Every year, the Dolphins are forced to make difficult decisions when paring down their roster to 53 players. This season is no different and could be even more challenging with arguably the most talented roster the franchise has seen in years. With that in mind, here’s a look at five position battles to watch throughout training camp and the preseason.
1. Offensive Guard
With Mike Pouncey, Branden Albert (when fully healthy), and Ja’Wuan James, the Dolphins have an impressive group manning the middle and outer portions of the offensive line. The question marks reside between Pouncey and the tackles at the guard position. This is the most wide open battle in all of training camp. Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas, Jamil Douglas, and Jeff Linkenbach are the primary contenders for the two jobs, but J.D. Walton, Jacques McClendon, and Dionte Savage will all have their opportunities to impress the coaching staff.
“I completely expect to be very solid at the guard position,” offensive line coach John Benton told me recently. “Who those two players will be, or maybe even a third, I don’t know. That’s something where we need the pads on and we need a couple of preseason games to determine.”
This is also the most important position battle as the Dolphins desperately need to reduce the number of sacks sustained by Ryan Tannehill. Over the past two seasons, Miami has allowed 104 sacks. If the Dolphins’ plan to compete for the postseason, that number has to go down and the guards will play a vital role in helping do so.
2. Backup Running Back
Coming off his first 1,000 yard season, Lamar Miller is an ascending talent in the league and enters 2015 as Miami’s unquestioned starter. However, the depth chart behind Miller is teeming with talented, multi-dimensional players. Damien Williams turned heads last season by impressing as an undrafted rookie. Jay Ajayi was surprisingly available in the fifth round of this year’s draft after an extremely productive career at Boise State. LaMichael James has big play potential and could help reduce Jarvis Landry’s workload as a returner. And Mike Gillislee is back to full strength after missing all of the 2014 season.
All of these players have the potential to positively impact the team as runners and receivers out of the backfield. However, this position battle may be determined by their ability to contribute on special teams.
3. Cornerback Opposite Brent Grimes
Brent Grimes has been tremendous in his two seasons with the Dolphins, appearing in back-to-back Pro Bowls and compiling nine interceptions. Entering 2015, the uncertainty in the Miami secondary rests with who will play opposite Grimes. With the offseason retirement of Cortland Finnegan, there’s a great opportunity available for one of the Dolphins cornerbacks. During the offseason workout program, Jamar Taylor seemed to gain a hold of the job and will be given the first chance to win the gig. However, Will Davis, Zack Bowman, Sammy Seamster, and rookie Tony Lippett will all get looks as well. Brice McCain is set to be the team’s nickel back but he did get some time on the outside during OTAs & minicamp while rookie Bobby McCain has a knack for being around the ball but is more of an inside player.
With the NFL continuing to evolve as a pass-happy league, it is imperative for the Dolphins to find a reliable complement to Grimes at cornerback.
Defensive Coordinator Kevin Coyle summed up the linebacker position battle best when I spoke to him this offseason: “It’s the most competition we’ve had since we’ve been here, going on our fourth season now.”
The competition includes last year’s leading tackler Jelani Jenkins, who had a breakout 2014 with 110 tackles and 3.5 sacks. It also includes Koa Misi, who moved to middle linebacker last season but was limited to just 11 games due to injury. Those are two of the leading candidates to be in Miami’s starting linebacking corps this season. However, there are plenty of talented players also in the mix for playing time. Chris McCain received a lot of first-team work during OTAs as an outside linebacker and is extremely athletic and physically gifted. McCain has great upside as a hybrid linebacker/pass rusher. Kelvin Sheppard is a veteran leader on the defense and was very productive when called upon last season. He re-signed with the Dolphins this offseason with the purpose of competing to be a starter. Spencer Paysinger is a versatile 5-year veteran with starting experience on his resume. Jordan Tripp showed promise as a rookie and enters his second year with much more confidence. Plus, the Dolphins have four hungry and talented undrafted rookies in Neville Hewitt, Mike Hull, Jeff Luc, and Zach Vigil.
The bottom line is that Coyle is seeking versatility from his linebackers in what will be a fierce competition throughout camp.
5. Depth at Safety
Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas played terrific football when paired together at the back end of the Dolphins defense in 2014. Unfortunately, Jones missed the beginning of the season with a suspension and Delmas was absent late in the year due to injury. Fortunately, both should enter training camp healthy and eligible to play as Miami’s top choices as the starting safeties. However, there will be some difficult decisions to be made behind them on the depth chart. Walt Aikens has impressed coaches and teammates with his development during this offseason and has a bright future with the Dolphins. Michael Thomas has the unique ability to play multiple roles in the secondary and has established himself as a great locker room presence. Rookie Ced Thompson has a great attitude and has displayed a willingness to help the team in whatever fashion he’s needed. The fact that he’s a draft pick means he’s highly likely to make the squad. That leaves Don Jones, Jordan Kovacs, and Shamiel Gary. All three will have to impress on special teams to secure a role. Jones has the most in-game experience of the three and has made his mark in the league as a solid special teamer.
Overall, the numbers game that the Dolphins coaching staff and front office faces this year will be as tough as ever. That’s a good sign for the 2015 season.