The players in this article are not sure things; there will be a lot of "if he…" and "he would/should/could..." in this segment. Whether they simply haven't played enough snaps to get an authentic assessment, or their performance had too many highs and lows, these players are difficult to project. But there's a reason that Adam Gase and company did one thing before they turned their collective eyes to free agency and the 2016 NFL Draft: they looked at the 2015 Miami Dolphins to see what we currently have, and will base their future decisions from those evaluations.
The young guys on the roster, the most likely to demonstrate significant leaps in ability and overall conceptual understanding, are like fake boobs: they're appealing in the short-term, but in the long-term you don't know WHAT they're going to look like. Question marks will plague all of the potential "making the leap" candidates that we will discuss, but these determinations will allow us to strategically invest our salary cap in free agency and our draft capital in the 2016 NFL Draft. If we identify even 1 or 2 young players ready for more snaps and more responsibility, it greatly affects the overall team-building plan. Without further ado, let's see what kind of silicone bags the 2016 Miami Dolphins will have the opportunity to play with:
I will divide the players into 3 categories: 1) Debatable areas of need, 2) Potential areas of need contingent on other players signing with other teams in free agency, 3) Obvious areas of need. I will also be including some PFF grades to provide a sense of objectivity, rather than just my blind conjecture. I know PFF comes with its own bag of worms, but I prefer using PFF's contextualized stats as opposed to strictly yards, tackles, etc.., as the basis of objectivity.
Debatable Areas of Need:
Michael Thomas, Free Safety
- Michael Thomas is beloved by most Dolphins fans for his game-sealing interception of Tom Brady on the final play in the 2013 tilt at Sun Life Stadium, in his very first game as a Miami Dolphin, being picked up late in the season off of waivers. Thomas ranked 41st out of 88 safeties according to PFF in 2015 (which includes both free and strong safeties), and was heralded as PFF's most valuable special teams player. He was second-fiddle to Walt Aikens for the 1st 11 weeks of the season, but Aikens didn't play a single snap after week 11 and Thomas took over. Per PFF, Thomas outranked Aikens in pass coverage, pass rushing, and run defense.
- He admittedly generated zero turnovers, but with Reshad Jones flying around all over the place, Thomas' main responsibility was as the deep cover. Technically, Thomas is an exclusive-rights free agency, which means we have exclusive negotiating rights and we will almost assuredly re-sign him at a nominal price. Considering his meager price tag and his high-end #2 safety status, we can reasonably invest our off-season resources at other positions. He'll be 26 for the start of the 2016 season, will be entering his prime, and still demonstrates potential for growth.
Jake Stoneburner, Tight End
- Jordan Cameron has a big contract in 2016, potentially saving us $7.5 million if released. Dion Sims is in a contract year. Jake Stoneburner is "unranked" by PFF, because he did not meet the minimum threshold for snap count (Stoneburner had 123 snaps). Stoneburner caught 5 passes all year: 2 for TD's and 3 for 1st downs, so Ryan Tannehill didn't shy away from him in high-pressure situations. If he maintained his level of play and met the minimum snap count cut-off, he would've ranked just below Jordan Cameron (65.7 to 64.8) and trailed him ever so slightly in his receiving grade despite that being one of Cameron's strengths (71.5 to 69.8).
- Stoneburner significantly out graded Dion Sims in pass receiving and pass blocking, but Sims out graded him in run blocking. I don't think Stoneburner is ready to be the #1 by any stretch, but I think he can be our #2 TE in 2016 and going forward. I live in the heart of Buckeye country, and after watching him throughout his collegiate career, I thought he had the chance to develop into a decent TE in the NFL. If he can get stronger and improve his run blocking, I can easily foresee him unseating Dion Sims as TE2 and taking over as the "blocking TE" with upside as a pass catcher. He, too, is an exclusive-rights FA, and he will undoubtedly come with a very cheap price tag.
Jay Ajayi, Running Back
- The Boise State product was one of PFF's highest "unranked" players in 2015 at any position (and he barely missed the cut-off for snap count). He would have been a top-20 RB if he maintained his level of play, and would have been the 4th-ranked rookie RB behind Todd Gurley, Thomas Rawls, and TJ Yeldon. Perhaps most impressively for a rookie, he would have had the 17th highest pass blocking grade in the NFL - he and fellow rookie Tyler Varga (Indianapolis Colts) were head and shoulders above all other rookies in this category.
- Ajayi had some "bowling ball" type runs, and as DD puts it, "Runs like he's on fire." That may be a blessing or a curse. The ultimate question with Ajayi is not a matter of ability, but what happens to his backfield mate, Lamar Miller. Will Lamar Miller be back? If the Miami Dolphins re-sign Miller, we will have a potentially lethal combination at RB. If we don't, we will likely have to invest at RB in some fashion, but I believe Ajayi is ready to take on a 1A/1B type of running back committee, and can also serve as the 3rd down back. He can run, catch, and block; he can break tackles, and in my opinion, will become our best goal-line RB. Injuries are the only thing I see getting in the way of Ajayi.
