Friday, September 2, 2011

53-Man Roster Prediction: Final Edition

The Miami Dolphins conclude their 2011 preseason with a 17-3 victory over the Dallas Cowboys and a 3-1 record. But after a largely meaningless exhibition finale, the real action begins as as the final cutdown looms this weekend.

The Dolphins enter Friday with 80 players on the active roster, and must clear 27 roster spots to get down to just 53 players in anticipation of the regular season.

As I've done since the beginning of training camp, I will once again be predicting the Dolphins' final 53-man roster after cuts. With the deadline for final cuts being this Saturday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. ET, this stands as my final prediction.

Remember, the Dolphins' cuts could come any time Friday or Saturday, so keep it locked here for all the coverage and analysis! Also, keep in mind that the team will probably claim a few players off waivers from other teams' cuts, so not everyone is safe even if they survive the initial cut to 53!

Previous versions:

(starters in italics)

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

Henne continues to look more and more comfortable in Brian Daboll's offense, and he was never truly in danger of losing his job to Moore as long as he played well. He could be challenged midseason if he struggles, but right now Henne is the unquestioned starter.

It's hard to peg the third quarterback, because the Dolphins spent so much time getting Henne and Moore ready for the season. But O'Connell has regularly entered games before Devlin, so I'll go with the veteran.

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

Bush should be the feature back going into the season per Tony Sparano's words, but I still expect Thomas to have a significant role this season. Thomas is a talented back that doesn't deserve all the criticism he's received, and Bush just isn't going to be able to carry the load himself. It wouldn't surprise me if Thomas ended up with more carries than Bush in 2011.

The offensive line certainly didn't help anyone this preseason, but I thought Johnson looked fit and agile in the preseason finale. He's not a lock to make this roster at his age and salary, but I'm going to roll with him.

Some have thought LJ was in a battle with Hilliard, but I think they Dolphins could really keep both. They've gone with four running backs in the past, Hilliard is a quality special-teamer, and he can also back up the fullback position (see below).

Fullbacks (1): Charles Clay
Released: Lousaka Polite

I've received a lot of flak for it from other Dolphins fans throughout the summer, but I first suggested it on April 30 (the day Clay was drafted) and I still truly believe Polite gets released either Saturday during final cuts, or after when the team adds a few guys off waivers.

As much as fans like Polite, he's being overrated and is not indispensable even in short-yardage situations. When you consider all the factors, such as 1) he's in the last year of his deal; 2) he's set to make $1.35 million in 2011; 3) he'll turn 30 this season; 4) he was one of the worst blocking fullbacks in the league last year and has struggled this preseason as well; 5) the traditional fullback is a dying breed in the NFL; 6) Daboll's offense does not utilize that kind of fullback; and 7) Clay and Hilliard have both worked at fullback this preseason; then I think you have to cut Polite.

The Dolphins usually only keep one fullback on the roster, and Clay is a much more promising and versatile player. Polite was the third fullback the Dolphins used in 2008, and I really think Polite could be gone as quickly as he came.

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

As has been the case basically all offseason, the top four receivers are locked in. Marshall is the No. 1 guy assuming he doesn't end up dead or in jail, and Hartline and Bess should actively split time as the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. Gates has shown promise with his speed and should have a situational role in the offense.

The question here is whether the team will keep five or six receivers, and who will win that job (or those jobs). Fans are unreasonably high on Moore, and I personally believe every NFL team has a similar guy (or two) in camp every year. I just don't think the guy is special, and he's certainly not going to crack the top four in Miami any time soon.

Personally, I see the Dolphins keeping Wallace, who has Marshall size, solid hands, and is one of the team's best special-teamers. The Dolphins' fifth receiver isn't going to play much offense anyway, so I'd rather keep the guy that contributes elsewhere.

If the Dolphins do end up going thinner at another position, then Moore could be in as that sixth guy. But I personally don't see the point in keeping a buried guy around for offensive depth, so I'm sticking with my prediction of only Wallace.

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

This is such a difficult position to predict, but there is so little talent behind Fasano right now. This was a problem last year and the Dolphins clearly did not address it, so I don't know where they'll go.

Mastrud has been working as the No. 2 guy most of the preseason, so I have to figure he's the top choice as backup. Shuler is probably the next best player, so if I keep three tight ends, he's in over Brackett or Epps.

I could also envision scenario where two tight ends are kept (and remember, Clay could factor in too) which would allow someone like Marlon Moore or a sixth corner to stick. But for now, I'm rolling with three pure tight ends.

Another thing to keep in mind is that no matter who survives final cuts, they still won't be safe. John Nalbone stuck around last year only to be cut shortly after the season began.

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

Despite not playing in the regular season, I fully expect Long to be the Week 1 starter now that he's off the PUP list. And as disheartening as it is, Colombo seems locked into the right tackle job to begin the season.

I honestly would have no problem if Murtha or Willis supplanted Colombo mid-season if the aging veteran struggles, and I'd keep both on the roster. Murtha has worked extensively at both tackle positions and Willis has starting talent and can play right tackle or right guard.

I include Garner in this section, but you could really talk about him anywhere. Garner has worked at center, guard and tackle this preseason and is a valuable guy off the bench. He can literally play all five positions and held his own as a starter in 2009.

An undrafted rookie, Jones played sparingly in the preseason except for late in games and he's only a practice squad candidate.

Offensive guards (3): Richie Incognito, Vernon Carey, Ray Feinga
Released: Garrett Chisolm, John Jerry, Matt Kopa

Incognito and Carey are locked in as the starting guards, which certainly isn't ideal considering how mediocre Incognito has been and how un-athletic Carey has looked thus far.

