Sunday, September 4, 2011

Breaking down the Dolphins' final cuts

The Miami Dolphins made 27 roster moves today, trimming their roster from 80 players to just 53 in line with the NFL's regular season limit.

26 of those players we waived or outright released, and offensive tackle Lydon Murtha was surprisingly placed on season-ending injured reserve with a torn ligament in his toe. You can see a full list of the Dolphins' roster moves here.

I'd projected the Dolphins' 53-man roster multiple times over the past month, and did fairly well in my predictions. (Bow to me, those of you that thought the Dolphins wouldn't cut Will Allen or Lousaka Polite!)


However, there were definitely some surprises, among those cut as well as those not cut. In this article, I'll go position by position discussing my thoughts on the moves the Dolphins made (or didn't make) as well as look at players the team might target on the waiver wire.

It's important to remember that the 53 players that survived today won't necessarily be the 53 that are with the team on Sept. 12 against the Patriots. The Dolphins will be scouring the waivers wires for depth and hidden gems, so a handful more Dolphins could get released in the coming days.


Quarterback

Chad Henne and Matt Moore make the roster as the Dolphins first- and second-string quarterbacks, as was always going to be the case barring injury.

The surprise here is that the Dolphins waived both Pat Devlin and O'Connell, leaving the team with just two quarterbacks on the active roster. Keeping only two quarterbacks is something some teams have done, but this Dolphins staff has never really been one of them.

Unless the Dolphins are expecting to add a third quarterback from another team, it seems likely they'll keep only two on the 53-man roster. In that event, expect a developmental guy like Devlin or Adam Froman, who worked out for the Dolphins this weekend, to be signed to the prattice squad. A less likely fallback option is Tom Brandstater, who began camp with the Dolphins and was waived by Dallas during final cuts.


Running back

With Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, the question here was whether the Dolphins would keep three running backs or four total, and if they kept three, would that last spot go to Lex Hilliard or Larry Johnson?

It ended up being Hilliard, which is not difficult to understand considering his play on special teams and the fact that he's been working some at fullback this preseason (see next section). Johnson appeared to be in good shape, but the Dolphins have a tendency to go younger during final cuts and they did so again here.

There is always a chance Johnson could return following Week 1, at which time his contract for the season will not be guaranteed. The team could also look for another veteran like Chester Taylor (Bears).

More likely, I'd expect the team to pursue a younger running back to back up Bush and Thomas, with guys like ex-Dolphins draft pick Dimitri Nance (Packers), Chris Ogbonnaya (Texans), Jalen Parmele (Ravens), and Evan Royster (Redskins).


Fullback

I got a lot of flak from Dolphins fans for suggesting Lousaka Polite could be cut, but I first suggested it the day Charles Clay was drafted and I stood by it every step of the way. Tony Sparano can talk up Polite as much as he wants, but the writing was on the wall when he began to be phased out of Brian Daboll's offense.

As much as some may not see it, this is absolutely the right move. Polite is coming off a down year, was overpaid and in the last year of his deal, and was moving to a scheme that didn't fit him. Clay is younger, more versatile, and more of a fit in Daboll's offense. The short-yardage role can be easily filled and the traditional block-only fullback is dying in the NFL.

With Clay showing promise and Hilliard in the mix as well, I would suggest the Dolphins are set at fullback for the 2011 season and I don't see them looking for one on the waiver wire.


Wide receiver

The Dolphins' top four receivers were set, and it was obvious that Patrick Carter, John Matthews, and Julius Pruitt didn't really have a chance to make the final roster. Phillip Livas disappeared after a big return in the preseason opener, and didn't do enough to justify a roster spot. It's possible one or two of these guys could land on the practice squad.

I initially had the Dolphins keeping only Roberto Wallace and three tight ends, but the Dolphins ended up going with two true tight ends and keeping both Wallace and Marlon Moore. I think Moore is a bit overrated by Dolphins fans due to some preseason performances, and quite frankly I don't see the point in keeping six receivers when only five are active on game days and only four of those play really play offense.

I like Wallace because of his size and special-teams ability, and I honestly still don't think Moore will stick around all year. He's not as special as people think and he's not really going to contribute in 2011 barring multiple injuries, so I wouldn't use the roster spot.

