withstand the push that sophomore Jamar Taylor will make for the spot. Finnegan's health is the biggest question mark regarding this former Pro Bowler and is the only thing that would warrant a shake-up. If Finnegan suffers a somewhat serious injury during training camp then it opens the door for Jalil Brown, who has impressed in offseason workouts, to steal his roster spot.

Taylor, who is one of five Dolphin youngsters that were named by Joe Philbin as being the most improved from last year, has high expectations from many after a disappointing rookie season. I don't see Taylor starting unless Finnegan suffers an injury of any sort and opens the door for Taylor to impress the coaching staff even more.

Taylor will without a doubt be on the roster, but his role is still undetermined and will remain that way for most of training camp and the preseason.

Will Davis is in the same boat as Taylor, though his shot at earning a starting spot are even less. Davis is mainly trying to keep himself ahead of 2014 draftee Walt Aikens on the depth chart. Davis still needs to put on weight to be an effective NFL cornerback, but his athleticism is undeniable and very exciting.

Aikens has high hopes from the team to become the long, physical corner that is present on most playoff teams, but Aikens, who played college football at the FCS football program of Liberty, is extremely raw and likely needs at least a year in the NFL to adjust to the pro game.

The best chance for either Taylor, Davis or Aikens to play this season is as the starting nickel cornerback, but I expect that to happen only if Louis Delmas suffers an injury, which would force incumbent nickel back Jimmy Wilson to move to free safety.

Wilson, who doubles as a back-up safety, will continue to start in the nickel package. Wilson, a former seventh round pick, brings great value to this team with all the roles he fills (which includes special teams ace). Wilson will play plenty this year between his responsibility as the nickel corner, his role as a back-up for an injury-prone player and special teams.

Quantity: 6

Safeties

Players: Reshad Jones, Louis Delmas, Michael Thomas, Jimmy Wilson

Unless an injury occurs, which isn't unlikely due to Delmas' past, then Delmas and Jones will start at the safety positions. Wilson likely will be the back-up for both of them because he is clearly better than the other options.

The real shake-up in this group comes at the bottom, where folk-hero Thomas gains the edge on fan-favorite Jordan Kovacs for the final safety spot. In all reality this final safety spot will go to the player who performs the best on special teams on top of being the most reliable back-up.

I think Thomas will gain the edge in training camp, but anything can happen here. Miami may even choose to carry only three safeties and cut both Thomas and Kovacs, but I think that is unlikely.

Quantity: 3 (Wilson is already counted with the CBs)

Defensive Line

Players: Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell, Anthony Johnson, AJ Francis, Cameron Wake, Dion Jordan, Olivier Vernon, Derrick Shelby

Starks, Odrick, Mitchell, Wake, Vernon and Jordan are all locks to make the team and will make up the core of the defensive front. That leaves three spots between Anthony Johnson, AJ Francis, Derrick Shelby, Terrence Fede, Isaako Aaitui, and a few undrafted long shots.

It's unclear how many defensive tackles the team carries, but I have both Johnson and Francis making the team. I really like Francis and believe that Johnson also has potential as a 3-technique DT. However, I'm not sure if the Dolphins will feel the need to carry five DTs.

Four DTs in a rotation seems to make more sense, but it will be tough to cut either Johnson or Francis and watch them get scooped up by the New England Patriots (which actually happened to Francis last year).

Shelby will make the roster over Fede, who I believe is a bit too raw at this time and would benefit from a year on the practice squad. Shelby, who has earned praise from Joe Philbin for his outstanding fundamentals, will have an opportunity to solidify a hefty amount of playing time if he thrives in the first four weeks of the season during Dion Jordan's suspension. Shelby will be the first defensive end in the rotation behind starters Cam Wake and Olivier Vernon and will also have a role as a pass rusher in the "speed" package.

If Mike Pouncey opens the season up on PUP, which now seems more likely following the news that he may miss the first eight weeks of the season due to his hip surgery, then it will open up a roster spot for the Dolphins to add another defensive or offensive lineman. I believe this will be Fede's ticket to making the 53, unless his play is so extraordinary that he demands a roster spot over Shelby. Otherwise, expect Fede to be stashed on the practice squad (and hopefully not poached as he is an athletic freak who simply needs time to learn).

Quantity: 9

DEFENSIVE TOTAL: 24

SPECIAL TEAMS

Players: Brandon Fields (punter), John Denney (long snapper), Caleb Sturgis (placekicker), Marcus Thigpen (returner)

Every team has a few roster spots set aside specifically for specialists. Fields will be back and will continue his dominance in flipping field position and will likely earn another Pro Bowl berth.

Denney is the longest tenured Dolphin and is one of the best long snappers considering you don't hear his name a lot as he is rarely making mistakes (though he has a memorable blooper of snapping the ball too early and hitting Fields right in the kisser).

Sturgis is looking to rebound from a disappointing rookie year in which he missed almost a quarter of his field goals and cost the Dolphins a few games. Sturgis was playing through injury and low confidence, so if both of those issues are fixed then we can expect to see the Sturgis who was good enough in college to get drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Thigpen will earn his roster spot as a returner, but his spot is a bit more valuable because he has the versatility to also play both running back and wide receiver. Catching punts is not an easy thing to do with the spin that's put on the ball and the guys who are running full speed trying to take the returner's head off, so it's best to have a guy with some experience back there (though I think it would be interesting to see Lamar Miller return kickoffs).

Thigpen also has an opportunity to earn some playing time on offense with a solid camp. Thigpen is versatile and can play both RB and WR, but he is best as a receiving option from either position.

Quantity: 4

ROSTER TOTAL: 53