As the Miami Dolphins prepared to face the Atlanta Falcons on Friday night in the first Preseason game of the year for both clubs, news broke that, when the Dolphins open the regular season next month, they will do so without the services of safety Reshad Jones. The league has suspended Jones under the performance enhancing drug policy; Jones explained the positive test as caused by an ingredient in a supplement he took during the offseason.
Jones is the second Dolphins player to run afoul of the PED policy this offseason, joining second year defensive end Dion Jordan.
Where the loss of Jordan causes a change in the defensive end rotation, but does not force someone else into the starting lineup as Jordan was behind Olivier Vernon on the depth chart, the loss of Jones not only forces a new starting safety, but also changes the team's nickel and dime packages, as Jimmy Wilson moves back to safety and, likely, Jamar Taylor slides into the role as the additional cornerback.
The Dolphins have been grooming Wilson to play safety the last few years, despite also using him in the nickel packages as a cornerback. "I've practiced it for the last couple of years now," the fourth year vet said Sunday. "I've just had to fill roles at corner and nickel. I'm finally going to have a chance to get out there and play safety and show everybody what I can do and hopefully help my team. Even though as a defense, as a whole, we're missing some guys, but after those four games, we're going to be an even better defense and we plan on hitting the ground running."
"He's had a lot of training there," head coach Joe Philbin added. "He's had a lot of reps at that position over a long period of time. Our defensive system has been in place now going into three years, so I think he knows the defense very well."
How quickly, and how seamlessly, Wilson can transition back to safety could be a huge factor in any early success for Miami this season. "I've been in camp the whole time," Wilson says of his readiness to shift to safety. "I've been playing safety the whole time. So it doesn't take any more studying. I've known all of this stuff since last year."
Taylor discussed the opportunity presented him, despite the unfortunate situation with which he is getting this chance: "Every day is an opportunity to get on the field and just try to make plays. Whether it's special teams or whether it's defense, as long as we get those opportunities, it's a blessing. Obviously, Reshad is going to be missed. He's taking the full repercussions for it. We're just going to try and play really good and, when he gets back, we expect him to get back and roll."
Philbin is not ready to declare the move of Wilson to safety and Taylor to the nickel as a done deal. While Wilson was working as the starting safety next to Louis Delmas in Sunday's practice, Philbin discussed possibilities as the nickel corner other than Taylor. "We've toyed with a lot of different combinations as you guys have seen. We've had Cortland (Finnegan) in there a little bit. We've had Michael Thomas in there. We've had Jimmy Wilson in there, and we'll take a look at some other guys. Jamar Taylor has gotten a couple of reps in there, so we certainly have some qualified guys."
One player not mentioned by Philbin who could be in the mix is second year cornerback Will Davis. Early in the 2013 preseason, Davis was all over the place, making plays on passes all over the field. He was rough, and he needed to work on his technique, but he was a playmaker. This offseason, those same playmaking abilities are starting to show again, and he could be an option. In Miami's 16-10 loss to the Falcons Sunday, the Dolphins defense recorded four pass defenses - and Davis had three of those.
That kind of performance could be exactly what Miami needs in the secondary with Jones out, and it has not gone unnoticed. Discussing players who could fill in for him in the nickel package, if he did move to safety, Wilson singled out the two second year players: "You've seen (Taylor) and ‘Lil' Will (Davis) are getting their hands all over everything the quarterback is throwing these last OTAs and in camp. They played a little bit last year. It's not like they don't have any game experience. We are deep at every position. This situation makes it a little less deep, but we've still got guys who can come onto the field and play roles"
The Dolphins added Delmas this offseason as a free agent signing, looking to upgrade the defense with a hard-hitting veteran safety to replace Chris Clemons, who joined the Houston Texans in free agency. The move of adding a veteran could be serendipitous for Miami as they work through Jones' suspension. Miami now has a veteran safety to help Wilson adjust to his new role.
"Well, it's important," Philbin said of the benefit of having Delmas on the roster. "Those guys in the backend are critical. In football, you have to be good down the middle. It doesn't matter what side of the ball. Offensively, you have to be good from your center to quarterback. They are in charge of a lot of things. Defensively, your middle linebacker, the nose guard and the safeties have to communicate. They all have to be on the same page. So having a veteran like Louis there is a benefit, and like you said Jimmy (Wilson) has played a lot of football here albeit mostly at nickel. But I think we'll have a good safety starting on September 7th."
Wilson also spoke about the benefit of Delmas being in the back end of the defense. "He's a great veteran guy. You've seen it for years. He's coming off a great year last year. We are happy to have his enthusiasm and the way he plays ball. We kind of have the same mentality towards football and towards other teams, so I think it's going to be fun."
As the Dolphins look to solve the secondary question with Jones' suspension, the answer will likely come from Wilson moving back to secondary and Taylor moving into the nickel position. Whatever the decision, and whenever it is finalized, Wilson and Taylor seem ready to step into their new roles.