Countdown To Training Camp: Getting Defensive

The Miami Dolphins are less than a month away from their 2009 season kick-off.  An August 1st date that will surely be hot, muggy, humid, and miserable…with a 90% chance of rain.  Over the last several weeks we broke down the offensive side of the ball and today we start the defensive side.  No better place than the secondary where the corner-backs and safeties roam with youth, questions, and perhaps an un-signed free agent on the way?

The Dolphins secondary has been average for the last few years.  Nothing special but nothing horrible.  That seems all about to change as the Phins added new blood and some draft picks to change the way they play ball.  Hard hitting safeties and smart corners have added depth and promise to a unit that will face the toughest group of WR’s in the NFL not once….but twice!

Before jumping into the player by player breakdown, news out of ESPN, according to a post on Finheaven.com is that the Dolphins may be looking at veteran corner-back Mike McKenzie.  McKenzie, a 10 year veteran, was with the New Orleans Saints before being cut back in March.  He is recovering from a fractured patella (knee cap) but will likely be available for training camp.  McKenzie was a staple in the N.O. secondary and one of the few bright spots the team had on the unit.  If the Phins did in fact contact the CB as indicated by ESPN, what does that say about their feelings for newly signed Erik Green?  Let’s find out.

CORNER-BACKS:

Will Allen: Allen has been the only steady outside defender over the past few years.  The Dolphins put an end to speculation that he would be playing elsewhere in 2010 by signing him to a contract extension shortly after the draft.  Allen will team with the winner of the number 2 CB spot to try and form a formidable tandem on the outsides.  He will also serve well as a tutor/mentor for the younger guys.

Prediction: Allen has zero chance of not being on the roster come September.

Eric Green: The free agent signee came from Arizona where he lost his starting job to a rookie.  By seasons end he was the 3rd CB on the team and didn’t see playing time in the Super Bowl.  Green will be once again competing with a rookie, this time Vontae’ Davis.  Green has drawn more media criticism from OTA’s than accolades and it’s possible that the Dolphins are wondering if he will be able to hold down the position throughout training camp.

Prediction: More and more it looks as though Green could be riding the bench and working as a support player rather than a starter.  I base this simply on the OTA comments of media guys present on those days as well as the fact that rumors circulate that the Dolphins are looking for another CB.  While I don’t think Green will be cut, he will have to compete for a roster spot and a poor training camp showing may not give him an edge.  For now, Green can rely on his veteran status and experience but that is only going to get him so far.  Green is someone to keep an eye on this August as his play, or lack of, could make for an interesting development before the start of the season.

Will Billingsley: Signed as a free agent last season, Billingsley enters his 2nd year in the NFL.  The Phins seem to like his upside but not enough to really believe that the answers to their future CB position resided on his shoulders.  Billingsley has decent speed but at 5’10 and 195 is going to have a problem matching up with the Terrell Owens and Randy Moss’s of the AFC East.  Still, he has value to the team as a young rising player who could make a career out of being a reliable back-up.

Prediction: Billingsley naturally will be on the bubble for a roster position because he doesn’t possess the immediate benefits or pedigree of the Davis’, Smith’s, and Clemons’.  Interestingly enough, it’s my opinion that if Eric Green falters in TC, Billingsley could be the benefactor.

Joey Thomas: Thomas is the same weight as Billingsley but stands 6’1.  He also has the additional benefit of 3 more years experience which gives him an edge over the younger less experienced CB’s.  The Dolphins appear to like Thomas’ potential but that will inevitably start to wane if he doesn’t continue to progress.  This is his 3rd NFL stop in his 4 year career.  Thomas played in 6 games last year for the Dolphins and tallied 4 solo tackles.  Not enough to raise eyebrows but his open-field tackles were impressive nonetheless.

Prediction: Thomas is far from a lock to make the team but he is still learning and the Dolphins can use decent depth.  Thomas never really has been given the opportunity to showcase himself regularly having only 14 games under his belt.  I think Thomas will make the team but he is going to have to earn it.

Jason Allen: The 16th overall pick 4 years ago is all but officially labled a bust.  He has been tried at safety, tried at corner, and then back to each again.  This is pretty much it for the Tennessee CB/S.  To Allens’ credit he has endured what few other player’s have had to outside of the Raiders’ organization.  3 new HC’s, 3 new DC’s, 3 new systems, and a change at position in every one of those seasons.  This is the first time that Allen will enter a training camp under the same system with the same coaches.

Will that be enough?  While you want to think it is, the flashes of potential in games has hardly been enough to say he can take the next step.  Allen has to move up on the depth chart this year or that’s it.  There is younger prospects on the roster that cost less and have more potential than Allen has shown thus far.

