It seems like yesterday, the NFL summer doldrums were upon us like the smoldering south Florida humidity. But Wednesday marked the final day of training camp for the Dolphins. The Dolphins had several positions that needed some clarity this offseason and after two long weeks, light has been shed on a few of them.
As with every preseason, there are disappointments and surprises. The first preseason game added a few surprises to the mix at a couple of positions. With that in mind, here's a look of a projected 53-man depth chart as I see it based on what I've seen/read this preseason.
*Starters will be denoted by (S)
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Andrew Franks (K), Matt Darr (P), John Denney (LS)
The Dolphins brought in Marshall Koehn to compete with Franks. From reports, Franks has this locked up. The other spots were never truly in jeopardy.
Ryan Tannehill (S), Brandon Doughty
Matt Moore was kind of the hero of the 2011 season for Miami. He came in and played pretty well given the circumstances. But his time has come and gone now. The 2016 season is all about Ryan Tannehill. It's also about learning and development. Matt Moore is a quality backup. He is not the future. We don't know if Ryan Tannehill is the present and/or future, nor do we know if Doughty is the future. But we know Moore isn't. Now is the time to figure that out and keeping Moore hinders that.
Running Back (4):
Arian Foster (S), Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake
I list Foster as the starter, but it's going to be a backfield-by-committee effort from this group. Both he and Ajayi will get the bulk of the carries. Fans can only hope Ajayi can become a reliable weapon out of the backfield. Williams started camp on the PUP due to being out of shape. Once activated, he has played with a fire and appears to be the next guy up. Drake has been hampered by a bad hamstring, but he was a high draft pick, so he's safe. Isaiah Pead ran like he wanted a roster spot against the Giants, but I doubt the Dolphins will keep 5 running backs. He has to beat Williams for the spot, or hope Drake goes on IR/designated to return.
Wide Receiver (6):
DeVante Parker (S), Kenny Stills (S), Jarvis Landry (S), Leonte Carroo, Jakeem Grant, Griff Whalen
The first 4 WRs were surefire locks. The question was going to be whether the Dolphins would keep 5 or 6 WRs. After preseason game 1, the answer appears to be 6. For years, I have complained that the Dolphins needed elusiveness/shiftiness from their receivers. They had speed with Wallace and now Stills. But they lacked a guy who could make people miss in the open field. I read the same comments from various people regarding Grant: trying to tackle him is like trying to tackle smoke. He's undersized and his hands are suspect. But his open field ability more than makes up for it. Ted Ginn has bad hands too, but that didn't stop reigning MVP Cam Newton from throwing 10 TDs to him. Speed is king and Grant has that in spades. Grant is electric and the Dolphins need electric. Griff Whalen was an afterthought signing this offseason. He has worked his way onto the roster by developing a rapport with Tannehill, who looks his way now. He got reps with the 1s against the Giants. He could become a threat from the slot.
Tight End (3):
Dion Sims (S), Jordan Cameron (S), Thomas Duarte
This position is a weakness. Cameron was brought in to be a field stretching seam threat last season, but that never materialized. He's been invisible this camp, though that's not all on him. I listed him as a starter along with Sims because I think the Dolphins will use more 21 sets this season. However, in Tuesday's practice, Sims got work with the 1s while Cameron was working with the 2s. Sims is a better blocker than Cameron and I think that bumps him up the chart and gets more reps. He's more limited athletically, but he's a fairly reliable target that could develop into more. Duarte is a converted collegiate WR, but could be developed to fit an H-back role. He's a draft pick whereas the other players he's competing with weren't. None have stood out, so the draft pick gets the preference.
Offensive Line (9):
Branden Albert (S), Laremy Tunsil (S), Mike Pouncey (S), Billy Turner (S), Ja'Wuan James (S), Jermon Bushrod, Ulrick John, Anthony Steen, Dallas Thomas
The biggest storyline of this training camp has been Dallas Thomas starting at left guard. He was bad last season and most fans were ready to move on from him. When the arguably top rated player in the draft fell to Miami, it was expected he'd take the starting LG spot. But every day, Thomas would start at LG. The coaches would tell us that Tunsil had a lot to learn and stuff like that. Thomas had a rough showing against the Giants (the whole starting OL did in truth). In Tuesday's practice, Tunsil got all of the 1st team reps, and generated tweets like these from Armando Salguero:
Laremy Tunsil faces Ndamukong Suh, who shifted over. Stalemate. That's good.
Laremy Tunsil whipping Jordan Phillips now.
Laremy Tunsil erases Jason Jones again. It. Is. Time.
Sure, Tunsil won't be perfect and he'll miss blocks or get beat from time to time. But his talent is too good to keep on the bench behind a struggling 4th year player.
