Wednesday, August 24, 2011

53-Man Roster Prediction: Preseason Midpoint Edition

The Miami Dolphins are halfway through their four-game preseason schedule, and that means it's time to once again project the team's final 53-man roster after final cuts.

The Dolphins, who currently have 85 players on the active roster, will make their first waive of cuts down to 80 on Aug. 30, followed by the final cut down to 53 on Sept. 3.

Previous versions:

starters in italics

Quarterbacks (3): Chad Henne, Matt Moore, Kevin O'Connell
Released: Pat Devlin

Chad Henne should be able to hold off Matt Moore from the starting job, and the talk of Moore challenging him was really just some wishful fans more than it ever was a likelihood.

The only real battle here is for the third spot, and I'm to give that to O'Connell over Devlin based purely on upside, experience, and the fact that O'Connell entered the game first against Atlanta. (Neither played against the Panthers.)

Running backs (4): Daniel Thomas, Reggie Bush, Larry Johnson, Lex Hilliard
Released: Nic Grigsby

Bush has been anointed the starter by Tony Sparano as the veteran, but the reality is that while he will be a big part of the offense, Thomas is the guy that can carry the load and figures to get more carries than Bush.

With the addition of Johnson, the Dolphins now have a legitimate veteran to back up Thomas. I'm not sold he'll make the team if the Dolphins like a younger back during final cuts, but based on the current roster, I'd say LJ has to be included for now.

The move would also keep Hilliard more confined to special teams, which is a good thing considering he just isn't a starting-caliber running back.

Fullbacks (1): Charles Clay
Released: Lousaka Polite

I initially had Polite making the team as I wrote this article, but the Larry Johnson signing gives me four backs to work with and thus allows me to take a spot away from fullback.

I've said all offseason that Polite is in trouble, and I still believe it. The logic to keep him just isn't there because of his poor 2010 performance, inflated salary in the final year of his deal, and Clay's promise. The fact that Clay was mixed in with the starters last week against Carolina shows that the team wants him to contribute as a rookie.

Polite may end up surviving final cuts depending on how the Dolphins' backfield shakes out, but I think he'll be gone soon enough either after waiver claims are made, or early into the season (Boomer Grigsby style).

Wide receivers (5): Brandon Marshall, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess, Clyde Gates, Roberto Wallace
Released: Patrick Carter, Phillip Livas, John Matthews, Marlon Moore, Julius Pruitt

Hartline is technically the starter, but we all know that Bess is the slot guy and factors in heavily into the offense. I really expect the top four, including the rookie Gates, to all be contributors on offense as Brian Daboll looks to open things up for Henne.

The real questions here are who will be the fifth receiver, and whether or not a sixth receiver is kept at all. The answer to that first question is most likely Wallace, who has the best size/upside combo of the bunch and is excellent on special teams.

A lot of people, myself included, were envisioning Livas making the roster as a sixth receiver and return specialist after his touchdown against Atlanta in the opener, but I'm not expecting that as of now. The Dolphins aren't likely to use a roster spot for a guy that doesn't contribute on offense, and Gates (a roster lock) outperformed Livas in the return game against Carolina. Livas has potential, but right now it's an uphill battle.

Tight ends (3): Anthony Fasano, Jeron Mastrud, Mickey Shuler
Released: Brett Brackett, Dedrick Epps

Shuler is battling an injury right now and is currently in a boot, but when healthy I'd consider him the favorite of this uninspiring bunch to be the top backup to Fasano. Mastrud played heavily in the first half against Carolina and looks to be the next man up.

I'd been considering Brackett for a roster spot lately because I like his potential, but the reality is he's been invisible in the preseason thus far and I can't see him earning anything but a practice squad gig at this point.

Offensive tackles (5): Jake Long, Marc Colombo, Nate Garner, Lydon Murtha, Ray Willis
Released: Allen Barbre, D. J. Jones

Murtha struggled badly in place of Long against Carolina, but he's a versatile guy and remains the top backup tackle at both spot, so he should be safe. I'm on the fence with Willis, as he certainly has the resume to be a good backup and potential starter, but he's missed time in practice and against Carolina due to the death of his father.

I'm technically considering Garner a tackle here, but the reality is he can play basically every position on the line. That kind of versatility makes him hard to cut.

Offensive guards (3): Richie Incognito, Vernon Carey, Ray Feinga
Released: Tyler Donahue, John Jerry, Matt Kopa
Non-Football Injury: Garrett Chisolm

With Garner making the team (see above), there is really only a need to keep three pure guards. Feinga has long been a staff favorite and appears to have an edge over 2010 third-rounder Jerry, who continues to look like a major bust and is playing his way off the roster right now.

The Dolphins signed Chisolm knowing he was recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December, so I have to imagine they are stashing him on the NFI list in hopes he'll compete in camp in 2012.

Centers (1): Mike Pouncey
Released: Joe Berger

I'm up to eight lineman making the roster before I get to the center position, which is why I think Pouncey alone will make the team will former starter Berger gets released. The Dolphins have been working the versatile Garner at center in the preseason (where he played in an emergency capacity in 2009), which says to me that the team may be content with left guard Incognito and Garner backing up Pouncey in 2011.

Defensive ends (5): Kendall Langford, Randy Starks, Tony McDaniel, Jared Odrick, Phillip Merling
Released: Ryan Baker, Rob Rose

Regardless of who is in italics above, the truth is the Dolphins have four starting-caliber defensive ends for two spots, so expect all of them to rotate heavily in games as they have over the past few years. The unit looks like it will continue to be the deepest on the team.

