Monday, May 9, 2011

Watch Your Back: Current Dolphins That Should Be Worried Following the Draft

The 2011 NFL Draft is on the books, and the Miami Dolphins came away with six new players, including four on the offensive side of the ball.

Some of these players, like second-round running back Daniel Thomas, will be filling a void left by the team's upcoming free agents. Others, like seventh-rounders Frank Kearse and Jimmy Wilson, will have to be battle just to make the team as they are no locks themselves.

That being said, a few of the Dolphins' draft picks should have an immediate impact, and that could come at the expense of some veterans currently on the team in the form of playing time or even a roster spot.

Here are a few notable players currently on the Dolphins' roster that should be sweating a little after the team's selections last week:

C Joe Berger

After replacing an injured Jake Grove during the 2009 season and impressing, Berger maintained the role in 2010 due in large part to Grove's bloated contract and durability concerns. Berger was unable to repeat his past year's success, however, and was the weakest link on a dismal running game in 2010.

With former starting left guard Richie Incognito re-signed with the intention of starting at center and the selection of Mike Pouncey in the first round of the draft, it appears Berger's time with the Dolphins might be up entirely.

Berger is certainly a capable backup, and his starting experience and background at guard are positives as well. However, Incognito is younger and the better player, which means Berger could lose the primary backup center job behind Pouncey and may be cut before the season begins.

WR Brian Hartline

Hartline proved to be a strong deep threat as a rookie, far outperforming the failure that was Patrick Turner, who was selected a round before Hartline. But while his numbers improved during his sophomore season due to extended playing time, Hartline had some early drops and also finished the year with a broken hand, failing to secure a firm grasp (pun intended) on the No. 2 receiver job opposite Brandon Marshall.

While Davone Bess' role as the team's slot receiver is pretty sure, the pressure will be on Hartline to fend off fourth-rounder Edmond Gates, who has the size-speed-hands combo to be another version of the Steelers' Mike Wallace.

Hartline should maintain a significant role in the passing game in 2011 barring an unlikely free agent addition, but he'll need to step up his game in the long run with Gates waiting in the winnings.

C/G Richie Incognito

Incognito is much safer than Joe Berger is, primarily because he's younger, was better last season, and possesses more upside. However, Incognito may not have a clear path to a starting job now that the draft has taken place.

The Dolphins have said first-rounder Mike Pouncey will work at center, and the good money is for him to start as a rookie given his talent level and the investment in him. That means Incognito may be relegated to his old role of starting left guard, where he struggled in 2010.

That is, of course, if the Dolphins don't land a high-priced starting guard in free agency, which I really expect them to consider doing. Adding someone like Justin Blalock (Falcons) or Davin Joseph (Buccaneers) would go a long way in solidifying the Dolphins' running game, but it would also force Incognito to enter a three-man competition with Nate Garner and John Jerry for other starting guard job.

I don't expect Incognito to be out of the starting lineup entirely unless the Dolphins both land a big-time free agent guard and get Jerry to really develop quickly, but his job is much less guaranteed after the Dolphins' first-round pick of Pouncey.

WR Marlon Moore and WR Roberto Wallace

To be perfectly honest, neither of these guys was really safe anyway. There was little chance the Dolphins were going to roll with Moore and Wallace as their fourth and fifth receivers for much longer, with neither showing much progression on offense was undrafted rookies.

So while there really isn't much playing time for them to lose here, one of them could very well be without a roster spot at all come September. The Dolphins rarely keep more than five receivers, as only four are usually active on game days and just three of those offensive contributors.

The addition of Edmond Gates, who I would consider a near-lock to make the roster as a high-upside fourth-round pick, means that the Dolphins will probably only have one spot available on the roster after the top four receivers.

Wallace would have to be considered the favorite right now due to his special teams ability, but neither one was safe heading into 2011 and things just got a whole lot tighter.

FB Lousaka Polite

A year ago, you never would've found Polite on this list. He took over as the team's starting fullback midway through the 2008 season, and had a Pro Bowl-worthy year in 2009 as the best blocking fullback in football and an excellent short-yardage back.

However, just as Polite quickly replaced Boomer Grigsby and Casey Cramer (who?) as the team's starting fullback in 2008, Polite could surprisingly be replaced by sixth-round rookie Charles Clay as early as this season.

Polite struggled as a run blocker in 2010, although the offense line certainly didn't help matters. But the traditional fullback position in the NFL is heading toward extinction entirely, and Polite offers little as a ball carrier or receiver.

Clay, meanwhile, has a background at running back at Tulsa, showing skill as a short-yardage runner in between the tackles. He also lit things up as a receiver, as indicated by his 1,000 receiving yards as a true freshman.

The Dolphins only keep one fullback on the roster, and if Clay can master the offense to the point where he can be a contributor on third-and-shorts and as a receiver in the flat, don't be surprised if you see Polite's name on the final cuts last this summer.

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