Turner and Bushrod have swapped reps with the 1s, but the preference for now appears to be Turner. Anthony Steen received 2nd team game reps at center, so it appears he's ahead of Douglas. Branden Albert sat out of Tuesday's practice and Ulrick John moved to 1st team left tackle. That's a good sign for him to be a reserve. Dallas Thomas, despite his shortcomings, still seems to find favor with the coaching staff. He gets 2nd team LG reps as well as some RG reps. He's a likely reserve
Defensive End (5):
Cameron Wake (S), Mario Williams (S), Andre Branch, Jason Jones, Terrence Fede
Wake and Williams will be the starters. I wasn't a big fan of the Branch signing and I don't really see the need for him with Chris McCain and Dion Jordan as better talents. But the Dolphins like him, so unless McCain or Jordan stand out, Branch is a lock. He also seems like a practice warrior too. Jones was a late offseason addition and it appears he's a lock. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said they plan to keep 5 DEs. That means it's between Chris McCain and Terrence Fede. Fede was disruptive against the Giants and plays the run better. His run defense gets him the nod over McCain.
Defensive Tackle (4):
Ndamukong Suh (S), Jordan Phillips (S), Chris Jones, Julius Warmsley
In this scenario, I have the Dolphins releasing Earl Mitchell (or the mystical IR). He's been hurt the past few practices and didn't play against the Giants. Phillips is an athletic talent they can develop at 1-tech. Meanwhile, Chris Jones has had a good camp from most reports and was a starter alongside Phillips in the game. Given the lack of depth at this position, he's practically a lock. Julius Warmsley was a player that had most fans asking "Who?" when he got significant reps against the Giants. Nevertheless, he made his presence felt by being active and disruptive. He's got some talent that could be refined.
Like the QB situation, to me, this is a case of untapped potential vs. known limited production. With Chris Jones playing well and the presence of guys like Fede and Jason Jones who can slide over in passing situations, I'd rather keep the untapped potential in Warmsley over limited production of Mitchell.
Koa Misi (S), Kiko Alonzo (S), Jelani Jenkins (S), Neville Hewitt, Mike Hull, Spencer Paysinger, James-Michael Johnson. There hasn't been much buzz from this group unfortunately. Kiko Alonzo played with great instincts against the Giants, but missed a couple of tackles. That seems like something that will improve with more actual game reps. That's a positive addition. Hull, Johnson, and Paysinger had good moments against the Giants and Hewitt seems like a favorite of the coaches. The Dolphins have expressed interest in former Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch. He could help the run defense. If he's added, he would likely bump James-Michael Johnson off the roster.
Bryon Maxwell (S), Xavien Howard (S), Bobby McCain (S), Tony Lippett, Chris Culliver, Lafayette Pitts
Maxwell was assured a starting spot the day he was acquired. He's been the best CB in camp. Tony Lippett was given a gift when Howard went on the PUP list. He was able to take all of the 1st team reps. He started slowly, losing those reps to Chimda Chekwa at one point. But he started the game in place of Maxwell last week. He's still a developmental project, but he has shown improvement, which is a positive. Howard is the superior talent however, and when he returns soon, he will get the starting spot. He is the future of the position for Miami, so he might as well learn on the fly. Culliver was a late camp addition and fits the size profile the staff likes. When healthy, he could be a quality reserve.
McCain received 1st team reps against the Giants both outside and in the slot. He had an acrobatic interception in the 2nd quarter and nearly had another pick in the 1st quarter.
Chekwa, as mentioned, received 1st team reps at times this camp. He's been injured the past few practices, but he seems to have an inside edge over the other fringe players. He's got the size the staff covets outside. Pitts is an undrafted free agent, but I had read some positive things about him in camp. Against the Giants, he had a play where he ran vertically with the receiver, turned his head to locate the ball while staying with the receiver, and made a play on the ball, creating an interception for the safety. This is another case of untapped potential over known limited production. I would go with the potential. Since Pitts is healthy at the moment, he gets the spot over Chekwa.
Reshad Jones (S), Isa Abdul-Quddus (S), Michael Thomas, Walt Aikens
Aside from Jones, it's difficult to list a starter, though IAQ seems to have the inside angle due to his contract. But in reality, it doesn't matter as Thomas will get reps at both safety AND nickel corner, where he has been getting 1st team reps all camp. The Dolphins could use him in a heavy nickel with IAQ or Aikens at free safety or simply in certain defenses where he drops down from the FS spot to cover a WR. A.J. Hendy had the aforementioned interception thanks to the play by Pitts. But it's not likely enough to supplant the other four players.
Dion Jordan, Zack Vigil
Dion Jordan is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. His athletic talent is undeniable. His off-field concerns are unavoidable. Can Jordan overcome both his troubled past AND a crowded depth chart to become something, ANYTHING for the Dolphins? My guess is the Dolphins will keep him on the PUP as a way to evaluate others for 6 weeks. Once he becomes active, he will likely take the spot away from one of the linebackers and the Dolphins will roll with 6 DEs and 6 LBs.
One advantage he has is his special teams prowess. Unlike Chris McCain, Jordan excelled on special teams. While fans don't like to think of a 3rd overall pick being a special teams ace, his draft status means nothing to this coaching staff or this front office. His ability to play special teams could endear him to this staff, allowing them time to develop him as they choose.
Vigil started camp on the PUP and will either remain there or the Dolphins will try to give him the waived/injured designation, hoping he can revert to IR.
There it is folks. This is how I think the Dolphins should enter the 2016 season. There's some talent there at every position that if it develops, could make the Dolphins competitive. The question now is... can they?