The state of the Dolphins free safety position

Earlier tonight, Adam Schefter reported that the St. Louis Rams have released veteran free safety O.J. Atogwe. In the past two offseasons many fans let it be known their desire for the Dolphins to pursue Atogwe, as the free safety position has been a hole on this roster for several years.

Ultimately, though, upper management never made a serious play for Atogwe. Instead, they decided to bring in Gibril Wilson two years ago, who plagued the secondary with missed tackles and appalling coverage all of 2009, and last offseason, they chose to stay out of the Atogwe sweepstakes and entrusted the starting position to second-year safety Chris Clemons.

That decision should probably be looked at under a positive light, as Clemons was far from a disappointment and rookie Reshad Jones exhibited enough potential to forecast a stiff competition for the starting free safety job in this year’s training camp. Still though, both have a long way to go before we can proclaim that the Dolphins finally have themselves a solid starter at free safety. So when a sure bet like Atogwe becomes available, should Jeff Ireland seriously contemplate making a play for his services?

Matt Williamson of ESPN’s Scouts Inc. told ESPN’s AFC East Blog yesterday that “Miami’s defense is one good free safety away from being one of the elite units in 2011.” In his six seasons in St. Louis, Atogwe totaled 390 tackles, 22 interceptions, and broke up 38 passes. I would say that would qualify as a good safety. If it’s really that simple, should Stephen Ross open up the checkbook for a likely pricey contract if it means the Dolphins would project as an elite defense in 2011?

Personally, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. First and foremost, the Dolphins need to do whatever it takes to bring back Paul Soliai in the middle of the defense. If Soliai signs elsewhere, who knows if the run defense will be able to pick up where it left off last season. Also, I wouldn’t mind seeing them pick up a pass rushing specialist to assist Cameron Wake a little in passing situations.

But if we hypothetically assume that a good safety like Atogwe would instantly help Mike Nolan’s unit make the jump from very good to elite, I still feel like the front office should side with the potential Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones flashed in 2010. If it was one player showcasing potential here and there, it would be one thing. But when you have two promising prospects at the same position on your roster, I just don’t think it’s necessary to go out and sign a veteran who’s going to require a lucrative contract. Especially one who’s better days are likely in the past.

Between the two of them, Clemons and Jones, you would have to assume one is going to emerge as a solid starter. Sure, there are concerns there with both players, but there are also several reasons to believe these guys can amount to something. For example, Clemons showed he likely doesn’t have the playmaker gene, dropping several sure interceptions in 2010. But he does possess elite speed, which provides the corners some security over the top when he manages to stay in position. Having a speedster in center field also can help prevent any leaks into the open field from turning into big gainers or touchdowns.

Reshad Jones on the other hand, looked to be a potential ball hawk in the making when he registered a sack and sealed the only home win of the season with a fourth quarter interception in Week 10 against the Titans. But unlike Clemons, Jones isn’t a blazer. He ran in the mid 4.5 range in last offseason’s pre draft workouts. That resulted in many scouts suggesting that his home in the NFL would be a strong safety. Who knows, he may eventually be Yeremiah Bell’s successor on the strong side, but for now, he’s scheduled to duel it out with Clemons in the 2011 preseason for that starting job.

Would Atogwe or any other available proven veteran provide much needed stability in the secondary? Absolutely, but so could either Clemons or Jones. And if one or both materialize, they will be able to provide that stability for a cheaper price and for a much longer period of time.

Maybe it would be a different conversation if the Dolphins didn’t have so many needs on the offensive side of the ball to address. Now, if the new CBA doesn’t include a salary cap or it contains a very generous max total team salary, and Stephen Ross is willing to dish out the type of money it’s going to take to bring Atogwe to Miami all the while handing out big checks to improve the offensive side of the football, all power to him. But realistically, the Dolphins would likely be sacrificing money that could be put to better use.

And when I say better use, I’m primarily referring to resigning Paul Soliai. After they’ve done that, I would much rather see the front office remodel the interior offensive line and pursue a top tier free agent running back like Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams if they become available before I would look to upgrade a position that looks as promising as free safety.

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