Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Training Camp Battles #10: Backup Wide Receivers

The highly-anticipated and HBO-documented Miami Dolphins training camp is just over two weeks away, so it's time to come off the slowest time of the NFL calendar and take a look at some of the training camp battles facing the team in 2012.

The Dolphins' wide receiver corps has been widely called one of the worst, if not the worst, in the league. It certainly is a cause for concern as we head into Joe Philbin's rookie season as the team's new head coach, but the starting spots are not what concern me today. Rather, my No. 10 training camp battle to watch involves the bottom of the receiver depth chart.

Realistically, the Dolphins have a few locks at receiver (Davone Bess and Brian Hartline) and if Chad Ochocinco can show he's still got it, he should make the team in a featured capacity as well. If you assume the top three are set, then you have nine players competing for two or three spots on the roster.

The Main Contenders

  • Legedu Naanee — A former college quarterback with size (6-2, 220), Naanee was signed to a one-year, minimum deal in April after largely disappointing in five seasons with the Chargers and Panthers. If beat writer Omar Kelly is to be believed (and that's rarely a good idea), Naanee has been extremely impressive in offseason workouts. If that's true he certainly has a shot to crack the top four. However, with a weak track record, he's unlikely to be kept as a bottom-of-the-roster time over younger prospects.
  • Clyde Gates — Unlike Naanee, all reports about Gates' offseason have been extremely negative, with many covering the team saying he's in serious danger to not make the roster. Personally, I find it hard to believe the second-year fourth-rounder won't be able to crack the Dolphins' receiving corps, and his rare speed makes him a worthwhile project.

On the Fringe

  • Roberto Wallace — An undrafted free agent in 2010, Wallace caught six passes his rookie season and played in just two games in 2011 before landing on injured reserve with a quad injury. He has Brandon Marshall's frame (6-4, 225) but not his talent, although special teams is where he really shines. Wallace is easily the best special teams player of this bunch, which will always give him a chance to make the roster as a fifth or sixth receiver.
  • Marlon Moore — Like Wallace, Moore arrived in Miami as an undrafted rookie in 2010. Also like Wallace, he caught six passes as a rookie (albeit for a more productive 128 yards and a touchdown) before failing to catch a pass and landing on IR in 2011. Some fans like Moore's upside, but he's not all that great on special teams and I just don't see the talent there. With a handful of fresh blood at the position, I think it will be hard for Moore to stick around for a third season.
  • B. J. Cunningham — A prolific receiver at Michigan State, Cunningham was drafted by the Dolphins in the sixth round of April's draft. He reportedly had an impressive offseason showing, so a solid performance on special teams could land him the final spot on the roster as a developmental prospect.
  • Rishard Matthews — Taken a round after Cunningham out of the University of Nevada, Matthews isn't quite as seasoned as his fellow rookie draft pick but does offer some intrigue as a prospect. He too will need to shine on special teams to beat out the competition for a final roster spot.
  • Jeff Fuller — Fuller makes my "fringe" list over a few more experienced incumbents below for one reason—familiarity. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound undrafted rookie had an impressive career at Texas A&M marred by a drop problem as a senior, but he has extensive experience with Dolphins' offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and first-round quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Combine that with talent and upside equal to if not better than both of the Dolphins' drafted receivers, and Fuller is certainly in the mix for a practice squad spot, if not an active roster gig.

Long Shots

  • Chris Hogan — A college lacrosse player with little football experience at FCS Monmouth, Hogan made the Dolphins' practice squad late in 2011 due to an impressive showing in workout auditions. That being said, this organization has no ties to him and he should be considered the longest of long shots, with the practice squad being his only semi-realistic hope.
  • Julius Pruitt — A speedy undrafted receiver from Ouachita Baptist in 2009, Pruitt has spent two-plus seasons on the practice squad and played in nine games as a special-teamer in 2011 after injuries to Wallace and Moore. It'd be a nice story, but it seems unlikely Pruitt is finally going to break out and he may have a hard time sticking around under a new coaching staff looking for fresh prospects to round out the depth chart.

The Verdict

As I said before, this article assumes that Ochocinco, Hartline and Bess make the team as the top three, even if Ochocinco isn't a lock to make the team at all. But Ochocinco is locked in as a starter if he makes the team, because there is no way the Dolphins would keep a veteran at his price to sit on the bench.

The same can be said for Naanee, which is why I consider him one of the keys to this whole discussion. If Naanee impresses and earns a role on the offense, he'll take up one of the top three or top four spots. However, if he fails to earn a significant role on offense, you can be certain he doesn't make the team over younger players.

If I had to guess, I would say that Naanee and Gates do make the team and a sixth receiver is kept for special teams/developmental purposes. Wallace is my favorite among the holdovers because of his special teams ability, and I like Cunningham's chances as well given his track record and reliability.

That would give the Dolphins six active roster receivers, which is possible but certainly not a guarantee. In that event they would likely keep one extra receiver on the practice squad. That spot would likely go to either Matthews or Fuller. I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that the undrafted Fuller makes it over seventh-rounder Matthews due to upside and familiarity.

Regardless of how things shake out, it's important to temper expectations for the late-round draft picks and undrafted players. For every Marques Colston and Victor Cruz, there are a hundred guys that never amount to anything. While it's possible the Dolphins could find a diamond in the rough among the names discussed here, you certainly cannot bank on it.

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