On a periodic basis between now and the 2005 NFL Draft, I
will take an in-depth look at the Dolphins. This week: Defensive Backs
CurrentState: Don’t blink…. you might miss the next update to this
group of players. Indeed, by the time Nick Saban and staff get done with the
tinkering, the Dolphins could have as many as three new starters. Gone are last
year’s starting safeties, Arturo Freeman (free agent) and Sammy Knight (Chiefs);
neither departure is particularly surprising nor a great loss. Possibly going
via trade is Patrick Surtain (Seahawks?, Colts?). Major arrivals (thus far) are
former AFC East foes Travares Tillman (Panthers, originally Bills) and Tebucky
Jones (Saints, originally Patriots).
Tillman has had a mixed career; some injuries, some inconsistent play, some
potential. Ditto Jones, though his rather unremarkable career saw a bit of
breakthrough last season with a 102 tackle effort. Jones and Tillman have
experience playing in the 3-4 defensive looks that Saban prefers. Aside from
this, it is not clear what the Dolphins see in these two journeymen that their
previous employers did not. Time will tell, of course. Hopefully the Dolphins
are catching both men on the upswing.
Assuming that Tillman and Jones start, the top reserve at this time will be
the promising Yeremiah Bell. Former interim boss Jim Bates was quite high on
Bell, which means that Saban is likely to be high on him as well. Look for Bell
to challenge for the Free Safety job. Bell’s biggest challenge is staying
healthy and on the field, something he hasn’t been able to do in his two
seasons with the team.
Reserves Ricky Sharpe, Chris Akins, Quintin Williams, Deandre Eiland, and
newcomer Jack Hunt will be fighting for jobs. Akins’ exceptional ability on
special teams gives him an early leg up.
Keep an eye on the status of Tony Bua. Currently a linebacker, Bua is just
too small to see meaningful time as a true defensive LB. As such, there has
been talk of moving him to safety. Does he have the ability to play the
position? Stay tuned. We do know that Bua is a hard hitter. As such, he could
be a good fit in an “8 man up” look against the run or versus crossing
At the end of the day, the role of the safety on the Dolphin defense will
change from what we have seen these past 10 years. Most obvious will be the
regular presence of a safety in (or close to) the box, presenting opposing
offenses with an 8-man front that the Dolphins can do a variety of things out
of. A good blueprint to study is New England’s defense and the confusion they
create out of those alignments. Just keep in mind that Bill Belichick has the
exceptional Rodney Harrison; Saban does not.
At cornerback, the Dolphins have quality depth. That will slip if Surtain
is traded. Named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, it is this writer’s opinion
that Surtain is the finest corner to ever wear a Dolphin uniform. He turned in
another fine season in 2004, logging 58 tackles (40 solo), 4 interceptions, 2
fumble recoveries, and a sack. Surtain is seeking a lucrative contract
extension, one the Dolphins don’t seem to be willing to give him at this time.
As such, the Dolphins gave Surtain’s agent permission to seek a trade for his
client. While a number of teams seem interested, one outcome stands out as
being the most attractive for the Dolphins…a straight-up swap for RB Edgerrin
James. Whether or not the Colts will do this deal is debatable. It is believed
that head coach Tony Dungy very much likes Surtain’s game and sees him as a
solid fit for what the Colts like to do scheme-wise.
Losing Surtain will hurt, even though gaining James in the process would be
a coup for the Dolphins. Certainly, the presence of second year man Will Poole
makes such a deal very affordable. Projected as a 2004 first round pick by some
draft gurus, Poole ended up being a fourth round steal. Right from the opening
day of training camp, Poole displayed terrific ability against the pass and the
run, earning the respect and confidence of his teammates and coaches. As a
nickel back, he logged 37 tackles and a sack…excellent numbers for a rookie and
part time player.
The only secondary starter who seems to be settled for 2005 is Sam Madison.
After experiencing a couple of sub-par seasons (for Sam, that is), he turned in
the type of effort that people have become accustomed to. While he didn’t
register a pick all season, his coverage skills were sharp. He also turned in
decent tackle numbers (44) for a cornerback. Madison gets extra credit for his
efforts, given the pay cut he took last year.
Reggie Howard’s production in his first year as a Dolphin (27 tackles, no
interceptions, 4 passes defensed) was well off his 2003 effort as a Panther (62
tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defensed). It may be that his reduced
playing time (behind Surtain, Madison, and Poole) and his acclimation to a new
defensive system was the root cause. Howard brings solid cover skills and
awareness to the table, though his consistency is something that could be
Special teamer Jimmy Wyrick plays a reserve role on defense; his primary
contribution to the team is on special teams. Practice player Alphonso
Roundtree and the newly signed Brandon Haw round out the depth chart.
Strengths: Surtain and Madison, quality depth in Poole and
Howard. Some teams don’t have even one shutdown corner, the Dolphins arguably
have two…maybe a third in Poole. The Dolphins are blessed with as talented and
deep a corps of corners as there is in the NFL.
Weaknesses: Safety…unless Tillman, Jones, and Bell can prove otherwise.
Offseason Priority: Medium. This would have graded out as High for the Safety position if the
Dolphins hadn’t signed Tillman and Jones. Even so, the opportunity for further
improvement is there.