I like a few of the receivers out there on the waiver wire, including Ricardo Lockette (Seahawks), Aldrick Robinson (Redskins) and Brandon Tate (Patriots). But because the Dolphins pretty much have a set five for 2011, I don't expect them to add anyone.


Tight end

With Anthony Fasano the only tight end worth anything, it was kind of a mystery how the depth chart was going to shake out here. Brett Brackett and Dedrick Epps were the obvious cuts, though Brackett is an intriguing prospect and I'd like to see him back on the practice squad.

Mickey Shuler was slowed by injury in camp and that really hurt his chances, while Jeron Mastrud is the obvious one to keep for now as he did well in the preseason and had been working as Fasano's primary backup.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that this is a very fluid situation. A year ago, the Dolphins came out of final cuts with only Fasano and John Nalbone, and they ended the season with Fasano and three guys picked up from other teams in Epps, Mastrud, and Shuler.

Expect the Dolphins to pick up at least one and maybe two tight ends from the waiver wire again, and don't consider Mastrud a lock to remain. In particular, I think the Patriots released two intriguing prospects in fifth-rounder Lee Smith and undrafted rookie Will Yeatman.


Offensive tackle

Jake Long and Marc Colombo enter the season as starters, although one has to wonder if Colombo is going to hold up well enough after a very rough preseason. Unfortunately, the Dolphins don't have any other options right now and it could make for a messy situation.

The loss of Lydon Murtha to I.R. is a big hit to the team's depth at tackle. Murtha had his struggles both last year and this preseason, but he'd been working as Long's primary backup and had experience at both tackle spots. He was essentially the No. 2 tackle on both sides, making his loss pretty significant considering the durability concerns with the starters.

As the roster now stands, the versatile Nate Garner will probably play a big role as a backup to both tackles, and we also saw Ray Feinga work at left tackle in the preseason finale, which adds a bit more depth.

Because the Dolphins only have nine linemen and the true backup is lacking at left tackle, expect the Dolphins to keep one on the practice squad to spell Long. Candidates include cuts D. J. Jones and Matt Kopa, but the team could also look elsewhere.


Offensive guard

Richie Incognito returns as the uncontested starter at left guard, and convert Vernon Carey will start at right guard after taking a pay cut, despite shaky transition thus far.

Ray Feinga held up well in the preseason and even showed some versatility by playing tackle, so it's no surprise he made the team. The big shocker here is that 2010 third-rounder John Jerry was not cut, as to an outside observer watching him play, you'd think that's what he was trying to do given how bad he looked.

I have to think Jerry isn't safe yet, because he was just so bad in the preseason after a disappointing 2010 season. The Dolphins won't just keep him because of where they drafted him, as they showed with Pat White last year.

Undrafted rookie Garrett Chisolm was an obvious cut considering he was just activated from the non-football injury list last week and didn't play in the preseason. Chisolm does have a lot of promise though and he's a prime candidate for the practice squad.


Center

I'm a bit surprised that Joe Berger remains on the roster as the backup to first-round rookie Mike Pouncey, considering how poorly Berger played as a starter in 2010 and how he doesn't really offer any upside at this point in his career.

My thinking in expecting Berger cut was that Incognito and Garner could back up Pouncey at center, but the loss of Murtha to I.R. at tackle may have increased the need for Feinga and Garner to work outside and created a ripple effect that kept Berger on the roster.

One thing to keep in mind is that Berger's $1.5 million salary in 2011 is guaranteed if he is on the roster for Week 1, so unless he's released between now and Sept. 12, expect him to play out the entire final year of his deal in Miami.


Defensive end

This remains by far the deepest position on the team, with starting-caliber players like Tony McDaniel and Jared Odrick backing up listed starters Kendall Langford and Randy Starks. The reality is that all four will rotate heavily in games and that's a tried-and-true system for the Dolphins.

Up until yesterday, I had been projecting Phillip Merling to make the roster over Ryan Baker and Rob Rose, who remains a bit undersized for the 3-4. I changed the fifth remaining end to Baker in my last projection Friday given Baker's versatility and Merling's lack of athleticism, off-field troubles, and the fact that he was in the last year of his deal.

