Friday, April 24, 2009

Miami Dolphins 2009 NFL Draft Preview

The 2009 NFL Draft is just a day away, and the Miami Dolphins will be undertaking their second (and possibly final) draft under president and football czar Bill Parcells.

Despite an impressive turnaround season in 2008, the Dolphins have plenty of holes to fill. They'll be facing a much tougher schedule in 2009, the return of Tom Brady in New England and the pressure to prove their 2008 showing was not a fluke. Quite simply, to repeat last season they'll have to be much, much better than they were last season.

The Dolphins addressed a few of their needs in free agency, signing center Jake Grove and free safety Gibril Wilson. They also retained key starters in Yeremiah Bell, Vernon Carey and Channing Crowder.

Still, the weaknesses remain. Another pass rusher is needed, as is a starting cornerback for the future and someone to start opposite Ted Ginn, Jr. at wideout. That's just the tip of the iceberg really, as depth is also needed at a handful of other positions.

And so the Dolphins will look to fill some of their biggest needs in tomorrow's draft. In this article, I'll outline the Dolphins' key areas of need and explore the options at each of those positions in this year's class.

The Need: Outside Linebacker

Round 1 candidates: Brian Cushing (USC), Clay Matthews (USC), Everette Brown (Florida State), Clint Sintim (Virginia), Robert Ayers (Tennessee), Larry English (Northern Illinois)

Rounds 2-3: Larry English (Northern Illinois), Cody Brown (UConn), Connor Barwin (Cincinnati), Paul Kruger (Utah), Lawrence Sidbury, Jr. (Richmond)

Beyond: Matt Shaughnessy (Wisconsin), David Veikune (Hawaii), Brandon Williams (Texas Tech), Will Davis (Illinois), Orion Martin (Virginia Tech), Lee Robinson (Alcorn State)

Outside linebacker is one of Miami's biggest needs and, given Parcells' draft history, probably the most likely route the team will go in the first round.

The Dolphins were too reliant on Joey Porter for pressure on the quarterback last year, and although Canadian import Cameron Wake might be a hidden gem, the team certainly needs more young talent at the position.

Not all of the first-round candidates listed above will be available when Miami picks, and it's possibly only one or two will still be on the board. Cushing, Matthews and Brown in particular all have a good shot of going higher than No. 25.

Brown is probably the most purely talented of the bunch, and thus would probably be the pick if he somehow falls into Miami's lap. This is no lock however, as Brown is a potential Top 20 pick and could even theoretically go in the Top 10.

Ayers is the least sexy of the group, as he didn't have an extremely productive college career. The late-rising prospect is more of a Matt Roth type in the sense that he's not a dominant pass rusher but just an all-around solid player.

One advantage for Sintim, who will probably be one of the lowest picked in this group and may not even crack Round 1, is that he played for Parcells' colleague Al Groh at Virginia. He also had a very productive collegiate career and has plenty of experience starting in the 3-4 defense.

If the Dolphins don't go linebacker in Round 1, you can almost guarantee they will with one of their two second-round picks. If that's the case, look out for intriguing tight end/defensive end/linebacker prospect Connor Barwin from Cincinnati, Larry English from NIU or Cody Brown from UConn.

The Need: Cornerback

Round 1 candidates: Vontae Davis (Illinois), Darius Butler (UConn), Sean Smith (Utah)

Rounds 2-3: Sean Smith (Utah), Alphonso Smith (Wake Forest), Jairus Byrd (Oregon), D. J. Moore (Vanderbilt), Donald Washington (Ohio State), Coye Francies (San Jose State), Sherrod Martin (Troy), Victor Harris (Virginia Tech)

Beyond: Mike Mickens (Cincinnati), Keenan Lewis (Oregon State), Greg Toler (St. Paul's) Brandon Underwood (Cincinnati), DeAngelo Smith (Cincinnati), Domonique Johnson (Jackson State)

Cornerback just might be the Dolphins' biggest area of need. Cornerback Will Allen is a strong player but is entering the final year of his contract. Meanwhile, Eric Green is likely to replace Andre' Goodman in the starting lineup but is still largely unproven in such a role. Beyond that, Nathan Jones and Joey Thomas are nickel/dime guys at best and the rest are camp bodies.

It's quite possible all of the above first-round candidates will be available when Miami picks. Vontae Davis might be the best pure corner in the draft, but attitude/character concerns have caused him to fall and might make the Dolphins shy away from him despite his talent.

Darius Butler is probably the most likely prospect to land in Miami if they go cornerback in Round 1, and he would be a solid pick. Still, I'm a big fan of Utah's Sean Smith, and I don't consider No. 25 too early to take a 6-4 corner with 4.5 speed and good ball skills.

The Dolphins will almost certainly address corner on Day 1, so if they don't take one in the first round then look for someone like Sean Smith or Coye Francies.

Realistically, the Dolphins could use a few young additions at corner and might end up taking more than one in this draft.

The Need: Wide receiver

Round 1 candidates: Darrius Heyward-Bey (Maryland), Hakeem Nicks (UNC)

Rounds 2-3: Hakeem Nicks (UNC), Kenny Britt (Rutgers), Percy Harvin (Florida), Brian Robiskie (Ohio State), Juaquin Igleslias (Oklahoma), Louis Murphy (Florida), Ramses Barden (Cal Poly), Mohamed Massaquoi (UGA), Pat White (West Virginia)

Beyond: Brooks Foster (UNC), Kenny McKinley (South Carolina), Marko Mitchell (Nevada), Jarett Dillard (Rice), Johnny Knox (Abilene Christian), Patrick Turner (USC), Greg Carr (FSU)

Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess are serviceable slot guys, but the Dolphins could definitely use another quality receiver to start opposite Ted Ginn, Jr.