Derrick Shelby, Defensive End
- This UDFA gem barely meets the criteria for "young player with potential", as he will be 27 when the 2016 NFL season begins. But he has been a rotational player for us for his entire stint, injuries notwithstanding, and should have a lot left in the tank. Shelby is also the Dolphins highest ranked player in this article, ranking 23rd overall as an edge defender per PFF. His strength is not in pass rushing (but he's no slouch either, as he ranked 33rd overall in this department), but in his run defense, where he ranked 18th overall in the NFL as an edge defender (which includes 4-3 DE's and 3-4 OLB's).
- I'd argue he isn't a household name among NFL fans, and hopefully front offices too, as he himself will be a free agent. Defensive end is arguably our most volatile position, as it can go in so many directions. Do we re-sign Vernon? Does Wake restructure? What will Wake have left in the tank? Shelby will undoubtedly be the cheapest of the 3 Miami Dolphins DE's, and considering his steady development, may offer the best bang for the buck in terms of getting the most skill out of the least amount of money. Shelby was remarkably consistent on all fronts throughout the year for the Miami Dolphins, and he may just prove to the front office that re-signing Olivier Vernon is a luxury, not a need.
Obvious Areas of Need:
Neville Hewitt, Linebacker
- The Marshall Thundering Herd UDFA was arguably our least acclaimed of the UDFA LB pool, but became its most productive. In fact, I can remember some bewilderment when he made the 53-man roster. Although the stats don't support it, Hewitt seemed to be everywhere in the season finale against the New England Patriots. Not only did he run stride-for-stride with Rob Gronkowski down the sidelines and help hold Gronkowski to his worst game of the 2015 season (2 catches for 18 yards on 7 targets), but he also made a number of solid tackles, including 2 for a loss. Hewitt ranks 43rd out of 97 ranked LB's (includes all LB's except 3-4 OLB's) per PFF, and has the overall 17th highest LB pass coverage grade in the NFL.
- Perhaps the most important caveat to Hewitt is that he is a soft-spoken, humble, blue collar type of player - not seen very often in 22 year-old kids anymore (he'll be 23 for the 2016 season). In a recent interview on Miamidolphins.com, he was asked about what he plans to improve on, and his answer was made with no hesitation: "I want to get stronger, and get off of blocks better." Hewitt may not be ready for a starting position just yet, but I believe it's on the horizon (he ranked just below Jelani Jenkins in overall grade for 2015). In 2016, I look for Hewitt and Misi to rotate frequently (if Misi is not released), as their strengths are a perfect complement to the other's weakness. Getting teams in predictable running or passing situations will help highlight their strengths and put both players in a position to succeed.
Tony Lippett, Cornerback
- Tony Lippett is my personal favorite to emerge as the "making the leap" candidate for the 2016 Miami Dolphins, and I'll admit I'm higher on him than most. Lippett was "unranked" due to only participating in 137 snaps, but he had a very high grade for those 137 snaps (he only logged snaps in 5 games this year). If he maintained his level of play, he would have out graded not only Brent Grimes, but possible Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs. A lofty comparison, I know, but Lippett showed some serious flashes in his 1st year as a pro.
- His transition from WR to CB has been well-documented, and many anticipated a steep learning curve for the young player. However, Lippett made noise very early in training camp, and seemed to accelerate through his learning curve instead of being downtrodden by it. Having some previous experience at CB certainly helped, but even seasoned college CB's have a tough transition to the NFL. Lippett admitted he had a lot to learn, and in my opinion, that humility allowed him to zero in on improving his technique.
- He got his first significant snaps against the San Diego Chargers in week 15, and as would most veteran QB's, Philip Rivers targeted him early and often. One play that sticks out to me was against Malcom Floyd: Floyd faked a slant, then faded to the sideline. Floyd would eventually make a phenomenal catch, but Lippett had his long arm right between Floyd's hands, despite biting on the initial fake. Lippett recovered quickly for a big fella, and made Floyd earn that contested catch. The play most fans will probably remember Lippett for was his diving deflection/almost INT against the Patriots in the deep middle. He outstretched his long arms and made a tremendous play on the ball - an area where his experience as a WR certainly helps.
- Lippett had the highest coverage grade of anyone in the Miami Dolphins secondary (yes, even Reshad Jones), and 2nd highest on the team behind Neville Hewitt. Lippett easily out graded fellow rookie Bobby McCain in pass coverage (74.8 to 67.5) and run defense (69.3 to 50.0). His unusual height for the position (6'3") makes him a very intriguing tool on our roster, and I believe he showed the greatest growth of anyone on the team in 2015. His length alone makes him an ideal matchup for those taller WR's in the NFL, and look no further than our own division with Brandon Marshall (who absolutely destroyed us in 2015), Eric Decker, and Sammy Watkins (who is a mismatch for the smaller Grimes - I saw it first-hand from the 4th row in the Buffalo game). If he can continue his rate of progression, I look for Lippett to seriously challenge for the starting boundary CB in 2016 opposite Grimes. If the front office releases Brent Grimes in a cap-saving move, I think it's highly likely we see Lippett in the starting lineup in 2016.
Who is your favorite under-the-radar candidate to emerge as an important cog in the Miami Dolphins machine? Let me know your thoughts! As always, PHINS UP Y'ALL!