We are just about one week into training camp and things are starting to heat up, and I’m not just talking about the stifling South Florida air. Position battles are beginning to take shape and we’ve already seen some surprising lineups out on the practice field. Below I list (in no particular order) the five competitions I’m most excited to follow over the next few weeks.
As I’m sure y’all will have some opinions to voice, be sure to let me hear them on Twitter @HierJustin and in the comments below.
Arguably Miami’s deepest group, the wide receiver position should provide plenty of intrigue going into the preseason as we inch closer to Week 1. Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant are all virtually guaranteed spots, and as the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson so astutely pointed out on Sunday, the Dolphins will have a difficult time deciding whether to keep five or six receivers, as there are several players deserving of a spot on the 53-man roster outside of the team’s top four.
Brice Butler would provide the team with some veteran depth, and he showed last season that he can make game-changing plays when called upon. Rookie Preston Williams, who went undrafted due to some off-the-field issues in college, has flashed during OTA’s and training camp. Then there’s Isaiah Ford, who the Dolphins selected in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Ford has managed to stick around for the past couple of years due to his athleticism and potential, but he’d have to make a strong impression on the coaching staff to finally make the jump to the team’s Week 1 active roster.
The Dolphins notably signed Allen Hurns to a one-year, $3 million contract last week, showing that they believe he has a real shot at surviving the team’s roster cuts. Hurns accumulated 1,031 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns with the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2015, and the Dolphins are hoping offensive coordinator and former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea can help the 27-year old Hurns return to his 2015 form.
Going into training camp, many expected Kenyan Drake to be entrenched as the team’s starter, but it appears he has some serious competition for the top spot on the depth chart. Second year tailback Kalen Ballage, who had a few impressive performances last season, has been taking quite a few snaps with the first-team offense and has a stranglehold on goal-line carries. In all likelihood, the Dolphins will split offensive snaps between Drake and Ballage, and though fans have been crying out for the team to use Drake in a full-time role for some time, it’s hard to neglect the effectiveness of using a running back rotation in today’s NFL.
The most recent and obvious example of a team using a running back rotation with great success is the New Orleans Saints, who have deployed Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara at different points during each game depending on the down and distance. With Ballage representing a between-the-tackles grinder like Ingram and Drake representing an agile, yet powerful receiving back like Kamara, the Dolphins will likely rely on a one-two punch between the two when the regular season takes off. Rookie fullback Chandler Cox is sure to spice things up here and there as well.
For many years, linebacker was a much-maligned position for the Dolphins, but beginning with last year’s promising showings from Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan through the closing stretch of last season, fans are hoping the tides can turn moving forward. To the surprise of many reporters and fans, the Dolphins have been using former CFL star Sam Eguavoen ahead of both McMillan and veteran Kiko Alonso with the first-team defense.
However, there is a caveat to that development. Through the first few days of training camp, the Dolphins have deployed nickel or dime defenses quite often, meaning five or six defensive backs have taken the field at one time along with only one or two linebackers, and given McMillan’s deficiencies in pass coverage, it’s no surprise the team has looked elsewhere for help. It appears the coaching staff has liked what it has seen from the 26-year old Eguavoen so far.
With head coach Brian Flores already having declared that he will change up defensive formations quite often this season, McMillan, who was one of the most effective defenders in the league against the run over the final few games of last season, is sure to see the field on early downs. Alonso, whose experience and veteran leadership can’t be discounted, will certainly be involved as well. Miami also has valuable depth in special teams stars Mike Hull and Chase Allen, as well as Terrill Hanks, Tyrone Holmes, Nate Orchard, Quentin Poling, Tre’ Watson, and 2019 fifth-round draft pick Andrew Van Ginkel at the position.
It’s official, Xavien Howard is a superstar. While coaches and fans are surely hoping he can continue to progress, Howard showed last year that he has what it takes to be a top five player at his position, and the Dolphins paid him like it. His ranking at 55th on the NFL’s Top 100 Players of 2019 list shows that Howard’s fellow footballers believe he deserves to be mentioned with the cream of the crop of today’s stars as well.
But what about the rest of the defensive backfield? While Miami’s safety position is stacked with talent, especially with former stud slot corner Bobby McCain making a position switch to safety this offseason, depth at cornerback behind Howard is looking middling at best. Yes, it looks like promising sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick will be playing plenty of slot corner, especially with McCain’s move, and given Fitzpatrick’s performance at that spot last season, fans should be excited, but what about outside corner #2?
As of now, it looks as though Montre Hartage, who’s listed as a safety (yes, Flores seems to love confusing us about where players will be playing this season), has a shot at the second starting corner job given his performance thus far in camp. Former New England Patriot Eric Rowe has also taken snaps with the first-team defense. Cornell Armstrong, Jalen Davis, Torry McTyer, Nik Needham, Jomal Wiltz, and new signees Tyler Patmon and David Rivers will battle it out with Hartage and Rowe until roster cuts at the end of August.
Laremy Tunsil is the only player who has a job locked down on Miami’s starting offensive line, and don’t just take my word for it. In a recent article by Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, the reporter noted a quote from offensive line coach Pat Flaherty in which the coach stated “The one guy that’s probably getting the most reps is maybe [Laremy] Tunsil. Everybody else, we’re going to find it’s an open competition.”
That means it’s open season for everyone else. At left guard, Chris Reed is currently working with the first team, while Daniel Kilgore, Jesse Davis, and Jordan Mills are attempting to lock down the center, right guard, and right tackle spots respectively. Kilgore and Mills are seasoned vets who have had mild success at their respective positions, while Davis is a fourth year player with experience at both guard and tackle who played all of last season at right guard with some middling results.
With 2019 third-round draft pick Michael Deiter and a host of others hoping to crack the starting five, today’s first-team offensive line may look very different than the one the Dolphins deploy for Week 1. As of now, it looks like Kilgore has the best shot of retaining his spot after Tunsil.
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Which (non-quarterback) position battle is the most exciting going into the regular season?
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