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Miami Dolphins Depth Chart Projections: Safety

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Which safeties will be on the Miami Dolphins roster when week 1 of the 2017 NFL season comes around, and where will they place on the depth chart?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is a magical time in the NFL. All players are “in the best shape of their lives” and every single coach is going to “create a winning culture.” All teams are “poised to make a playoff run,” and perennial losing teams are “finally ready to turn things around.”

That being said, the offseason is also a time when coaches need to make the tough decisions about who is going to make their team’s roster. No matter how much talent a team brings in through free agency and the draft, cuts are inevitable. An offseason roster of 90 players will eventually have to be trimmed down to the best 53, and outside of the team’s top players, there are never guarantees as to who will make the team.

This offseason, I am running a series of depth chart projections, breaking down Miami’s roster by position, and predicting who will make it to week 1 of the 2017 season. Today, we review the safety position.

Roster

Reshad Jones

Nate Allen

Michael Thomas

T.J. McDonald

Walt Aikens

A.J. Hendy

Maurice Smith (R)

Roster Locks

Reshad Jones

Reshad Jones is more than deserving of every penny of his five-year $60 million contract extension. Jones is one of the best safeties in the league, especially when it comes to locking down the run. In 2015, Jones accumulated 135 tackles, placing fourth in the league. He was on track to match that total in 2016 before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season. Perhaps the best indicator of Jones’ talent and value to the Dolphins is what happened to the defense during his absence. There was a noticeable lack of grit defending the run, resulting in the team finishing 30th in run defense, and the safety position ended up becoming a revolving door of defensive backs. Fortunately, Jones is healthy and ready to resume his role as a star and leader for the Dolphins, something his teammates, the coaching staff, and fans are excited to see.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: 100%

Nate Allen

The Dolphins signed Nate Allen to a one-year, fully guaranteed, $3.4 contract earlier this offseason, filling the hole vacated by Isa Abdul-Quddus following his unfortunate injury and unceremonial release from the team. Allen will have big shoes to fill, as Abdul-Quddus (aside from being a locker room favorite) played surprisingly well across from Jones, and later in place of him as the team’s top safety last season.

Allen had a strong start to his career as a second round pick for the Philadelphia Eagles, morphing into one of the team’s top defensive backs, and starting 69 of 80 possible games. In his final three seasons as an Eagle, he accumulated 217 tackles, 14 passes defended, 6 interceptions, and two forced fumbles.

Allen then signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2015, but suffered an MCL injury during his first season there, after which he settled in as a role player. In 2016, he played in 14 games, starting 4, and collecting 33 tackles, 3 passes defended, and 1 interception. He projects to start across from Reshad Jones until T.J. McDonald, who the Dolphins signed to a one-year contract, returns from an eight game suspension.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: 100%

Probable Backups

Michael Thomas

Thomas signed a restricted free agent tender with the Dolphins this offseason, keeping him in Miami for at least one more year. His $1.7 million contract will be a huge bargain should Thomas continue to develop not only as a defensive back, but as a leader for Miami’s special teams. Thomas had 19 special teams tackles last season, tying linebacker Mike Hull for first on the Dolphins, and second in the NFL.

Thomas also has the ability to contribute to the defensive backfield at multiple positions. He was serviceable at safety last season when injuries necessitated his increased playing time, but has also played snaps at slot cornerback during OTAs and minicamps. This season, Adam Gase may very well use Thomas as a sort of swiss army knife on defense, playing him at safety most often, but using him occasionally at cornerback as well. Thomas’ snaps at cornerback would, however, be partially dependent on the development of younger players such as Bobby McCain and Cordrea Tankersley.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: 90%

Walt Aikens

Aikens has made his name as a special teams star for the Dolphins, coming up with multiple big plays last season. Just two of those plays include a two point conversion off of a blocked extra point against the Cardinals, as well as a blocked kick against the Jets that Aikens himself recovered and returned for a touchdown. However, over three seasons in Miami, he has had very limited success on defense.

Aikens played just 15 snaps at safety last season despite the injuries that Miami sustained there. In fact, the Dolphins favored signing Bacarri Rambo in the middle of the season as opposed to asking Aikens to step up as a defensive back.