Unsurprisingly, Rose did get cut, but surprisingly, both Baker and Merling remain as the fifth and sixth ends as of today. I'm not really sure I see this lasting, and I personally wouldn't be surprised if Merling is shown the door sooner or later.


Nose tackle

Ronald Fields was a guy I thought the Dolphins may get before free agency even began, and I had been projecting him to make the roster as Paul Soliai's backup. That being said, I consistently worried that he may get the Marques Douglas/Charles Grant treatment and end up being released despite seemingly providing nice veteran depth. That turned out to be just the case.

I'm surprised the Dolphins have kept Frank Kearse on the active roster, as the seventh-round rookie from Alabama A&M seems awfully raw and not really ready for NFL action. He seems more like practice squad material at this point, and I'm not sure he's worth keeping when ends like Baker and McDaniel can also play nose.


Outside linebacker

The Dolphins kept all five of the outside linebackers I expected, with Cameron Wake joining a platoon of Koa Misi and Jason Taylor as the team's starters. Jason Trusnik remains as an experience backup who shined on special teams in the preseason, while Ikaika Alama-Francis survives for now, though I think he'd be the first to go of the Dolphins added someone at this position off waivers.

I didn't see an NFL-ready player in either undrafted rookie, so it's not surprising that Jonathan Freeny and Quinton Spears were waived. I could see one back on the practice squad, and Spears would probably be my pick if that happens.


Inside linebacker

I was correct in assuming the Dolphins' top three inside linebackers were set with Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett, and A. J. Edds, but the team has surprisingly has kept two more backups with only David Nixon being released.

Both Marvin Mitchell and Austin Spitler currently remain on the roster, which seems like overkill to me as you don't really need five inside linebackers and only the fourth would probably be active on game days and be limited to special teams work anyway.

Mitchell remains the better of the two both on special teams and defense, so my guess is that Spitler will be waived sooner or later. He unfortunately is not eligible for the practice squad after having played 12 games in 2010, so this week could end up being an extended audition for Mitchell and Spitler to earn one spot on the roster.


Cornerback

Yet another position that worked out exactly as I expected, Vontae Davis, Sean Smith, and Benny Sapp remain the team's top three cornerbacks from a year ago, while promising youngsters Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson round out the five-deep depth chart.

Some thought Will Allen would stick given his restructured deal, track record, and good performance in the preseason finale, but I didn't see it happening. There was simply no sense using a roster spot on a durability-lacking veteran with a $1.5 million salary to be your fourth cornerback.

Carroll struggled in the preseason but still has a lot of potential, and Wilson is looking like a steal in the seventh round. Both guys can contribute on special teams and are worth keeping around.

Nate Ness gets waived during final cuts for the second straight year, and it's possible he is again claimed off waivers. If he is not, the Dolphins will likely try to add him back to the practice squad, as they like to keep at least six corners for practice purposes in-season.


Safety

We still don't really know who has won the starting free safety battle, but both Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones remain on the roster and I expect both to see a lot of time on defense in 2011 unless one really starts to pull ahead of the other.

Some fans want to add two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather, but I for one do not. Even ignoring the fact that he's a law-breaking jackass, he is an overrated player not worthy of his Pro Bowl selections and is generally viewed as a first-round bust by the Pats. Clemons and Jones may not stand out yet, but I'd much rather stick with either of them than pick up the Patriots' trash.

Tyrone Culver's restructured deal allows him to stick around as Yeremiah Bell's backup at strong safety. Gerald Alexander just didn't have enough time to impress the staff and wasn't an obvious upgrade, while Mark Restelli is probably headed back to the CFL where he belongs.

All in all, the Dolphins' four safeties look pretty set for 2011 unless the team finds someone on waivers that just knocks their socks off.


Special Teams

With no camp competition, there were no cuts to make as placekicker Dan Carpenter, punter/holder/golden god Brandon Fields, and long snapper John Denney all make the team once again. They've really grown into a strong unit and all do their jobs well, so none of them need to fear any waiver-wire replacements.

In the return game, it looks like Clyde Gates will be the primary kickoff and punt returner as he slowly grows into an offensive role. Undrafted rookie Phillip Livas just didn't do enough after his touchdown against Atlanta in Week 1, so his best bet is the practice squad.

