Much like the Dolphins over the past off-season we’ve undergone some personnel changes at PhinPhanatic. We now have a staff of specialized writers, as Brian Miller has already explained, someone will be covering the offense, the defense and the special teams units. As you’ve probably noticed we’ve already posted a training camp look at the offensive and defensive side of the ball, even a few predictions, well today we’re going to summarize and give you a comprehensive look at the Dolphins heading into the first day of camp.
There are a number of different elements to consider when looking at Miami this preseason. There are camp battles, young players vying for spots held by departed veterans. The team installs a new defense, several new high profile pieces join the team and there are still some big questions on the offense. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Hopes are still high, almost nobody is injured yet and everyone is just dying to get some football. Practice reports will actually matter in the coming weeks, we’ll get to know players based on a few good write-ups from position drills in pads and some will actually question the team when they get cut. Remember JR Tolver? Will Poole? Marcus Vick? The truth is we’ll only know as much as the teams want us to know, but that doesn’t stop everyone from talking about it. So let the talking begin…
Three Biggest Camp Storylines
1.) What’s the plan for the D-Line? It’s no secret that Miami considered nose tackle a need coming into this off-season. Their plans for that position have left the fan-base split. Many had hoped Miami would sign a stalwart defensive tackle in free agency or make a move for one via the trade market, in lieu of that the team could draft a nose tackle. Instead the Dolphins opted to shift Randy Starks inside and use him as more of a hybrid-style nose tackle.
Now the caveat of this move comes from the scheme Mike Nolan is currently installing. Nolan’s plans will utilize a smaller defensive tackle to play the position similar to how Justin Tuck played it for the Giants a couple years ago. Starks has now had an off-season to prepare and put on any weight the Fins deem necessary in order for him to be successful at the position. The idealist in you wants to think Starks can excel in the Tuck-DT role and help Miami’s defense fulfill its ambitions. But that’s a lot of pressure to put on one player who is conventionally undersized for his position.
The brightside is that Starks is a very hard worker who will undoubtedly come into the season prepared for the task at hand. But his durability can be a question, after a full season’s worth of battering how is he going to be holding up? Unfortunately Jason Ferguson has opted to hang up the cleats, behind Starks currently are Paul Soliai, Motavious Stanley, Tony McDaniel, Travis Ivey, Ryan Baker and according to the Dolphins’ site Jared Odrick is listed as a DT.
Of the list, several of these players won’t even make the roster. I expect Paul Soliai to be the starter unless Miami goes out and makes another move. Soliai is a massive, 6’4 355 lb 4th year behemoth out of Utah. The knock on Soliai has been a lack of consisistency, but rarely do defensive tackles (especially at the nose) mature until later in their career. It’s possible Soliai could mature into a true force in his fourth season, at the very least he will be capable of spelling Starks.
The rest of Miami’s true defensive tackles are suspect. Ryan Baker, Tony McDaniel and Jared Odrick aren’t truly defensive tackles, at best they’re hybrid DE/DT’s. Stanley is a bit of a wild-card to me, but I don’t know that he’s an obvious upgrade over Soliai at this point. Travis Ivey is a padless hero from the OTA days, but realistically it’s unlikely he receives much more than a practice squad spot.
In addition to Miami’s questions at Defensive Tackle, now Miami has arguably lost its best end as Starks moves inside. In his spot will likely be Jared Odrick (especially after Phillip Merling injured himself for the entire season) opposite third year starter Kendall Langford. But the team is a little bit thin behind Langford and Odrick. The recently signed Charles Grant and Marques Douglas, as well as holdovers Tony McDaniel, Ryan Baker and possibly Lionel Dotson will also compete to fill out the rotation.
To me, the defensive line is the biggest question right now. Seemingly Miami has the starters in Odrick, Starks and Langford but who fills out the depth chart behind them and will they be at least serviceable as part of Miami’s rotation? One thing is for sure, the backups along the line will see the field so they are extremely significant. Will Soliai finally emerge as the monster the Dolphins are praying he will become? Is there any legitimate option behind Soliai at Nose Tackle? How will Phillip Merling’s absence (and possible exit) affect the ends? Will the Dolphins regret not drafting a Nose Tackle? There are a ton of questions along the line to be answered over the next several weeks.
2.) How is Miami planning to use its backs?
The obvious question on offense is who starts opposite Brandon Marshall? I think that’s an irrelevent question because honestly, they’re all going to be on the field. The Dolphins will cycle receivers in and out enough that starter will be an arbitrary title. They’ll all be out there. They’ll all get looks. Do you really want to spend time talking about which one will trot out on to the field for the first play of the game? That’s all being the other starting receiver really means.
