If Chris Clemons has his way he’ll be teaming up with Sean Smith and Vontae Davis in the starting secondary this season, and in five years we’ll look back at his draft as the year the Dolphins shored up their secondary. Chris Clemons is a quiet guy, he does not get a lot of headlines. In fact, a number of pre-season publications and NFL commentators seem to be oblivious to the fact he even exists.
Everyone in the football world is aware that the Dolphins have a need at free safety. After the Gibril Wilson experiment failed last season, many thought that the Dolphins would address the position in free agency. When that didn’t happen people assumed the Dolphins would pick up a safety early on in the draft. The Dolphins did take a safety, but not until later on when they selected Reshad Jones out of Georgia in the 5th round. And it certainly didn’t seem like a top priority.
If you asked Michael Lombardi of NFL Network or the guys at PFT, they’d tell you that the Dolphins Free Safety position is a battle between Tyrone Culver and Jones. Little does anyone in the mainstream media know that Chris Clemons currently holds the inside track on starting for Miami at FS. It’s still early in training camp, but the indicators are still there that Chris Clemons is ready to make the leap to NFL starter. From the rave reviews about his success in limited action last season to the observations about his growth into a more vocal leader in the secondary, Clemons seems to be quietly growing into his role as starting NFL Free Safety.
The most surprising part about the national media’s oversight of Clemons is the fact he started 2 games for the Dolphins as a rookie last season, making his debut as a starter against the Jets in New York. Despite limited action as a starter, Clemons still saw the field some in a reserve role and excelled on special teams. And if early reports are any indication, he seems to have built on a solid rookie season by having a great off-season.
Earlier in the OTA’s Tony Sparano tasked Clemons with trying to become more vocal in his role at free safety. Clemons is reportedly not naturally inclined to be loud and boisterous. Despite that though, yesterday Clemons could be seen, and more importantly heard, lining up the backs in the secondary. His high coachability has certainly been noticed by Sparano as well.
“Last fall when we put him in the ball games, all he did was go in the game and show up,” Sparano said. “The guy would make a tackle or he would get involved in a play or he would be involved in special teams, you know 25 plays and have a solid game. He’s not shy, he’s a physical kid. We just felt like those things, I think, are probably what, what made you feel really good about when it comes to him. Chris is not a real vocal kid, but when he’s back there during the course of a defensive play, you can hear him. So he’s quite confident in what he’s doing out there.”
Tony Sparano doesn’t dole out praise easily, so that means Clemons is earning it. Right now the Free Safety position is his to lose. Early indications on 5th round pick Reshad Jones from OTA’s and Rookie minicamp were not good, with at least one Dolphin issuing a “no comment” when pressed about Jones’ performance.
But there’s winning a job because you deserve it and winning it because you’re the best available option, and I’m sure Clemons doesn’t want it to be the latter. In college at Clemson, Clemons made a ton of tackles (323) but not as many interceptions (5) over the course of his career. That’s a solid stat-line, it means Clemons is a very good tackler but his turnover numbers could be better. Creating turnovers was something the Dolphins defense struggled with at times last year. Yeremiah Bell is a solid tackler, and great in run support but over the course of his career he has just 4 picks, and 3 came last season.
Fortunately, for Clemons, Gibril Wilson was bad enough last season that merely not blowing his coverages would make Clemons an solid upgrade at the position. But if Clemons wants to hold on to the starting job long-term, his success will largely be penchant upon creating turnovers for the Dolphins. Reshad Jones, for all his faults is credited with having a high degree of natural athleticism and that certain “it” that some players just possess in regards to having a knack for being around the ball. As one friend of mine and diehard SEC football fan told me, if he can learn not to be too aggressive he has all the tools to be an elite safety. That requires coaching, but if he can be coached, down the road he could unseat Clemons sheerly for his ability to make plays. Not to mention the fact that if Sean Smith struggles in his second season his size and athleticism alone (combined with his already considerable experience) would make him an ideal candidate to transition to free safety.
That makes this season incredibly important for Clemons, specifically this camp. If Chris Clemons wants to secure a hold on the Dolphins starting free safety position, it all starts for him here. And so far as has been reported, he’s really off and running. He now has a unique opportunity to practice with and learn from very good veterans like Will Allen and Yeremiah Bell as well to see elite players like Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Brandon Marshall in practice. He’s going to receive a practical education covering the Dolphins newly-found pass attack before he ever even takes the field for the first preseason game (incidentally on August 14th at home againast the Bucs).
Regardless, Chris Clemons finds himself in an integral position this year. The Dolphins must shore up their secondary at free safety in order to be successful as a defense. A pass-rush is much less effective if there’s a gaping weakness in the secondary. The pressure’s on. But early indications on Clemons are good, Sparano sees a lot of growth and development happening. And quietly, Chris Clemons may be locking up the Free Safety job.