Feinga looks to be the top backup here, as he can play both guard spots and even started at left tackle in the preseason finale. Chisolm and Kopa just haven't done enough and should garner practice squad consideration.

The real disappointment here is Jerry, who gets the axe just one year after being taken in the third round. Jerry was a disappointment last year and has been even worse during camp and the preseason. The Dolphins aren't going to kept him just because of where they drafted him, and he's really played his way off the roster.

Centers (1): Mike Pouncey
Released: Joe Berger

Berger never had a chance to beat out the first-rounder considering his own struggles as a starter in 2010, and I personally don't see any reason to keep him on the roster at all.

The Dolphins may need a backup center for practice purposes on the practice squad, but we all know Incognito and Garner can relieve Pouncey in games if needed, and I think that makes the veteran Berger expendable.

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

The Dolphins are so deep at defensive end, it's really unfair. They truly have four starting talented for two spots, as McDaniel and Odrick provide almost no drop-off from Langford and Starks. All four should factor into the rotation heavily this season.

The question here is if the team will keep a fifth guy and who that will be. I'd predicted Merling up to this point, but I'm starting to think he just isn't worth it considering he's in the last year of his deal and has been slowed by last year's Achilles' injury. (Don't expect a trade though—if the Dolphins could have gotten something for him, they would have.)

Since I'm jettisoning Merling, that gives Baker room to stay for now. I don't consider Baker a starting talent or a guy that has much upside, but he's had a good preseason and is a Sparano favorite. He can also play both end and nose, making him a little more worthy of that roster spot.

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

Ever since he's been drafted, I've been a little paranoid Fields won't make the team because of what happened to Marques Douglas and Charles Grant last year. But Fields is a borderline starting talent and capable backup that has plenty of experience with Mike Nolan, so I don't see why he wouldn't stick as Soliai's backup.

Helping Fields' case is that Kearse just isn't ready for regular season action yet, so there's really no other competition on the roster. The rookie seventh-rounder could be a practice squad candidate.

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

Wake is entrenched at one starting spot, and I honestly think we might see a whole lot of Taylor over Misi on the other side. Misi just doesn't look all that special, and Taylor still has something left. Expect to see both working on defense this season.

Trusnik has shown to be a solid backup and great special-teamer, so I'd expect him to stay. I also still like IAF's potential as a backup and run-stuffing linebacker, so I'd keep him over the two raw undrafted rookies.

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

Dansby should benefit from the upgrade of Burnett over Channing Crowder alongside him, and the Dolphins really do have a truly great pair of starting inside linebackers. It should be fun to watch.

Edds is locked in as the top backup and could even see some time on defense in passing situations. The question here is who will be that No. 4 guy, and I think Mitchell has the most talent on both defense and special teams, so I'd give him the spot.

Cornerbacks (5): Vontae Davis, Sean Smith, Benny Sapp, Nolan Carroll, Jimmy Wilson
Released: Vince Agnew, Will Allen, Nate Ness

The Dolphins' two young starting corners are looking as good as ever, and I absolutely can't wait to see how they do in 2011. The front seven has been the Dolphins' strong suit the past few years, but this secondary is going to get a lot better as Davis and Smith mature.

Allen made a few nice plays last night and forced an interception, but I personally wouldn't keep him regardless of his performance in the finale. I like Sapp better as the nickel guy, and when you consider Allen's age, durability issues, and salary, I just don't see the point.

If the Dolphins are going to roll with Davis, Smith and Sapp as their top three, I would much rather keep two developmental guys in Carroll and Wilson over an aging and injury-prone Allen.

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

The aging Bell went unchallenged at strong safety, but one wonders how much longer he'll be a starter. The free safety battle failed to generate much separation, so I'll go with Clemons for now. That could very well change soon, though.

Restelli was never an option to stick around, and the veteran Alexander didn't have much time to impress the coaches. Culver took a pay cut this offseason and already knows the defense, so he makes more sense. Alexander could be on speed dial in the regular season if there's an injury.

Special teams (3): Dan Carpenter, Brandon Fields, John Denney

Fields is a pure beast of a punter. Carpenter and Denney make up a fantastic triumvirate on special teams, and none of them had any camp competition on the roster.

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:

  • WR Phillip Livas — Moore is not practice squad eligible, so of the Dolphins' cuts at receiver, I'd keep Livas around to see if he can build some consistently at receiver.
  • WR John Matthews — We haven't seen much of Matthews in the preseason, but Pruitt has done nothing in two years, so I'd rather give the fresher face a longer look.
  • TE Brett Brackett — Brackett has intriguing physical tools but was quiet in his first preseason. I'd like to see more of him on the practice squad.
  • OT Matt Kopa — Jerry isn't practice-squad eligible, and Kopa has experience at both tackle and guard. I could see him being replaced by an outsider from another team, but among the Dolphins' cuts, I'd keep him.
  • OG Garrett Chisolm — Chisolm tore his ACL last December and was on the non-football injury list until last week. He needs more time to develop, but he has promise and I really hope he sticks around here.
  • NT Frank Kearse — The Dolphins' seventh-rounder isn't ready to contribute at the NFL level, but he's an intriguing raw prospect and is worth keeping a little longer.
  • ILB Austin Spitler — The team usually keeps another inside 'backer on the practice squad, and I'm more interested in seeing Spitler over Nixon.
  • CB Nate Ness — Ness may get plucked by another team, but I'd keep him over Agnew as a sixth corner for practice if he's available.
One thing to keep in mind is that some of my cuts, like wide receiver Marlon Moore and lineman 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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