Prediction: Barring a complete surprise, Allen will likely be cut by September but will likely have the entire TC to prove himself.  If he falters early, he could be gone early.  Allen has a ton of talent but it appears that too many wasted years under bad coaching (Saban and Cameron) may have finally taken it’s toll.

Nathan Jones: Jones spent two seasons in Dallas before joining the Dolphins during last seasons Dallas to Miami migration.  He played in all 16 games and recorded 1 INT, 1 PD, and 20 tackles.  A reliable veteran that can be used in nickle packages, Jones isn’t going to win any starting CB jobs but his play and his availability on special teams makes him a valuable player to have.

Prediction: Jones in my opinion is not in danger of losing his job this year but he still needs to improve to show he has worth in the future.  Still young, Jones is entering his 4th NFL season…all with Bill Parcells and company behind the wheel.

Continue reading for the rookie’s and the safeties.

The Rookies:

Vontae’ Davis:  The first pick for the Dolphins this season will shoulder more than just potential as fans want to see a starter out of the gates.  That is not likely to happen.  Davis has to make the transition from college to the NFL and that isn’t easy sometimes for CB’s.  He has the mental make-up and definitely has the desire to succeed.  In fact, his attitude alone could make him better than what he really is at this stage of his career.  He isn’t likely to accept losing or failure and his ego puts him in the “I will prove I’m the best in class” category.  That is good.

Prediction: Davis is the long term answer to the teams CB spot and the Dolphins are relying on him to quickly adjust to the NFL speed.  While I doubt he will be the starter out of the gate…especially if the Phins sign a corner-back off the street such as McKenzie, but I do think that by years end, fans and opposing WR’s are going to know his name.

Sean Smith: Perhaps more than any other player selected this past draft, Smith was my favorite.  At 6’3 214, Smith has the speed to close on balls quickly and will likely make an impact on the team in nickle and dime packages.  He has good hands and even better vision of the field but can he use that to adjust to the NFL?  So far, witnesses have praised the youngster far more than they have criticized.  In fact, most of his mistakes thus far have been simple rookie mental mistakes.  When the pads come on, this kid is going to be fun to watch.

Prediction: I thin Smith will play a dual roll in the secondary being lined up at times as a safety in coverages that will allow him to roam a bit or play up on the line to use his size and speed.  It’s not out of the question that we hear his name more than the other rookies by the mid-way point of the season.

Corner Wrap:

The Phins are not going to keep everyone but they only have 8 on the roster as of today.  Of those 8, the biggest question marks sit on the shoulders of Jason Allen and Eric Green.  If both of those guys fail to make the roster, then Billingsley and Thomas will have shown enough in camp.  The Dolphins could keep 7 or maybe even 8 going into the season but I think that there very well could be another player in this mix by the end of training camp that is not on the roster right now.  The fact that the Dolphins are looking at McKenzie, even if just doing due-diligence, it’s a flag that should be noted.

Safety in numbers, a look at the safety position:

The Dolphins have 6 safeties listed on their roster and one has to imagine that one of the corners may slide over to that spot as well…say maybe Sean Smith?  In any case, only one name on the current roster stands to be looking for a job come September.  The Dolphins have found youth and experience a very nice mix on this unit.

Yeremiah Bell: Bell is the 2nd longest tenured Miami draft pick on the roster after returning DE Jason Taylor.  Drafted in 2003 by Dave Wannstedt as a compensatory 6th rounder, Bell has managed to overcome coaching change after coaching change and injury after injury.  Perhaps the injuries were the best things that could have happened to him.

Last year Bell made it through an entire season as the starting safety.  Bell was set to become a free agent but on the eve of free agency found himself inked to a 4 year 20 million dollar deal.  He will stay at strong safety where he has developed into one of the leagues toughest hitters.  A combination of speed and athleticism, Bell can close fast and hit hard.  He will be one of the focal mainstays on the defense and one of it’s leaders as well as he calls the schemes from the cheap seats.

Gibril Wilson:  The Dolphins last year, and for a few years prior, suffered by not having a hard hitting tandem in center field to help on the outside, pass rush, and support the run.  Shortly before the start of free agency, the Dolphins signed Wilson to contract after he was released by the Oakland Raiders.  Wilson isn’t a bad safety and led all strong safeties last season in tackles…through the entire league.  Wilson will switch to free safety this year where he will be able to use his mental game as he roams the field looking for someone to hit.

