Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dolphins work out Brian Westbrook, four other running backs

NFL teams usually spend the early days of the week working on free agents, whether it be to replace players due to injuries or simply to update information for in-house scouting reports for potential signings at a later date.

The Miami Dolphins spent this past Tuesday working out a handful of running backs, headlined by former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook. The news was actually broken by Westbrook on Twitter, who indicated that the workout went well but that "they need some other players right now."

Joining Westbrook were free agent running backs Thomas Clayton, Julius Jones, Dimitri Nance, and Kevin Smith. Clayton and Nance were let go by their former teams during final cuts, while Jones and Smith have been on the market all offseason after their 2010 contracts expired.

Westbrook is certainly the most accomplished of the bunch, having rushed for 6,335 yards and scored 71 offensive touchdowns in his career. He spent the first eight years of his career with the Eagles before playing in San Francisco last season, and at 32 with durability issues he's having trouble landing a permanent gig.

The 27-year-old Clayton has just seven carries in three regular season games with the Browns and Patriots. The Kansas State product was originally drafted by the 49ers in 2006 and has also spent time with the Seahawks.

Jones was drafted in the second round in 2004 when Bill Parcells, Jeff Ireland, and Tony Sparano were all employed by the Cowboys. He has amassed just over 5,000 rushing yards in seven seasons, starting four years in Dallas and two in Seattle before splitting last season as a backup with the Seahawks and Saints.

Signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State in 2010, Nance was signed off the practice squad by the Packers in September. He went on to appear in 12 games, averaging 2.6 yards on 36 carries and earning a Super Bowl ring in the team's victory over the Steelers. He was waived during final cuts in 2011.

Selected by the Lions in the third round out of UCF in 2008, Smith spent his first two seasons as the team's starting running back. He suffered a torn ACL late in the 2009 season and appeared in six games as a reserve in 2010 before a thumb injury landed him on I.R. After rushing for 1,856 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons, Smith was non-tendered as a restricted free agent in the 2011 offseason.

While free agent workouts are typical each week of the regular season, the fact that the Dolphins focused on the running back position could mean a few things. Rookie Daniel Thomas missed the opener with a hamstring injury and is still a question mark for Week 2, while Reggie Bush was only average against the Patriots and has never been able to handle a feature role in the past.

However, none of these running backs are particularly appealing and there is no guarantee any will be signed  by the Dolphins. Westbrook and Jones should be considered no more than stopgaps at this point in their career, while Clayton and Nance don't offer much upside. At just 24, Smith offers the best combination of youth and ability, but he has durability and performance concerns.

It's possible the Dolphins could end up replacing veteran backup Larry Johnson with one of these five, and he's the only one in the team's backfield that could even possibly be cut this season. (Lex Hilliard is too valuable on special teams and has versatility at fullback.) However, none of these players is an obvious upgrade.

Donald Thomas signs with Pats

Former Miami Dolphins starting guard Donald Thomas signed with the New England Patriots on Wednesday. Thomas should help provide depth on a Patriots offensive line that lost starting center Dan Koppen to a broken ankle in the season opener and has already done with numerous other injuries.

Drafted by the Dolphins as a raw project in the sixth round out of Connecticut in 2008, the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Thomas impressed in his initial training camp and won the team's starting right guard job as a rookie.

However, a foot injury in his first regular season game wiped out his rookie season and he was benched in favor of Nate Garner during the 2009 season after starting the team's first 12 contests. The Dolphins ended up severing ties with him during final cuts last year and he later signed with the Detroit Lions, though he did not appear in a game.

Still just 25, Thomas has the potential to develop into a good player if he's coached up right, but his career has been on a downward spiral since his rookie season and his lack of practice-squad eligibility may hurt his career.

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