Saturday, February 20, 2010

Miami Dolphins 2010 Offseason Preview: Special Teams

The offseason will officially kick off with the signing and trading period March 5, and as I always do prior to the mayhem, I'll be looking at each position on the Dolphins' roster in depth.

I'll look at the team's strengths and areas of need, who is under contract, who are the free agents and their prospects for being re-signed, and who they might look at via trade, free agency, and the draft.

This article, unlike all the subsequent ones, will look at multiple positions—the special teams unit.

Under Contract
  • LS John Denney (through 2010) — The Dolphins' long snapper has a rough season finale in 2008, but was flawless all of 2009 and looks to remain on the team in 2010. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after next season.
  • P Brandon Fields (through 2010) — The Dolphins' seventh-round pick in 2007, Fields had a breakout season in 2009. He'll be a restricted free agent in 2010, and the Dolphins could look to sign him long-term.
  • KR Ted Ginn, Jr. (through 2012) — Ginn's poor play at receiver has called his future with the team into doubt, but his clearly the best home run threat as a returner on the team. His physical tools and upside should keep him on the team, and better blocking on special teams could help him become one of the league's better kickoff returners.

Free Agents
  • Davone Bess (exclusive-rights free agent) — As an ERFA, Bess has no choice to but to re-sign or not play pro football. His receiving prowess will guarantee his re-signing, although his time on punt returns could be coming to an end.
  • Dan Carpenter (exclusive-rights free agent) — The same rules with Bess apply to Carpenter, and he will definitely be back as no other team can sign him. Carpenter was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2009 after converting 89 percent of field-goal attempts.

Strengths
  • The Dolphins really don't need to do much to their special teams unit, as the placekicker (Carpenter), punter/holder (Fields), and long snapper (Denney) should all remain in-place in 2010. All three players are coming off excellent years, and more continuity can only help things.
  • Ginn hasn't been the most consistent returner and has shown a propensity for running out of bounds and avoiding the big hit, but there's no denying his speed and athleticism. Ginn single-handedly won the game at the New York Jets last year, and could be an excellent returner if he gets better blocking upfront and plays a little tougher.

Areas of Need
  • A sure-handed receiver Bess may be, he lacks the speed and moves to be any kind of threat as a returner. Really, the only reason Miami put him back there was because of his hands, but he even struggled with that in 2009. the Dolphins need a serious upgrade at punt returner, and should keep Bess solely on offense.

Free Agency Outlook
  • The top placekickers on the unrestricted free agent market include Neil Rackers (Cardinals), Shayne Graham (Bengals) and Jeff Reed (Steelers), but the Dolphins won't be included to spend any kind of money on a kicker or replace a promising player like Carpenter.
  • Veteran punters Craig Hentrich (Titans), Matt Turk (Texans) and Jeff Feagles (Giants) headline the free agent list, but none have the youth or leg of Brandon Fields. The Dolphins simply are not in the market for a punter.
  • One player the Dolphins would certainly be interested in as both a wide receiver and returner is the Arizona Cardinals' Steve Breaston, although he is likely to receive a high tender from the Cardinals and probably isn't worth the draft-pick compensation it will require to sign him.

Draft Outlook
  • The Dolphins will certainly look for a play-making returner in the draft, although it's unlikely to be in the first round. Clemson running back C. J. Spiller is the only real option there, and the Dolphins have more pressing needs to address at No. 12.
  • More likely, the second round and beyond is where we'll see Miami look for someone that can contribute on offense and special teams. Second round possibilities include Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard and Ole Miss running back/receiver Dexter McCluster, while Clemson's Jacoby Ford could be someone to look at in the third or fourth.
  • A couple of long-shot returner prospects are LSU's Trindon Holliday and Kansas State's Brandon Banks, who measure it at 5'5" and 5'7" respectively. Neither weighs in at more than 155 pounds and thus durability is a huge concern, but their 4.2 speed and athleticism make them candidates for fliers in the seventh round or undrafted free agency.
  • As explained above, the Dolphins are not in the market for a placekicker or punter, and there aren't many to choose from in this draft class anyway. No players at either position should go before the sixth round, and no one really stands out as someone that could be an improvement over the two guys the Dolphins already have.

Conclusion

It's difficult to assess and pick out all the players that are good and bad when it comes to special teams coverage (or long-snapping, for that matter), which is why an article on the "position" of special teams essentially boils down to kickers, punters, and returners.

That being the case, the Dolphins don't really have many needs when it come to special teams. Dan Carpenter and Brandon Fields are both young, quality talents, and they're under control cheaply for at least the next few seasons. Neither one is going anywhere, and that likely means the same for long snapper John Denney.

The return game, however, could certainly use a boost. I expect the Dolphins not to address this in free agency, but rather the draft.

They will not, however, use a pick on a pure "return specialist," but rather I suspect they will look for a rare athletic talent that can make play on offense and contribute as a returner. There are plenty to be had in this year's draft, and expect at least one such player to hear his name called with Miami on the clock this April.


How do you feel about the Dolphins' special teams heading into the offseason? Share your thoughts on the forum here!