by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist
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
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 receivers.
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 improved.
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.