This offseason, it appears the Dolphins are trying to get a feel for where Aikens could best be used as a defender. They’ve reportedly tried him at both safety and cornerback, testing his talent and comfort level throughout the secondary. Where the Dolphins play Aikens during training camp and preseason football will be a story to watch, and may have an impact on his chances of making the team.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: 65%

Must Impress

A.J. Hendy

Hendy signed with the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent before the 2016 season. During offseason activities and preseason games, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff, helping him ultimately earn a spot on Miami’s practice squad.

Hendy spent most of the 2016 season off of the active roster, but was eventually promoted for the final game of the regular season against the New England Patriots, where he played exclusively on special teams. What concerns me about Hendy is the fact that, like Aikens, the Dolphins bypassed moving him up for safety help with the signing of Bacarri Rambo last season. It’s clear that, despite his talent, he may not be ready for the responsibility of being an important role player in the secondary.

Hendy’s experience on the roster will help him compete against a newcomer like Maurice Smith, but he may have to leap ahead of Aikens on Thomas to secure a roster spot.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: 40%

Maurice Smith (R)

Smith is the biggest wildcard on the Dolphins’ safety depth chart. Despite the apparent need for extra depth at the position, the Dolphins chose not to draft a safety in favor of covering other needs such as linebacker, defensive tackle, defensive end, and cornerback. Smith is also the only safety of Miami’s 14 undrafted free agents on the roster.

Unfortunately for Smith, the Dolphins may have a hard time keeping more than four safeties on the roster due to depth necessitated at other positions, as well as the fact that T.J. McDonald will be returning to football once week 9 rolls around. He may need to push past more experienced players like Aikens and Hendy to have a shot.

What does give Smith a helping hand is his position versatility. He lined up at both cornerback and safety during his college career, meaning he can be a factor at multiple positions if asked to do so. That being said, showing the coaches an affinity for special teams would help Smith’s chances the most. Both Aikens and Thomas have established themselves as special teams aces over the past few years, helping them hold onto spots on the roster. If Smith wants to be successful in a position battle over more established players, or even convince the coaches to sacrifice an extra roster spot for the safety position, being a willing and capable special teams contributor would go a long way towards increasing his odds.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: 35%

Suspended

T.J. McDonald

McDonald is currently in line to serve an eight game suspension to start the season, meaning until his return in week 9, he does not take up a spot on the 53 man roster. However, once McDonald does return from suspension, the Dolphins will have to release a player or move someone to the injured reserve list to make room for the young safety.

McDonald has played in 53 of 64 possible career games for the St. Louis and Los Angeles Rams, all of which he’s started in. In his first full season for the Rams in 2014, McDonald recorded 105 tackles, 6 passes defended, and 1 interception. Over the next two seasons, he would become a steadying force for a Rams defense that has been pressured to carry its team through consecutive seasons of offensive struggles.

The talented defensive back has reportedly looked very strong in offseason practices thus far, earning praise from his teammates in the secondary. Once he returns from suspension, McDonald should be fully expected to earn valuable playing time alongside franchise cornerstone Reshad Jones, possibly replacing Nate Allen as the fulltime starter. McDonald’s diminutive $1.3 million contract is a bargain for his talent level despite his suspension, and should push him to perform at a high level in the pursuit of a long-term lucrative deal next offseason.

Chance of making the 53 man roster: NA

Projected 2017 Safety Depth Chart

  1. Reshad Jones
  2. Nate Allen
  3. Michael Thomas
  4. Walt Aikens
  5. (Suspended) T.J. McDonald

Current Depth Chart Projections

As we move through this series, I will keep a running list of past projections. By the time roster cuts roll around, we will have a full depth chart projection for the 2017 season.

Quarterback

Running Back

  1. Jay Ajayi
  2. Kenyan Drake
  3. Damien Williams
  4. De’Veon Smith

Wide Receiver

  1. Jarvis Landry
  2. DeVante Pakrer
  3. Kenny Stills
  4. Leonte Carroo
  5. Jakeem Grant
  6. Isaiah Ford (R)

Tight End

Offensive Line

Defensive Line

Linebacker

WLB

  1. Kiko Alonso
  2. Neville Hewitt

MLB

  1. Lawrence Timmons
  2. Mike Hull

SLB

  1. Raekwon McMillan (R)
  2. Koa Misi
  3. Deon Lacey

Cornerback

Safety

  1. Reshad Jones
  2. Nate Allen
  3. Michael Thomas
  4. Walt Aikens
  5. (Suspended)* T.J. McDonald

Special Teams

Current Roster Spots Occupied: 21

*Suspended players do not occupy a spot on the 53 man roster until their return to the team following the end of their suspension.