The Miami Dolphins did a lot of work this offseason to address their defense, adding players all across the depth chart to better a unit that finished 29th in total defense last year. They drafted five players, of their seven selections, on the defensive side of the ball, along with the addition of players like defensive end William Hayes (trade from the Los Angeles Rams), linebacker Lawrence Timmons (free agent signing), and safety Nate Allen (free agent signing). Miami also added former Los Angeles Rams safety T.J. McDonald, despite an eight-game suspension the 26-year-old, four-year veteran will be serving to start the 2017 regular season.
McDonald’s suspension falls under the league’s substance abuse policy after he pleaded no contest to a “wet reckless” charge, a lesser form of a Driving Under the Influence charge, in California in January. Allen had been arrested in May 2016 for suspicion of driving under the influence of prescription drugs. The Dolphins and McDonald were aware of the suspension when they agreed to the contract. News of the suspension first broke while Allen was visiting the Dolphins on his only free agent visit of the year.
McDonald signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract with the Dolphins, which should fall to around $700,000 once the suspension is factored into the salary.
The league will allow McDonald to participate in all of the Dolphins’ offseason training program, to include Organized Team Activities (which begin this week) and the team’s mandatory minicamp. McDonald can also remain with the team through training camp and the preseason, before no contact between the club and player are allowed for the first eight weeks of the regular season.
According to Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who spoke to the Palm Beach Post’s Jason Lieser Friday at the team’s Fins Weekend charity fundraising event, the plan is to let McDonald practice as if he were going to play the full season. “We’re just going to practice him,” Gase explained. “We’re going to give him the reps that he needs. We’ve got to go through our process with him. I’ve played against him, but I haven’t seen him practice and go through a daily routine and all those type of things, so we need to get used to him as he needs to get used to us.”
The Dolphins will see the return of Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones, who missed the second-half of 2016 with a shoulder injury, this year, and will likely pair Jones with Allen to start the season. McDonald will be looking to use the preseason to prove he can take over that starting position when he returns.
“He is a lot bigger than I thought he was when I saw him,” McDonald told reporters at the Fins Weekend event, speaking of Jones. “I didn’t know how big he was. But us two together back there that’s pretty big, that’s a lot of hits.” McDonald, 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, played strong safety with the Rams, who selected him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Jones, 6-foot-1, 214 pounds, is entrenched as the Dolphins’ strong safety, though the coaches last year repeatedly stated that they would prefer to play a left- and right-safety alignment, rather than a true strong- and free-safety designation. If that remains true under new defensive coordinator Matt Burke, and McDonald (and Allen, who has also been primarily a strong safety, prior to the end of the suspension) can prove he is capable of playing a centerfield role as well as being a run-support safety, the Dolphins could have a perfect pairing for the back of their defense.
Which brings back the Dolphins’ plan to practice McDonald like he is going to be playing in Week 1. The team has to know how he fits with Jones and the rest of the defense. They have to scheme for him, even if he will not be available until the mid-way point of the season, or else there will be no way to get him back on the field once he is reinstated. The coaches are approaching this the right way.