We also know Nolan Carroll can return kicks, and I'd expect Davone Bess and Reggie Bush to back up as punt returners.


The "Not So Fast" List

As I said in the opening of this article, not all of the 53 Dolphins that survived final cuts will remain with the team. The Dolphins will probably claim at least two or three players (maybe more) off waivers on Sunday, and roster spots will need to be cleared for each one.

That being the case, here are a few players I'm singling out and saying "not so fast" to, because they probably shouldn't start celebrating just yet.

  • WR Marlon Moore — Moore is a fan favorite and an "obvious" choice to keep for some, but I don't agree. I don't think he's as special as people think and as I explained above, I see no need for six receivers. The Dolphins may trim this position down to five if they want to add a player elsewhere, and if that happens, Moore will be the first one to go.
  • TE Jeron Mastrud — It helps his chances that he's the only backup to Fasano right now, but that didn't work out well for Nalbone last year. The Dolphins will be looking for upgrades on the waiver wire, and that could get Mastrud replaced.
  • OG John Jerry — The 2010 third-rounder was a disappointment last year and was practically trying to play himself off the roster this preseason. Murtha's injury hurt Miami's line depth and helped Jerry stick, but he's certainly not safe considering how much of a bust he's been.
  • DE Ryan Baker/DE Phillip Merling — Six ends seems pretty unnecessary, so it wouldn't surprise me to see one of these guys go. Baker doesn't have much upside, but he's a Sparano favorite and can also play nose. Merling hasn't lived up to his second-round draft selection in 2008, is in the last year of his deal, and has lost athleticism due to a torn Achilles' a year ago, so he seems like the best bet to go.
  • NT Frank Kearse — A small-school seventh-rounder, Kearse didn't flash in the preseason and certainly doesn't seem ready to be active on game days and back up Soliai. I'd stick him on the practice squad and use McDaniel or Baker to back up nose tackle.
  • OLB Ikaika Alama-Francis — A converted end, "IAF" showed promise as a run-stuffing outside linebacker last year before an illness derailed his progression. He hasn't been all that impressive since and the Dolphins wouldn't hesitate to replace him with someone with more upside and pass-rush ability.
  • ILB Marvin Mitchell/ILB Austin Spitler — Five inside linebackers is one too many, since the forth is only a special-teams guy anyway. This position is very fluid and therefore both guys need to worry as long as they are on the roster, but I think Spitler is a little more likely to go first.


Practice Squad

Of the 26 players let go by the Dolphins today, the 20 non-veterans placed on waivers are all eligible for the eight-man practice squad. A few of the players added to this developmental group may come from other teams' cuts, but here are the eight in-house guys I'd keep:
  • QB Pat Devlin — The Dolphins need a third quarterback for practice and depth purposes, and Devlin is the guy I'd keep. His upside is limited, but he knows the offense pretty well and has the potential to be groomed as a backup.
  • RB Nic Grigsby — I'm not a fan of Grigsby's, but he's the only running back cut I can place here. I expect the Dolphins to have at least four on the team, though they might end up adding the fourth to the active roster.
  • WR Phillip Livas — Livas has blazing speed and some promise as a returner, so I think he's worth keeping around and potentially developing as a specialist despite his diminutive size and lack of upside on offense.
  • TE Brett Brackett — While he didn't stand out as much as I had hoped in the preseason, Brackett has a nice blend of size, speed and hands. I'd like to see more of him.
  • OT Matt Kopa — The Dolphins need a backup left tackle for practice purposes now that Murtha is done for the year, and I keep Kopa over D. J. Jones due to experience and versatility.
  • OG Garrett Chisolm — Now recovered from a torn ACL suffered last December, Chisolm is ready to begin his development. Chisolm is a raw prospect but his a tremendous worker with natural ability, so I really hope he sticks around.
  • OLB Quinton Spears — He needs to add more bulk to play at the NFL level and he's got a long way to go as a small school prospect, but Spears showed promise late in preseason games and I'd keep him around for now.
  • CB Nate Ness — Ness was claimed by Seattle at this time last year, so there's no guarantee he makes it through waivers. If he does, he's an obvious choice to bring back for depth given his nearly two years in the system.

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