The better question to me is how Miami uses its backs this season. Ronnie Brown and Patrick Cobbs both are trying to return from season ending injuries and both of them enter camp with question marks over their heads. Ronnie Brown is reportedly close to 100 percent, I haven’t heard much about Cobbs. Regardless, Miami has some question marks at tailback now and going forward. The biggest, most looming question is who is the day one starter? Ronnie Brown has been the unquestioned number one back his entire career. But last year Ricky Williams carried the load like a 26 year old in his prime. So who starts?
I would put the ball in Ricky Williams’ hands. Aside from a fairly freak shoulder injury against the Steelers in 2007, Ricky Williams has had good NFL durability. He’s also still got something left in the tank. But Ronnie Brown, if he is indeed healthy and back at form, is also incredibly formidable, may have a little bit better burst at this point and is unquestionably the best Wildcat point-man in the NFL.
The hitch is that both backs are more in the mold of grinders and get better with more carries as the game progresses. Ricky Williams showed last season that when given a full game’s worth of carries he can still pop a defense for about 120 yards and a couple of scores. When Ronnie Brown was without Ricky in 2007 he was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage at the time he tore up his knee. Incidentally, since he was at Auburn, Brown has been asked to split carries with another high caliber back.
But Miami does need to decide who they plan to lead with and what roles each will play. Is Ricky the starter with the brunt of the workload and Ronnie to spell him or is it still more of a 50/50 model? Is Ronnie’s role going to be partially contingent upon how often Miami runs the wildcat? Dan Henning has said he plans on keeping the formation if just to divert opposing teams’ practice snaps from Miami’s traditional formations so chances are the Wildcat is not dead.
And who will the other backs be? If Cobbs is not able to fully return from his knee injury then will Kory Sheets end up taking his spot along with Lex Hilliard to round out the roster? Cobbs contributions to the team have come in almost every way imaginable over the last couple of seasons, from special teams to blocking to the pass game. He’s also Tony Sparano’s favorite Dolphin, I find it hard to believe he doesn’t make the team unless he’s not where he was physically. Lex Hilliard seems like less of a fixture, Miami lacks a true speed option, one which could be had by choosing to go with Kory Sheets instead.
3.) What happens with Will Allen?
Will Allen has not had a good year, he was injured and missed most of last season and then was arrested for DUI this past offseason. Still, Allen has traditionally been a high-character, highly motivated guy and I have to imagine no one is ready for camp to begin more than the wily veteran out of Syracuse. When he’s healthy Will Allen is capable of being Miami’s best corner. He was, without question, until he got hurt last season and has been, pretty much since he arrived in Miami.
Currently Miami is enamored with their young tandem of corners, and with good reason. But remember when Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison burst on the scene in Miami, Terrell Buckley was still there playing at a high level and challenging both. About a decade, if Will Allen is healthy again, the Dolphins find themselves with the same enviable problem.
Now, if Allen is unable to regain his form this discussion is moot. He is a 32 year old, a 10th year man. But he’s also capable of playing at an extremely high level. He’s not elite, he probably hasn’t ever been, but he has been one of the better corners in the NFL over the last several years. Is Allen capable of pushing Vontae Davis or Sean Smith for starting role? I wouldn’t be shocked one bit if the next season starts with one of those two as the nickel corner with Allen in the starting lineup. It’s not a likelihood but still an intriguing possibility. Just trust this, if Will Allen is starting week one, it won’t be because one of the other corners is busting, it will be because Allen is poised, focused and playing out of his mind.
Five Dolphins to Keep an Eye On
1.) Nolan Carroll- When Nolan Carroll’s senior season ended with an injury early on, his draft stock plummeted from straddling the first and second rounds all the way to the fifth. However, pending his return to form, his talent, intelligence and ability are still high caliber. Every year we talk about when Miami will finally sever ties with Saban’s first round miss, Jason Allen. In Allen’s defense he has turned into what he probably should have been pegged as all along. A serviceable nickel or dime corner and solid special teams contributor. But this could be the year he finds other employment and Carroll may be the guy to take his roster spot.
Carroll is a corner with decent size, good speed, and great intelligence. He comes from good stock, the son of a military man and a Florida state congresswoman, he graduated from a school with a good academic reputation. He fits the Bill Parcells mold, he’s contractually cheaper than Allen and he’s much better than where he was picked in the draft. Whose to say he couldn’t even challenge Davis or Smith down the road? That’s getting a bit ahead, for now he’s battling Jason Allen for the 4th corner spot and I wouldn’t bet against him.
