Jelani Jenkins was an afterthought heading into the 2014 season. The 2013 free agent linebackers were looking like busts and Jenkins was just a guy that couldn't supplant them. Then the first quarter of the first game of the 2014 season happened. Starting outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe suffered what became a season ending hip injury. Jelani Jenkins stepped into his role and only finished the season as the leading tackler with 110 tackles, picked up 3.5 sacks and forced 2 fumbles. He had 1 pass defensed that resulted in a game-clinching interception. Heading into 2015, Jenkins is entrenched as a starter somewhere in the linebacker unit and no one would have guessed that last season.
Miami has some needs to fill this offseason as well and it's possible that the player they need is already on the roster, much like Jenkins was last season. Here is a list of three candidates from the current roster that could become starters on the Dolphins in 2015.
If you had taken bets when the Dolphins traded up to the 3rd overall spot in 2013, a majority of the bets would have been for the Dolphins taking offensive tackle Lane Johnson. Surprisingly, the Dolphins drafted defender Dion Jordan with the hopes he'd become a pass rushing threat across from Cameron Wake. However with injuries, loss of camp time, and the emergence of Olivier Vernon, Jordan saw relatively few reps as a rookie. A suspension in 2014 caused Jordan to miss 6 games and by then he was behind on the depth chart yet again. However, there is another issue with Jordan.
When you watch Jordan's tape from college, what you see is a freak athlete that is better from a standing position than with his hand in the dirt. Miami's coaching staff has insisted on making Jordan into a defensive end. Jordan said after he was drafted that he likes getting after quarterbacks. So the Dolphins still want him in that role. However, he can do that from the strongside outside linebacker spot. Miami used Phillip Wheeler in that role in 2014 and Koa Misi in that role in 2013. Their jobs were to cover tight ends and blitz. It easy to imagine Dion Jordan being successful in that role. In college, the 6'6" 250 lb. defender was asked to cover slot WRs and play in coverage. Miami has used him some like that season, including some reps in man coverage against Calvin Johnson. It's plausible to think that Jordan could become a successful coverage linebacker/defender. As a blitzer/rusher, he would still be able to get after quarterbacks, but from a standing position instead of the 3-point stance. The Dolphins could still use him as a defensive end at times and have even lined him up on the interior.
The point being made here is that the Dolphins have a player that has the skillset to be extremely versatile and he could be a starter if the Dolphins use him correctly. Koa Misi didn't play that many snaps as an outside linebacker in 2013. Phillip Wheeler earned plenty of money standing on the sidelines last season as his snaps dwindled. He only saw more playing time as injuries piled up towards the end of the season. Dion Jordan could take over that spot and not only have more success than his predecessors, but could stay on the field more and allow the Dolphins to really be versatile and attacking on their defense.
Matthews is a weird case. Every offseason/preseason, he makes plays. He seems to be a training camp standout every year. He had a breakout game in 2013 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he had 11 catches, 120 yards, and 2 TDs. Matthew always seems to be in the coaches' doghouse for some reason and his playing time reflects that. Last season, Matthews only saw 21 targets in 14 games. He had 12 catches for 135 yards and 2 TDs. Those numbers aren't bad considering his lack of overall targets and the fact that the receivers Miami just released, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, only managed to score 3 TDs total in 16 games and 114 combined targets. Miami will certainly be looking at receivers this offseason, but they may have a player in Matthews that can fill a starting role.
Matthews is listed at 6'0" and 215 lbs. but he can play bigger than that. He has shown moments of big play ability in limited time, such as a huge 28 yard reception in 2013 to set up a go-ahead touchdown in a victory against the Patriots. He has shown the ability to make tough, physical catches across the middle and normally has reliable hands. It's unrealistic to expect Matthews to turn into a 10+ TD guy after just being a minor target in his first three seasons. But given the routes that Miami has been asking the receivers to run (possession type routes), it's not unthinkable to believe Matthews could become a reliable target for Tannehill in an expanded role. There were reports that Matthews has expressed a desire to be released or traded, which Matthews has denied. Whether or not it's true, it is understandable from Matthews position. He has spent 3 years with the team and has gone from developmental player, to starting slot, to unused backup. Money often dictates things in the NFL and that's probably why Matthews wasn't playing over Hartline and Gibson. They are gone now and the Dolphins should give Matthews a fair shot at starting.
Michael Thomas is technically a free agent. However, he is classified as an Exclusive Rights Free Agent which means the Dolphins hold his rights. If they offer Thomas a tender, then he either has to take it or not play football. They can outright release his rights, but there is really no incentive to do that. The tender they offer would not be a major cap hit and Thomas' play on special teams itself is worth a tender. Having said all of that, I fully expect the Dolphins to tender Thomas and possibly make a longer term offer due to his outstanding special teams play and his potential at safety.
Thomas stole the hearts of many Dolphins fans with his story. He went from practice squad player for the 49ers on a Monday, to game saving hero for the Dolphins on the following Sunday. But Thomas' story doesn't and shouldn't end there. Thomas stuck with the team in 2014 and made his name as a top special teams player (Pro-Bowl caliber) and backup safety. He also had slot cornerback duties as well. Thomas is a high energy guy that has shown a knack for making plays. Thomas is the player the Dolphins want Jimmy Wilson to be, but may be better. Thomas has skillset to play the deep centerfield free safety the Dolphins like, while also being able to play up against the slot if needed. Thomas is still a work in progress, so I wouldn't expect the Dolphins to hand him the job. But he deserves a legitimate shot at earning the role.