Miami Dolphins Training Camp Preview: Secondary

It’s been a reoccurring theme here at Phins Phocus to start every post with a daily update from the labor front. The good news is that trend is reportedly on the brink of coming to an end, as the players and owners now appear to be virtually the voting process away from finalizing a new deal.

Our days as pretend legal analysts are almost a thing of the past and we can thankfully concentrate solely on what we do best: discussing Miami Dolphins’ football.

It’s been like pulling teeth at times this offseason trying to come up with interesting and relative reading material, but things are about to change rather rapidly here once we have a new CBA.

Free agency and training camp basically opening simultaneously is going to stir up a league-wide frenzy. It’s going to be exciting and possibly a little overwhelming, especially considering that the Dolphins are expected to be major players in free agency with holes to fill at quarterback, running back, and outside linebacker among lesser needs and the impending addition of several undrafted rookies.

There’s no doubt that we’re experiencing the calm before the storm. We’ve been passing the time by previewing Dolphins’ training camp, which, if the schedule isn’t interrupted by the lockout, will kick off a week from today.

Contrast to tradition, we’re only looking at the positions that won’t drastically change in free agency. As you already know, the Dolphins will be signing or possibly even trading for at least two potential starters. Once those positions have been addressed, their outlook will drastically change depending who is brought in.

The secondary likely won’t be adjusted much by Jeff Ireland, outside of a few roster fringe moves. I suppose there is always the chance that the Dolphins land a starting caliber free safety, but with a weak market and two promising young players in Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones set to battle it out, Miami is probably content with what they have.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN FREE AGENCY
Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones flashed too much potential in 2010 for the Dolphins to go out and spend big bucks to reel in a quality starting free safety. Odds are one will emerge as a solid player for the Dolphins’ secondary.

Obviously, the Dolphins are set on the top end of corner as well, with two stars in the making and a valuable veteran presence that projects to take over nickel corner duties.

Expect the Dolphins to add at least one or two free agent cornerbacks, though, most likely of the undrafted rookie variety, as they opened camp with nine corners on the roster a year ago and presently only have six under contract.

CORNERBACKS

SAFE

Vontae Davis: He may not be there quite yet, but after watching the progress Vontae Davis made in his second season as a pro, it’s clear that the Dolphins have themselves an elite corner in the making. Some naive fans point to Vontae’s decline in interceptions from four as a rookie to only one last year as a sign he regressed as a sophomore. But picks don’t even tell half of the story.

After being burned deep frequently as a rookie, Davis was targeted far less in his second season and rarely gave up the big play. In addition to being sound in coverage, he’s also established himself as a complete football player. He’ll come up and make plays in run support when need be and he’s an exceptionally physical open-field tackler.

I expect him to continue to build off of the improvement he made in his second season and eventually establish himself as one of the league’s top corners.

Sean Smith: Vontae’s side kick, Sean Smith, isn’t as far behind as many perceive. Sean isn’t exactly a sure tackler in the open field and will rarely make the plays Vontae does in run support, but, contrary to popular belief, he’s actually the better cover corner.

Pro Football Focus recently did a study that unveiled Smith was only targeted on 9.82% of his coverage snaps, second only to Nnamdi Asomugha. Smith also ranked 4th in receptions allowed per coverage snaps. That’s elite company for Sean, who quietly has the ability to erase opposing receivers with a freakish combination of length and speed.

Now, if he can just hang on to the passes that hit him square in the hands, he could very easily emerge as one of the game’s finest corners.

POSSIBLE CUTS

Will Allen: I list Allen with the possible cuts only because of the uncertainty behind his knee. The Dolphins probably prematurely placed him on injured reserve a year ago, but reports had it that he just didn’t look like his old self in practice after tearing his ACL in 2009.

If he’s made a full recovery, though, he instantly upgrades the Dolphins’ secondary. Davis and Smith were more than adequate on the perimeter in 2010, but the play of nickel corner Benny Sapp was inconsistent. Will Allen should provide stability at the position and restrict an area where opposing offenses had success a year ago. His wisdom and leadership on a young corps will go a long way as well.

Benny Sapp: Trading for Benny Sapp was probably the best the Dolphins could do to salvage their nickel corner position after Will Allen was placed on IR. Sapp was far from spectacular, but he was able to stop the bleeding and prevented a huge crack in the Dolphins’ defense on passing situations. But for a defense on the verge of doing great things, just an average nickel corner won’t suffice.