2.) Greg Camarillo- Despite coming off an injury at the start of last season, Camarillo had a solid year and was amongst the best receivers in the NFL on third down receptions for first downs. In fact both Camarillo and Davone Bess were in the top three amongst third down receptions for first downs and conversion percentage of third down receptions. Translation, Miami had two of the best possession guys in the NFL and Brian Hartline is developing well. Chances are Davone Bess is the slot guy, he’s a natural in the slot and last year he had a stellar season (even despite being doubled by the end of the year). Still the chic pick for the 2nd receiver has been Brian Hartline lately.
As good as Hartline is, I doubt Camarillo lets that happen easily. Greg Camarillo actually shares remarkable similarities to Wes Welker. Both started with San Diego as undrafted receivers before being cut and finding success as receivers wearing ’83′ in Miami. Both have been successful despite remarkable speed. Both have tremendous work ethic. I think Greg Camarillo has been successful thus far because he’s hungry like only an undrafted guy who has to claw his way on to an NFL roster can be. He came to Miami after being cut, after not being drafted, worked his way from the practice squad to special teams to the receiver rotation. Do you really think he’s going take the chance to enter the season as the starter, opposite Brandon Marshall, lightly? Even if that title is kind of arbitrary and only refers to who gets their name printed in the programs…
3.) Kory Sheets- Kory Sheets is a speedy back out of Purdue who holds their current TD record and is second only to Mike Alstott in rushing yards. In fact he quietly had a stellar career running the ball in the Big 10. He was was acquired from San Francisco’s practice squad after Patrick Cobbs went down for the season. This year, he’s had a chance to acclimate himself to South Florida, and more importantly to the Dolphins offense. He promises to factor into the conversation on most of the special teams units, specifically as a return-man. If Sheets can prove his value as a special teamer and return-man, he could potentially push Lex Hilliard and Patrick Cobbs for a bigger role. Sheets would offer an element currently missing from Miami’s rushing attack, a home run speed threat. Not that the current slew of backs can’t break the big one, it’s just not their forte. Apparently Sheets has blazing speed. Nobody saw much of him last season, but he’s certainly one to watch in camp.
4.) Channing Crowder- I think Crowder could be poised for a bust-out year, which sounds bizarre but follow me. Since the departure of Zach Thomas, Channing Crowder has been thrust into the position of leader of the Dolphins defense, as well as having to follow a legend. Think about how much was made out of the string of quarterbacks to follow Dan Marino, but Channing Crowder has had to follow Dolphins legend Zach Thomas without anyone really considering the significance. Well this year the pressure’s off. The attention is on the newly acquired Karlos Dansby. The leadership role has fallen to Dansby and Yeremiah Bell. Life has been simplified for Crowder, he just has to go out and play football. Mike Nolan will undoubtedly find ways to put Crowder in the best position to be successful and all Crowder has to do is react, play the game he loves and not worry about anything else. Crowder is a pretty eccentric guy, maybe being able to avoid all the focus and responsibility will allow him to just get back to being nasty and he’ll have a great year. Camp will give us a pretty good indication out of the kind of Crowder we’ll be seeing this year.
5.) Ryan Baker- Baker played in only 5 games last season but still tallied a sack and had several QB pressures. The guy is 6’5, 300 and creates a solid pass-rush inside or out. He was disruptive enough that by the end of the season “who the hell is Baker?” had become a running joke amongst my Dolphins fan friends and I as we watched each Sunday. That’s not meant in a bad way either. Baker could potentially find a spot in the tail end of the D-line rotation. He can potentially play inside on passing downs, as well. With that type of versatility and the potential to generate a good pass rush, Baker could be a solid option along the line as the Dolphins enter the season.
Watch for the first…
Injury- It’s probably going to be impossible
to make it out of camp without any injuries. It happens every season. You just have to hope it’s nobody major, and nothing too serious. But still, keep an eye on the NFL injury list at the beginning of the season as players come in to camp, sometimes with questionable conditioning, and start to grind again.
Fight- It happens every year, a bunch of testosterone driven men spending all their time together for several weeks will ultimately lead to conflict at some point. A lot of football coaches actually welcome a little bit of brawling, it builds character. Who starts the first fight this year? My money is on Channing Crowder or Richie Incognito.
Chicken Little- It happens every year, a position group has a bad week of camp or an injury befalls the teams and suddenly the sky is falling. Whose going to be the first to freak and declare the Fins dead in the water?
Final Thoughts and Predictions
There plenty that hasn’t been covered, how will Brandon Marshall integrate? Is everyone actually healthy right now? What’s the deal at linebacker? How does the kick-returner situation look? There are plenty of questions facing the Dolphins and every NFL team right now. Fortunately the sun is shining on the city of Miami right now. The Dolphins are a talented young football team on the rise. At almost every position there is a a battle between promising young players. The expectations are sky high. It all starts tomorrow. And if Miami can make it out of the camp relatively healthy, there’s no reason they won’t be playoff-bound come this winter.