Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dolphins work out three CFL players Thursday

As many NFL teams do during the week, the Miami Dolphins worked out three free agents Thursday. A trait all three have in common is that they are currently members the Canadian Football League, which just saw its season end in November.

Nose tackle Khalif Mitchell, offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye and running back Marcus Thigpen were not immediately signed due to CFL rules restricting migration until Jan. 2, but the Dolphins organization that has a history of bringing in CFL players will keep them under consideration for practice squad spots and/or a potential offseason roster signing.

Khalif Mitchell

The 6-foot-4, 316-pound Mitchell contributed 15 tackles as a true freshman at North Carolina in 2005 before transferring to East Carolina and sitting out the following season per NCAA regulations.

Mitchell made an immediate impact for the Pirates in 2007, earning an All-Conference USA honorable mention with 19 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and two sacks. As a senior in 2008, Mitchell appeared in seven tackles and totaled 16 sacks (three for a loss) and a sack.

Undrafted in 2009, Mitchell signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a rookie free agent and spent most of his rookie season on the team's practice squad. He attended training camp with the Niners in 2010 but was once again waived during final cuts.

Shortly after his release, Mitchell joined the BC Lions of the CFL and went on to appear in eight games, totaling six tackles. He experienced a breakout season in 2011, recording 33 tackles and six sacks (third on the team) while helping the Lions win the 99th Grey Cup.

Jovan Olafioye

Olafioye originally attended Grand Rapids Community College before transferring to North Carolina Central and helping the Eagles to a CIAA championship in 2007. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder received little interest from the NFL, however, and went undrafted in 2010.

After signing with the CFL's BC Lions in 2010, Olafioye quickly established himself as one of the best offensive lineman in the league. He started all 18 games for the Lions at right guard and left tackle as a rookie, earning CFL West All-Star honors.

The success continued into 2011, as Olafioye served as the Lions' starting right tackle on their way a Grey Cup victory. Olafioye was again named a CFL All-Star and was runner-up for the league's offensive lineman of the year award.

According to recent reports, Olafioye is training in Los Angeles as he prepares for NFL auditions. He has worked out for the Vikings and Dolphins thus far and also has auditions scheduled with the Browns, Jets and Steelers.

Marcus Thigpen

Thigpen attended Indiana University, where he played football and ran track. For the Hoosiers' football team, he left he school ranked second all-time in return yardage and also became the first player in team history with over 1,000 rushing yards (1,621), receiving yards (1,028) and kickoff return yards (2,009).

After going undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft, Thigpen (5-9, 190) signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent but was waived on Aug. 4. He spent part of the preseason with the Denver Broncos but was again waived.

From there, Thigpen headed north and signed to the practice roster of the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders. He attended training camp with the Roughriders in 2010 but was released and moved on to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

As a rookie for the Tiger-Cats, Thigpen returned the season's opening kickoff for a touchdown and totaled 234 rushing yards and two scores and 20 catches for 234 yards and and a touchdown on the season. He was the team's nominee for the league's most outstanding rookie after ranking second in the CFL with 1,722 combined return yards.

In 2011, Thigpen rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown, caught 28 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns, and served as the Tiger-Cats' primary returner with 1,522 combined return yards (with one touchdown) to rank fourth in the CFL.


These guys are far from household names in the states and the Dolphins haven't signed any of them yet, but they are worth keeping in mind because of the Dolphins regime's persistent exploration of CFL talent.

In four years since Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland took over in Miami, the Dolphins have brought in numerous players with CFL experience, including wide receiver Todd Lowber in 2008; linebacker Tearrius George, wide receiver James Robinson, and linebacker Cameron Wake in 2009; fullback Rolly Lumbala, wide receiver Ryan Grice-Mullen, and guard Dimitri Tsoumpas in 2010; and safety Mark Restelli in 2011. The team also had interest in current Vikings wideout Emmanuel Arceneaux this past offseason.

Mitchell has your prototypical 3-4 nose tackle size and appealed to the 49ers a few years back, so he'd have a chance to compete for a backup or practice squad spot if he was brought to camp in 2012. He's coming off a good year in the CFL, but he'd have to be considered a long shot to ever make it with the Dolphins.

Thigpen is listed as a running back, but I don't really think the Dolphins' interest lies with him in the running game. He's primarily a pass catcher with his good hands and diminutive size, and where he's made the most impact thus far in the CFL is in the return game. At best he profiles as a third-down back and return man, but his problem will be separating himself enough on special teams to make a final roster when he's unlikely to contribute in other areas.

Of the three, I think Olafioye has the most upside and the most chance to be brought in by the Dolphins and legitimately push for a roster spot. He just turned 24 and already has two outstanding CFL years under his belt. He also possesses the size and strength to play in the NFL, profiling more as a guard despite playing most of his time in the CFL at tackle. Olafioye also seems to be generating the most NFL interest of the three discussed here and is someone the Dolphins could definitely look to sign once their offseason begins.

While only Pro Bowl linebacker Cameron Wake has even made the Dolphins' roster of the CFL players the Dolphins have signed in recent years, the team continues to mine for talent in the Great White North and these three players are worth keeping an eye on for next year's training camp.

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