I don't consider Merling 100% safe, but I don't believe Baker has any real upside and I haven't seen anything out of Rose in a year. The Dolphins may look to find a fresh face and cut ties with Merling as he enters the last year of his rookie deal, but for now he's got the fifth spot.

Nose tackles (2): Paul Soliai, Ronald Fields
Released: Johnny Jones, Frank Kearse

I'm a bit paranoid that Fields is going to get the Marques Douglas/Charles Grant treatment as a veteran that has a good preseason but is surprisingly cut in favor of youth, but Fields is someone I've always thought would make perfect sense as Soliai's backup given his experience with Mike Nolan, so I don't see why he wouldn't make the team.

Seventh-round rookie Kearse is probably too raw to keep on the active roster right now, and it isn't necessary to keep three pure nose tackles when McDaniel or Starks can play the position in a pinch.

Outside linebackers (5): Cameron Wake, Jason Taylor, Koa Misi, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Jason Trusnik
Released: Jonathan Freeny, Quinton Spears

Expect Misi and Taylor to rotate heavily on the strong side, but Taylor has looked good in both practice and games and may have more of a role than initially thought, considering Misi hasn't really done anything to stand out himself.

Beyond that, I'd expect Alama-Francis and Trusnik to make the team as veteran backups, considering the two undrafted rookies aren't ready and may never be. However, both vets—especially IAF—won't be entirely safe following final cuts.

Inside linebackers (4): Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett, A. J. Edds, Marvin Mitchell
Released: David Nixon, Mike Rivera, Austin Spitler

Dansby and Burnett appear poised to be a stellar pair of starting inside linebackers, and Edds looks fully recovered from the torn ACL that wiped out his rookie season given his two strong preseason performances.

The battle here is for that potential fourth inside linebacker spot, which essentially boils down to a special teams job that doesn't factor on defense. I would have considered Spitler the favorite over Rivera before his ankle injury, but the recently-signed Mitchell is by far the most experienced and talented of three and is my pick right now. Of course, no one in this role is safe in-season.

Cornerbacks (5): Vontae Davis, Sean Smith, Benny Sapp, Nolan Carroll, Jimmy Wilson
Released: Vince Agnew, Will Allen, K. J. Gerard, Nate Ness, Jose Perez

Allen, who restructured his contract to stay with the Dolphins in the offseason, has missed significant time in camp as well as both preseason games. As much as I'd like to have him as a veteran backup, it's looking more and more like he's not going to be able to contribute and will instead be released before the season.

That would give Sapp free reign over the nickel job, with promising youngsters Carroll and Wilson rounding out the depth chart. Wilson has had an excellent game and has looked good in games, so he's inching closer and closer to being a surprise lock as a seventh-rounder.

Safeties (4): Chris Clemons, Yeremiah Bell, Reshad Jones, Tyrone Culver
Released: Mark Restelli

It looks like Clemons has the edge on Jones for the starting free safety job, but expect both to make the team and play defense in 2011. Bell, meanwhile, remains unopposed as the starting strong safety despite looking athleticism and coverage ability with age.

A CFL linebacker, Restelli has no shot to make the squad and will probably head back north after final cuts. My only real question here is whether or not Culver makes the roster considering he didn't do much in 2010 and doesn't have any upside, but I don't see the Dolphins going into the season without a true backup to Bell. (Could Jones one day take the job?)

Special teams (3): Dan Carpenter, Brandon Fields, John Denney
Released: none

The Dolphins' special teams trifecta has no camp competition and will remain a strong unit in 2011.

Practice Squad

The Dolphins will likely get a few of their practice squad players from other teams' cuts, but if I were to make an eight-man practice squad from the Dolphins' cuts above, this is how it would look:
  • RB Kory Sheets — With only three running backs kept above, there has to be another on the practice squad. Sheets' speed makes him more appealing than the undersized, unimpressive Grigsby.
  • WR Phillip Livas — Livas may get a look elsewhere for his return skills, but otherwise it'd be nice to have him back in Miami to see if he can be developed.
  • WR John Matthews — The Dolphins typically keep two practice squad receivers, and I think they'll take a closer look at Matthews over practice squad holdovers Carter and Pruitt.
  • TE Brett Brackett — Brackett hasn't stood out in the preseason, but his physical tools make him intriguing and he's worth considering for a spot here.
  • OG Matt Kopa — Guys like Barbre, Berger and Jerry are not practice-squad eligible, and Kopa has more upside than Donahue, so he's the pick for the offensive lineman on the practice squad.
  • NT Frank Kearse — He's not ready to contribute at the NFL level and isn't worth keeping in the 53 as a third nose tackle, but I imagine the Dolphins want to keep their seventh-round pick around for more development.
  • ILB Austin Spitler — The Dolphins usually stockpile inside linebackers for practice, so I could see them having at least one on the practice squad even with four active. Spitler gets the nod over Nixon and Rivera, but it's really a toss-up.
  • CB Nate Ness — Ness might not be willing to return to the practice squad and may have opportunities elsewhere (he was claimed off waivers by Seattle last year and actually started a game for them), but if he's available, he's worth bringing back over Agnew and Perez.
One thing to keep in mind is that some of my cuts, like wide receiver Marlon Moore and linemen Allen Barbre and John Jerry, are no longer eligible for the practice squad because of how many games they've played. I have crafted this practice squad solely of eligible players.

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