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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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What a season it was!

 

A ten game improvement, the AFC East Championship, and a playoff berth. It all added up to the greatest single season turnaround in NFL history for a team with just one win the year before. Incredible!!!!

 

The trap here is to believe the Dolphins are close to a championship. The truth is they’re not.

 

Yes, they are closer. A lot closer. The holes are fewer, the coaching better, the systems in place. There is no question that this team is headed for bigger and better things in the not too distant future.

 

To get there, the Dolphin brain trust of Bill Parcells, Jeff Ireland, and Tony Sparano must fill as many needs as they can. Resting on the laurels of 2008 isn’t on their minds.

 

Step one is free agency, and the first rule of free agency is to protect your own good players. The Dolphins have done that, smartly re-signing RT Vernon Carey, S Yeremiah Bell, and LB Channing Crowder.

 

It still remains to be seen just how the Dolphins will fill their shopping carts. Who will actually make it to free agency and who can be affordably signed? Who will be available to the Dolphins when they go on the clock?

 

Now that free agency is underway, here’s my analysis of the current roster by position, and the areas where I believe the Dolphins are likely to shop for during the offseason.

 

(starter)= probable 2009 starter

 

OFFENSE

 

Offensive Tackle

Definite Keepers (2): LT Jake Long (starter), RT Vernon Carey (starter)

Job Openings (2): depth

Comment: Long and Carey give the Dolphins their best bookend tackles since Richmond Webb and Ron Heller in the mid-90s. Long made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, an impressive achievement. Both guys have experience playing on their opposite site, a tremendously valuable skill that is conducive to roster flexibility. Quality depth is the big need now, perhaps a veteran via free agency who can play RT and a younger player to develop.

 

Offensive Guard

Definite Keepers (2): LG Justin Smiley (starter), RG Donald Thomas (starter)

Job Openings (3): depth

Comment: Offenses are built from the inside out, and the Dolphins made huge strides in signing Smiley from the 49ers and finding Thomas in the 6th round. Thomas was on injured reserve in 2008 with a foot injury, but the comparisons to Kansas City Pro Bowler Brian Waters have kept the team’s opinion of him very high. Thomas’s replacement, Ikechuku Ndukwe, acquitted himself well and stands a decent chance of making the 2009 roster as does Andy Alleman. Alleman replaced Smiley for stretch run in December when Smiley was lost for the season (ankle). Rookie Shawn Murphy just wasn’t ready to play in 2008 and will have to fight hard to win a job in 2009. Expect the Dolphins to add some new faces in the mix to upgrade the depth here.

 

Center

Definite Keepers (1): Samson Satele (starter)

Job Openings (0-1): depth

Comment: Satele, one of the best offensive rookies in football, suffered the dreaded sophomore jinx in 2008. It is the opinion of several team watchers that the Dolphins will definitely look to replace Satele with someone more physical, and that Satele is destined for Guard or a trade. I’m not buying it. I believe it will be hard for the Dolphins to sign a free agent that would be an upgrade over Satele. I also think it is unrealistic to expect a rookie to come in and beat Satele out. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Satele bounces back and has a very good 2009 as a Dolphin.

 

Running Back

Definite Keepers (3): Ronnie Brown (starter), Ricky Williams, Patrick Cobbs

Job Openings (0-1): depth

Comment: The Dolphins have one of the best, if not the best, situation at RB in the NFL. Brown finally made the Pro Bowl, a feat he would have accomplished in 2007 had he not injured his knee. His comeback was so impressive, he earned the team’s Ed Block Courage Award. He is unquestionably the best all-around player on the offense. Ricky Williams showed that he still has the goods, while Patrick Cobbs, good as always on special teams, forced the coaches to give him offensive snaps. It will be tough for a young player to come in and beat out any of these veterans.

 

Fullback

Definite Keepers (1): Lousaka Polite

Job Openings (0-1): depth

Comment: Polite was a short yardage conversion machine who repeatedly came up big in critical situations. Yet I believe the Dolphins could look for another player who is a better blocker, either to start or add depth.

 

Quarterback

Definite Keepers (2): Chad Pennington (starter), Chad Henne

Job Openings (1): depth

Comment: Pennington is the starter and Henne will back him up; that’s the plan going into the offseason and that’s how I believe it will end up playing out for 2009. John Beck, a 2007 second rounder, struggled throughout training camp and failed to impress the brain trust. There have been reports that the Dolphins have been trying to trade Beck for sometime, though nothing has panned out. Does this mean Beck is a bust? Not necessarily. It may simply be that the is a poor fit for Dan Henning’s system, or that his arm just wasn’t up to snuff after a full offseason of throwing thousands of passes (Beck disclosed to me that he was not 100% going into training camp…look for an interview with him soon here at Phins.com). I do expect the Dolphins to add another arm or two to the training camp roster. And I expect Beck to show better this year provided that he is still a Dolphin when training camp starts.