Although it's less likely than linebacker or cornerback in the first round given Parcells' past drafts, wideout is certainly a big enough need for Miami to consider early and Heyward-Bey and Nicks will earn long looks if they're still on the board.

Either would be a good pick, as Heyward-Bey has a tremendous blend of size and speed while Nicks has some of the surest hands in the draft. Conditioning concerns have been raised for Nicks recently, however, which could push him to Round 2.

Making it less likely the Dolphins take a wideout in Round 1 is the talent at the position beyond the elite guys like Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. Theoretically, Nicks, Britt, Robiskie, Iglesias, Murphy and more could all be on the board the second round.

My personal favorites from this group are Robisikie and Barden. Robiskie, the son of a long-time NFL wide receivers coach, might not have great timed speed, but his has reliable hands and is a very polished receiver as you would expect. One of the draft's biggest sleepers, Barden has good hands, freakish size (6-6, 220) and solid speed to go along with it.

Although players like Percy Harvin and Pat White have been linked to the Dolphins as potential candidates for use in the wildcat offense, I simply don't see it happening. The Dolphins need a true wide receiver, not a speedy Reggie Bush type or a college quarterback who won't face reality.

The wildcat is being overrated by the national media, and I don't believe for one second the Dolphins will be picking players specifically for use in that scheme on the first day of the draft.

The Need: Nose tackle

Rounds 1-2 candidates: Ron Brace (Boston College)

Beyond: Chris Baker (Hampton), Terrance Taylor (Michigan), Corvey Irvin (UGA), Terrance Knighton (Temple), Sammie Lee Hill (Stillman), Dorrell Scott (Clemson)

Though not an immediate need due to the presence of Jason Ferguson, a younger, more long-term nose tackle is certainly needed and it seems likely they'll try to find that player at some point in this draft.

The Dolphins won't have a shot at the position's top guy in B. J. Raji, but his fellow linemate at Boston College, Ron Brace, is certainly an option. He's a candidate for the first round, but I suspect the Dolphins would rather go linebacker or corner there. There's a strong chance, however, the team would jump on him in the second round if he's still available.

Although a true 3-4 nose tackle is difficult to find, the Dolphins will still have some options if they don't take one on the first day of the draft. Hampton's Chris Baker—a Penn State transfer and former teammate of Dolphins defensive end Kendall Langford—and Michigan's Terrance Taylor are strong possibilities in the third and fourth rounds.

My personal favorite prospect at this position is small-school product Sammie Lee Hill. I would love to see the Dolphins grab Hill between Rounds 3-5 and develop him behind Ferguson. 3-4 nose tackles are very hard to find, and Hill has the potential to be a hidden gem.

The need: Tight end

Round 1 candidates: Brandon Pettigrew (Oklahoma State)

Rounds 2-3: Jared Cook (South Carolina), Shawn Nelson (Southern Miss), Cornelius Ingram (Florida), Chase Coffman (Missouri), James Casey (Rice)

Beyond: Anthony Hill (NC State), Cameron Morrah (Cal), Jared Bronson (Central Washington), John Phillips (Virginia)

An extremely dark-horse candidate for Miami in the first round, Pettigrew will at least be entertained by the Dolphins at No. 25 if there isn't much available at other positions and they can't trade out of the spot. Still, linebacker, cornerback and wideout are much more likely.

Although tight end might not seem like a big need for the Dolphins, both Anthony Fasano and David Martin are entering the final years of their deals. Word is the team likes former undrafted free agent Joey Haynos, but obviously he's still unproven.

Though the Dolphins are expected to fill bigger needs in the first few rounds, there will plenty of tight end talent in Round 2 and 3 if the Dolphins go that direction. It's definitely a possibility if one of these tight ends is the best player left on Miami's draft board when they're picking.

Other positions to watch

Quarterback - Former second-rounder John Beck has no real future in Miami and the team would love to trade him, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them pick up a rookie to groom as a third-stringer either later in the draft or in undrafted free agency.

Running back - Ricky Williams is on the back end of his career and Patrick Cobbs is a backup at best, while promising 2008 sixth-rounder Jalen Parmele got snatched up by the Ravens late last season. It's likely the Dolphins will add a rookie back this year, possibly as early as the third round but definitely at some point.

Fullback - The Dolphins were pleased with Lousaka Polite's performance in 2008, though he's certainly not untouchable and competition could be brought in through the draft.

Offensive tackle - The Dolphins have plenty of guys to compete for backup jobs at center and guard, but the tackle depth is quite thin. It'd make a lot of sense to draft a versatile tackle in the mid-to-late rounds to develop behind Long and Carey.

Inside linebacker - There's no immediate need here with Crowder and Akin Ayodele entrenched as starters, but Crowder signed a short-term contract and Ayodele's salary jumps the next few seasons. The Dolphins might even take an inside linebacker like Rey Maualuga in Round 1 if he's there and will certainly bring someone in through the draft.

Safety - The starters are set with Wilson and Bell both signing big-money deals this offseason, but rookie depth to challenge Courtney Bryan and Ethan Kilmer seems likely.

Punter - Before the signing of Australian Jy Bond, I would have expected the Dolphins to add a rookie punter either late in the draft or as a free agent to challenge Brandon Fields. It's still possible depending on how high they are on Bond, but a three-man competition seems unlikely.