If healthy, Will Allen will easily beat out Sapp for the job. And if the Dolphins want to free up a little cap space, they could potentially cut Sapp and save $1.9 million. They better be pretty confident in Allen’s health for that scenario to play out, though.

Nolan Carroll: The Dolphins did all they could to speed up the development of Carroll in his rookie season, giving him opportunities to play as a boundary corner when Mike Nolan moved Sean Smith to safety in certain packages. He saw some ups and downs in coverage, but his biggest contribution came as kick returner.

There were times Carroll appeared a block away from a big return but was just never quite able to break away. The Dolphins will likely enlist a more explosive option to return kicks this year, freeing up Carroll to focus more on corner and taking his game to the next level.

Nate Ness: Ness opened some eyes with a solid showing against Tampa Bay last year in the preseason, breaking up a goal-line pass and forcing a fumble, but was unable to string together another impressive outing and thus failed to make the squad.

Ness was quickly claimed off waivers by the Seahawks where he was later waived again and claimed back by Miami. Ness could be the beneficiary of Sapp potentially getting the boot, but he’ll need a strong training camp and preseason to earn the spot.

SAFETY

SAFE

Yeremiah Bell: It’s now been three consecutive 100+ tackle seasons for Yeremiah Bell, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2009. Bell doesn’t get much recognition around the league, but knowledgeable Dolphins fans truly appreciate how big of an impact he’s had on Miami’s defense.

He’s an in the box type player who’s tremendous in run support but isn’t as skilled in coverage. At 33 years old, though, the Dolphins will need to start searching for his successor in the near future.

Chris Clemons: He went unnoticed at times out there in 2010, but I’m sure we’ll all take unnoticed over the blown coverages and missed tackles Gibril Wilson brought to the table in 2009. Clemons was mentally sound and provided security over the top in coverage and as the last line of defense with elite speed.

But becoming more of a difference maker is next in line if he wants to secure the starting free safety job and hold off Reshad Jones, who will get the chance to compete after flashing signs of being a ball hawk in his rookie season.

Reshad Jones: Jones only saw limited action in year one, but he made the most of his opportunities. He made some noise in Week 10 against the Titans in the Dolphins’ only home win, picking off a pass and defending another two to seal the deal in the fourth quarter.

More game-changing plays in camp and the preseason could be enough to unseat Clemons as the starter. Outside of a likely open quarterback competition, the battle for starting free safety should be the most interesting camp battle to monitor.

POSSIBLE CUTS

Tyrone Culver: Has been a fairly reliable backup in three years with Miami. He doesn’t have a high ceiling, but he’s going to prevent things from falling apart if he’s called upon.

Right now, Culver is projected to be Bell’s backup at strong safety, but there are a couple young prospects with more potential that could make things interesting.

Jonathon Amaya: Amaya didn’t have a noteworthy training camp or preseason a year ago, but did enough in the spring of 2010 to be considered a possible 53-man roster dark horse. If he can consistently begin to be the playmaker he was in minicamps and OTA’s last offseason, he’ll give the Dolphins a lot to think about.

The Dolphins likely wouldn’t keep three free safeties, though, so if Amaya began to produce, he would possibly have to rely on Reshad Jones being moved to strong safety to realistically have a chance at cracking the 53.

Jimmy Wilson: The seventh-round selection out of Montana has considerably more potential than most rookies who last as long as he did in the draft. Some scouts suggest Wilson had the ability to go as high as the second or third round, but because of his off-field baggage, he nearly went undrafted.

Wilson is a heavy hitter who projects to be a difference maker on special-teams. With backups, special-teams play can make all the difference when fighting for a roster spot.

Mark Restelli: A standout at linebacker for the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL, Mark Restelli will likely have to be a stud special-teams contributor if he wants to avoid being nothing more than a camp body.

Considering that the Dolphins found an elite pass rusher in the CFL, though, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to ride off players making the jump from Canada to Miami.

PREDICTIONS

Cornerback Depth Chart
1. Vontae Davis
2. Sean Smith
3. Will Allen
4. Nolan Carroll
5. Nate Ness

Cuts
Benny Sapp

Free Safety Depth Chart
1. Chris Clemons
2. Reshad Jones

Strong Safety Depth Chart
1. Yeremiah Bell
2. Tyrone Culver

Cuts
Jonathon Amaya
Jimmy Wilson
Mark Restelli

COUNTDOWN TO CAMP: 7 days 

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