 

Wide Receiver

Definite Keepers (4): Ted Ginn, Jr. (starter), Davone Bess, Greg Camarillo, Brandon London

Job Openings (1): starter

Comment: Ginn made solid strides as a starting wide receiver, doing much better versus the press and in his routes. As his comfort level increased, we began seeing the playmaker in him come out. The opposition noticed too, and began doubling him on a regular basis. Yet the Dolphins still struggled at times to hit the big play, and they clearly need another stud, another difference maker, another receiver to threaten the deep third of the field and force teams away from overly focusing on the running game. Camarillo, Bess, and London each have their strong points as possession men, but none command the respect of defenses in a way that meets the above need. Could free agent Laveranues Coles be the answer? I’m sure Pennington would agree. Bess was a terrific find, hauling in the second-most passes for an undrafted rookie (Wayne Chrebet is the record holder).

 

Tight End

Definite Keepers (1): Anthony Fasano (starter)

Job Openings (2): depth

Comment: Fasano had a breakout year in his first season as a Dolphin, solid in the run game and surprisingly good as a receiver. David Martin was much better in his second season as a Dolphin but really doesn’t fit what Henning is looking for as a blocker. Martin suffered through repetitive concussions that must be giving the front office some doubts. Look for several new faces in an effort to upgrade this position.

 

 

DEFENSE

 

Defensive Tackle

Definite Keepers (1): Jason Ferguson (starter)

Job Openings (3): depth

Comment: Ferguson, a defensive team captain, was another solid free agent pick up, giving the defense credibility against the run. Second year player Paul Soliai, talented but immature, was his back-up (though the Dolphins officially list him as a DE). Will Soliai stick in 2009? The Dolphins will definitely be looking to add some young talent here, both for depth and for a future starter to replace the 34 year old Ferguson after 2009 or 2010. Upgrading this position will likely rank near the top of the Dolphins’ “to do” list this offseason.

 

Defensive End

Definite Keepers (4): Vonnie Holliday (starter), Randy Starks, Kendall Langford, Phillip Merling

Job Openings (1-2): depth

Comment: Holliday, also a defensive team captain, is a sitting duck, cap-wise, on the books. Sparano has a high opinion of him, however, and could persuade Parcells and Ireland to simply renegotiate his deal or leave him alone entirely. Starks’ flexibility up front gave defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni many options in deploying looks and blitzes. Merling and Langford were the best rookie defensive line picks since Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell. The competition here for the final two spots should be among the fiercest in training camp.

 

Linebacker

Definite Keepers (5): Channing Crowder (starter), Joey Porter (starter), Akin Ayodele, Matt Roth, Cameron Wade

Job Openings (3): starter, depth

Comment: The LB corps went through a dramatic makeover in 2008. With the re-signing of free agent Crowder, and Porter’s Pro Bowl season, there will be much more to build on in 2008. Ayodele will be challenged for his starting job as will Roth, who is a liability in pass coverage but very effective on the blitz versus smaller tight ends and backs. It will be interesting to see how Wade, the best OLB/DE prospect in the CFL, will do versus NFL talent; his workout was quite impressive. Look for the Dolphins to bring in a challenger for Ayodele’s job, as well as candidates to further upgrade special teams.

 

Cornerback

Definite Keepers (1): Will Allen (starter)

Job Openings (3-4): starter, depth

Comment: This is the biggest need area on the team as Will Allen is the only CB on the roster who is certain to return as of this writing. The Dolphins would like Andre Goodman back, but he is limited and will receive a lot of interest in free agency. Jason Allen, who was coming on somewhat before injuring his hand, is not certain to make the 2009 squad. Overall, CB could be the area of the team that sees the biggest turnover. Could ex-Dolphin Patrick Surtain return?

 

Safety

Definite Keepers (3): Yeremiah Bell (starter), Renaldo Hill, Gibril Wilson

Job Openings (2-3): depth

Comment: Bell is indispensible, a terrific player who can play LB or run with a WR. It was important that the Dolphins not let him get away, and they didn’t. Wilson should give the team quality depth, and the solid Hill is a favorite of the front office who figures to return. Hill or Wilson figure to earn the starting FS job. More quality depth is needed here to shore up special teams.

 

Kicker/Punter/Long Snapper

Definite Keepers (3): K Dan Carpenter (starter), P Brandon Fields (starter), LS John Denney (starter)

Job Openings (0): none

Comment: Carpenter was mostly solid as a rookie on field goals and extra points, but his kickoffs were not consistent. He will need to work hard to correct this problem. Fields improved his sophomore season, with the flaws in his fundamentals not as glaring. Both kickers will return in 2009. Denney was once again consistent, but ended the regular season badly with two botched snaps against the Jets that cost the Dolphins a TD.

 
 
     
   
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