Normally at this point, teams are what they are. The best free agents have long been signed, and the best rookie prospects have long been drafted. When it comes to the waiver wire, teams are putting in claims for the 54th, 55th, and 56th best players on each others' rosters. The players available at this point are either low quality veterans or young talents who might become a good contributor after months or years of development. Normally, the chances are slim that any player picked up in late August will be a meaningful contributor during the upcoming regular season because he would have to learn a new scheme after missing all of training camp. Therefore, when your team has a weakness in late August, it normally remains a weakness until the start of free agency next year.
However, every once in awhile, something abnormal happens that changes that reality. The Dolphins' primary concerns, even after an active offseason by GM Dennis Hickey, were expected to be offensive line and linebacker, and those remain the main weaknesses of the team until proven otherwise. The surprise suspension of Reshad Jones, the regression of sophomore safety Don Jones (who was cut), and the training camp hand injury of rookie 4th round pick Walt Aikens, who was switched in the middle of the offseason from cornerback to safety, all served to create a new worry at safety. While it's true that Reshad Jones is expected back from suspension after 4 games, the Dolphins other starting safety, Louis Delmas, does have a worrisome injury history involving his knees, so a high quality backup safety is a must.
Today, the Dolphins were not awarded any linebackers or offensive linemen off the waiver wire, which was unsurprising given the number of NFL teams with needs at those two positions after a draft that had limited depth at those positions. The Dolphins did put in claims for 2 defensive backs that were successful - a developmental cornerback in Sammy Seamster with great physical tools but poor technique, and a veteran safety in Brandian Ross, who was the second worst safety in the NFL (according to Pro Football Focus) while playing for the Oakland Raiders last year.
Those options sound underwhelming, but that's commonly the best of what's available in late August. However, the Cincinnati Bengals today made the surprise decision to waive veteran safety Danieal Manning after Manning had a solid training camp and good preseason. Manning is a former 2nd round pick of the Chicago Bears who made 1st team All-Pro in 2008 before joining the Houston Texans as a free agent in 2011 in exchange for a lucrative 4 year deal worth $20 million. This offseason, the Texans cut Manning rather than pay him the final year of that deal. The Texans still liked Manning, but Texans GM Rick Smith chose not to outbid the Bengals' offer to Manning, which had a maximum value of $2.1 million including incentives for this upcoming season. Because the Bengals chose to release Manning after he played reasonably well, the Texans decided to re-sign their former player now that his asking price could be expected to drop.
That series of moves involving Manning left former Dolphins safety Chris Clemons as the natural player for the Texans to cut to free up both cap space and a roster spot for a reunion between Houston and Manning. Clemons had played well in preseason for the Texans, but he wasn't spectacular. Manning finished ranked several spots higher than Clemons in Pro Football Focus' preseason safety rankings, suggesting that Manning (as a member of the Bengals) had outplayed Clemons, but both were ranked as above average. Because Clemons is a vested veteran, he avoids the waiver wire and hits unrestricted free agency (again).
So given that story, why do I think the Dolphins should re-sign Clemons?
1. The Dolphins' need for a veteran safety is undeniable. The Dolphins wouldn't have claimed the second worst safety in the NFL off waivers if they didn't consider backup safety to be a need. Whatever you felt about Chris Clemons' performance last year, he was better than the second worst safety in the NFL last year.
2. Clemons knows the scheme, so unlike anybody else the Dolphins could claim or sign, the transition would be easiest for Clemons. Having spent the 2 previous seasons in defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle's scheme, Clemons could realistically start within days of signing with the Dolphins. Ross, the safety picked up off the waiver-wire, will take days to weeks to get up to speed if the Dolphins keep him, which would leave the Dolphins very vulnerable if there's an injury at safety in game 1.
3. Signing Clemons helps both the safety and cornerback situations. Right now, Jimmy Wilson has been promoted to safety in wake of Reshad Jones' suspension, which weakens both the cornerback rotation and the safety rotation. First, Wilson is an above average slot cornerback, and the loss of Wilson robs the team of the player who spent the early part of the offseason getting 1st team reps in the slot. Of the remaining options at cornerback, only Cortland Finnegan has significant NFL experience playing slot cornerback, so with Wilson playing safety, the team only has 1 proven option in the slot available. Finnegan meanwhile is coming off 2 consecutive seasons in which he was limited by injury, though he's healthy now.
Secondly, while Wilson has spent a lot of practice time at safety the past couple of seasons, he's at times prone to missed tackles when attempting to deliver a big hit to force a fumble or incompletion. Those attempts to generate a big play aren't very damaging when Wilson is in the slot because at least 1 safety further downfield can "bail him out" if he misses, but when Wilson himself is that last line of defense, those mistakes can be disastrous.
4. Clemons will be cheap. Clemons was forced to settle for a 2-year, $2.7 million deal a few months ago with just $450,000 guaranteed despite being an unrestricted free agent. His inability to successfully catch gift-wrapped interception opportunities no doubt limited his appeal, given that every team wants playmaking safeties who create game-changing turnovers. Clemons' lack of playmaking is why the Dolphins targeted Louis Delmas instead of retaining Clemons. However, Reshad Jones got himself suspended, and Clemons is by far the best free agent safety available to help the Dolphins in the meantime. Because Clemons is hitting the market in late August, any other team that bids for Clemons would worry about his ability to learn a new scheme on the fly and wouldn't want to guarantee him much money upfront. The Dolphins should be able to sign Clemons for either the veteran's minimum or near the minimum because at this point, Clemons' goal is to be on any NFL team that can give him playing time as soon as possible.
If the Dolphins wait until after the 1st regular season game to sign Clemons, the Dolphins would only pay Clemons a weekly salary for however many weeks he's on the roster instead of his entire season salary. That way, once Jones comes back from his 4 week suspension, Clemons could be cut after receiving only 3 game paychecks if the coaches don't like the way Clemons is playing, if they feel Wilson is a better option, or if they don't feel like they need an extra veteran backup safety.
Ultimately, a reunion between the Dolphins and Clemons would be mutually beneficial. A veteran minimum offer from the Dolphins would go further than the same offer coming from most other teams because Florida doesn't have a state income tax. Also, Clemons would be guaranteed to start at least 3 games for the Dolphins, which is something that most other teams can't necessarily promise at this point in the season. Last but not least, Clemons would be more likely to shine as a member of the Dolphins than playing for other teams due to the combination of him knowing the system and having a potentially great pass rush to harass opposing quarterbacks as they attempt deeper throws. Who knows - maybe he'd manage to catch 2 interceptions, which would match his highest total of his career?