Wilson is the veteran leader that will compliment Bell in the defensive secondary and his natural abilities will help the corner-backs on the outside while adding much needed run support behind the linebackers.  Looking at training camp, Wilson will be fun to watch not so much for his prowess but for his complimenting style to that of Yeremiah Bell.

Tyrone Culver: Culver impressed someone in the Dolphins organization last season.  After a year that saw him contribute in 15 games, Culver raked up 35 tackles, 3 PD’s, and one Int.  Culver will enter his 4th season in the NFL but he has only played in 2, last year with the Dolphins and in 2006 with Green Bay.  Culver was signed to a contract extension a couple of weeks ago that shows the Dolphins determination to making him part of the long term solution.

Culver will see a significant increase in his playing time this season and training camp should do him well.  Last year he was finally healthy, and this year he goes into it with a solid knowledge of the schemes.  Culver will be more than just a simple depth player.

Courtney Bryan: The clock is ticking on Bryan and this could be the last year that he finds himself on the Dolphins roster.  Bryan played in 7 games last season and will have to battle this training camp with Ethan Kilmer, another bubble player.  If the Dolphins choose to keep 5 safeties on the roster to open the season than Bryan will have to beat out Kilmer for the spot, the Phins however could go with 4 and both Bryan and Kilmer could be looking for jobs.

Predictions:  Bryan is going to have to play well in training camp or he will be released.  The Phins don’t disslike his potential but after 2 years it’s time to show more than depth talent.  I say he makes the roster for now.

Ethan Kilmer: Signed as a free agent this past off-season, Kilmer will compete with Bryan for what could be the final safety roster spot and may find that spot closed as well if the Phins opt for 4 rostered safeties.  Kilmer spent 3 season with the Cincinnati Bengals but missed all of the 2008 season.

Kilmer played in the 2006 season with the Bengals and appeared in all 16 contests before missing all of 2007 and 2008.  He was credited with 19 tackles in his rookie season.

Predictions: The team is far too talented at safety to think that Kilmer will make an impact in training camp.  While he likely won’t be one of the first players cut, it will be surprising to see him last until the final cut.

The Rookie:

Chris Clemons: Clemons is a 5th round pick out of Clemson who has turned as many heads alone as Sean Smith and Vontae’ Davis have together.  Clemons has received many compliments on his ability on the field and his class work off the field.  In fact, Clemons demonstrated the ability to quickly learn the play calls and then demonstrated an no uneasiness in calling the schemes on the field while directing others around him.

Clemons is far from a future star but his mental acuity to learn the playbook and the signals before trying to learn everything else will bode him well.  It’s a trait that he shares with many of this years rookie class.  Clemons wants to succeed and he wants to be better than the 5th round pick that was used on him.

Prediction: While Clemons will likely struggle at times in training camp when the pads go on, he could be very hard hitting safety by years end.  His development will go a long way to securing the position for years to come.

Topics: Chris Clemons, Gibril Wilson, Jason Allen, Miami Dolphins, Mike McKenzie, Sean Smith, Training Camp, Vontae Davis, Will Allen, Yeremiah Bell

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  • Jay in Raleigh

    Brian, don’t discount Jason Allen’s contributions on special teams. He may be a bust as a 1st round pick, but I think you’d have a hard time arguing that either Billingsly, Thomas, or Nathan Jones for that matter, are significant upgrades over Allen. Taking into account that JA is possibly the team’s top flier on the coverage unit, he may have an inside track for a roster spot. JA actually was playing respectable football before getting injured. Yes, he was abused by Moss, but he otherwise played pretty well.
    Also, I’d say there’ll probably be 6 CBs and 4 Ss on the final roster. Corners:
    WAllen – lock
    VDavis – lock
    SSmith – lock
    EGreen – He certainly doesn’t make enough to make cutting him a problem; he probably sticks, but I believe he has to play well
    NJones – Obviously a ‘Parcells guy’, he’s a steady player with limited upside; I think he could be passed if the guys behind him on the depth chart show they’re more than ‘a guy’
    JAllen – If he can pick up where he left off pre-injury and develop further, I can’t see him getting cut, especially given his ST contributions; just because he was a 1st round bust doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful player
    JThomas – Likely faces uphill battle to make roster; competing with Billingsly to be first CB brought in as injury replacement
    WBillingsly – see JThomas

    Safeties:
    YBell – lock
    GWilson – lock
    TCulver – lock
    CClemons – big hitter from the deep safety position, apparently looked better than expected in coverage during OTAs; really complements Culver as backup S tandem, needs to contribute on STs
    CBryan – Similarly to last 2 CBs, competing with Kilmer to be first injury replacement; not likely to make roster otherwise
    EKilmer – See CBryan
    TCulver – lock