Now that the 2014 NFL draft has come and gone, the majority of teams have started their on-field activities. Competition also starts here in Davie as the Dolphins open rookie camp this Friday. This is where the battle starts for the drafted and undrafted free agents to not only make the team, but challenge for playing time. The Dolphins have some holes to fill and here are some interesting position battles to observe over the next couple of months. While there’s some form of competition at virtually every position on the roster, I’ve selected five intriguing battles that I’ll be closely watching over the next several months.
Starters from 2013 – Koa Misi, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
Players to Watch – Jason Trusnik, Jelani Jenkins, Jonathan Freeny, Jordan Tripp and Tariq Edwards.
The linebacker position has been a topic of discussion during the off-season. The most common theme has been the need for this unit to improve in 2014. It will be the second year for Ellerbe and Wheeler in defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle‘s system and both of them should expect to produce more game-changing plays then a season ago. Don’t be surprised if Coyle experiments with Misi in the middle of the defense, allowing Ellerbe more flexibility on the outside, his natural position. The competition will come from veteran Jason Trusnik who gives the team great special teams play as well. Second-year player Jelani Jenkins earned more playing time at the end of the season and will surely get more reps early this summer to earn his place on the roster. Fifth-round selection Jordan Tripp is talented enough to compete at all three linebacker positions and should be a force on special teams. I believe Tripp will push both Trusnik and Jenkins and might make Jonathan Freeny expendable. Of the undrafted free agents, Tariq Edwards might be the most talented of the group, but is still a long shot to make the active 53-man roster.
4. - Running Back
Starters from 2013 – Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas
Players To Watch – Knowshon Moreno, Marcus Thigpen, Mike Gillislee
There’s little doubt in my mind that free agency find Knowshon Moreno will be the starter at the running back position. Moreno is coming off of his most productive season as a pro. The Dolphins are hoping that his ability to run, block and catch the football out of the backfield will continue into his sixth NFL season. Miller has the speed and overall ability to be the change-up back in the new offense being installed by offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Spacing and speed will be a staple of what Lazor will hopefully provide this season. I believe that Moreno and Miller will provide a consistent balance for each other. The competition starts with veteran Daniel Thomas and how he’s used later this summer. If his reps are limited early in camp, that’s not good sign for the fifth-year running back. Another player that will be in the same position is Marcus Thigpen. Although Thigpen givesMiami great experience as a returner, I believe that he will have to impress this staff early in the backfield with his running ability to stick in 2014. Gillislee is in the same situation as Thigpen and Thomas and will have to shine with limited touches to make the active roster.
3.- Offensive Guard
Starters from 2013 – Richie Incognito and John Jerry
Players to Watch – Shelley Smith, Billy Turner, Nate Garner, Dallas Thomas, Sam Brenner, David Arken and Jason Fox.
Both Incognito and Jerry are gone and the offensive line was the one position this team needed to address through free agency and the draft. It looks like newcomers Shelley Smith and third-round draft choice Billy Turner should get the first shot at the starting assignments. Smith is still a young player only has eight career starts to his name. New offensive line coach John Benton must have liked the skill set that Smith brings to the Dolphins. Benton coached Smith in Houston and must believe he’s a good fit for this zone-blocking scheme. Turner played all of his collegiate games at the tackle position, but will move inside for Miami. Turner has the footwork and is athletic enough to make the transition to guard. The only question will be can he make the move quick enough to start in September? That’s why Nate Garner is so valuable to this team. Garner can play all three positions and looks much leaner this off-season, possibly signaling his move inside to the guard/center position is set in stone. This holds true for Sam Brenner as well because of his versatility and aggressiveness that makes up for his lack of size in the middle. The only way it’s possible for Dallas Thomas to get on the field in his second season is to play with more stability and consistency. If Thomas displays that early in camp, he’ll have a chance to get into the rotation early in camp. Free-agent acquisition Jason Fox is more of a tackle then guard, but Fox may be asked to play both and if he excels inside, it’s a bonus for this offensive line.
2.- Wide Receiver
Starters from 2013 – Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson
Players to Watch – Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews, Armon Binns, Matt Hazel and Damian Williams
Injuries hit this group hard at different times in 2013, and derailed a productive start for Dolphins newcomer Brandon Gibson. For all of the attention Wallace and Hartline receive, it’s the Gibson knee injury that slowed this unit down last season, and was the complement tight end Charles Clay was missing from the middle of the season. What you see is what your going to get with Mike Wallace. He can make you look silly at times with his speed and run after catch ability, but for him to take the next step in improving this offense, his yards per catch average must go up in 2014. Brian Hartline also suffered a knee injury verses the Jets in the season finale, and it will be critical that he makes a full recovery and stays on the field. He’s Ryan Tannehill’s most reliable target and I’m excited to see all three of these playmakers in the new offensive scheme this fall. Second round selection Jarvis Landry will fill the void if Gibson is slow to recover, and will provide more firepower to this offense if their paired together. I believe Landry will make a smooth transition to the NFL, and will be counted on quickly in an offense that might feature a spread concept a high percentage of the time. Rishard Matthews is durable and his raw ability is sometimes overlooked, but even those intangibles won’t make his battle any easier to make this rotation. The same holds true for Armon Binns. Like Hartline and Gibson, Binns must prove to be fit right away coming back from knee surgery last season. Rookie Matt Hazel looks to have place on the practice roster for a valuable year of experience, and the wide card is Damian Williams. If Williams can impress quickly at wide out and battles even as a return specialist with Marcus Thigpen, it gives the Dolphins choices they really didn’t have last season.
Starters from 2013 – Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson
Players to Watch – Cortland Finnegan, Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Walt Aikens and Jalil Brown
In my offseason check list, my number one priority for this defense was to re-sign Brent Grimes. He gives this defense multiple coverage options because of his play speed and willingness to anticipate the ball in the air. The big question is who will line up opposite Grimes when Tom Brady and the Patriots offense comes to town in week one? Veteran Cortland Finnegan might get the first shot at the position when camp opens up, and if he’s 100 percent healthy, the Dolphins might have just found the missing piece of the puzzle in the secondary. He also has position flexibility to kick inside to play the nickel position if either second-year players Jamar Taylor or Will Davis emerge. Both youngsters battled injury last season, and they must come into camp and prove that they belong. Taylor never could stay healthy and entered the competition last season with a groin injury that eventually needed surgery. Davis displayed flashes of play making ability in training camp last year, but it didn’t translate to the field until late in the year, and needs to play with more consistency to earn the trust of the defensive coaching staff. Jalil Brown’s role will only grow if the youngsters falter, and he can contribute on every special team available. The same holds true for rookie Walt Aikens. His size and speed jump off the page, but he faces the same questions as Taylor and David did last year. Can he make a fast transition to the NFL, and stay consistent in camp and the preseason schedule?
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