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: Offensive Backs
Current State: Last year’s starting backfield was a perpetual guessing game and a flat out mess. Depending on who was healthy and/or who was playing well, the Dolphins used a number of different combinations at halfback and fullback with very little success.
Starting with the retirement of Ricky Williams and continuing with season opening injuries to starters Travis Minor and Rob Konrad, the Dolphins elected to make a trade for Lamar Gordon. In hindsight, the Rick Spielman conceived trade was a bad one as it would cost the Dolphins their own third round pick for a player who lasted a grand total of three games before being lost for the season with a shoulder injury. His net production was 64 yards on 35 attempts. Not good.
Travis Minor, the heir apparent in the wake of Williams’ departure, was plagued with injury and ineffectiveness all season long. While the weak offensive line made it brutal for any back to run, Minor’s style is clearly not suited to full time duty. His 388 yards on 109 carries (3.6 yard average) was a monument to the team’s inability to run the ball. Minor’s skills on obvious passing downs, where he can get into open space and make people miss, are very good.
One of the pleasant surprises of last year’s free agency period was Sammy Morris. Signed away from the Buffalo Bills, the versatile Morris was originally slotted for heavy special teams duty. Once Williams quit the team, Morris’s role was expanded to include major reps on offense. Amazingly, Morris managed to net 4.0 yards per attempt on 132 carries for 523 yards and six touchdowns. A tough and determined runner, Morris can also line up at fullback.
To replace the released Rob Konrad, the Dolphins signed Heath Evans away from the Seattle Seahawks. An aggressive lead blocker, Evans also possesses excellent hands. Evans’s ability to gain tough yards when called on is another plus. He is well-suited to new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s scheme.
Reserve players include Dolphin veterans Brock Forsey, Vick King, Jamar Martin, and Ben Moa. Newcomer Avon Cobourne rounds out the roster.
Strengths: Morris’s ability to play both halfback and fullback, as well as his strong skills on special teams. Minor’s elusiveness.
Weaknesses: No proven primary ground threat.
Offseason Priority: Very high. While Nick Saban will continue to welcome Williams back to the fold, it would be sheer lunacy not to draft a front line talent to fill what is probably the biggest void on the team at the present time. Luckily for the Dolphins, this is a very strong draft at the halfback position with Auburn’s Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams at the top of the Dolphin draft board, along with Texas sensation Cedric Benson. If the team chooses to wait until a later round, solid talents like Florida’s Ciatrick Fason, West Virginia’s Kay-Jay Harris, NC State’s T.A. McLendon, and Miami’s Frank Gore could get a shot.
Current State: The departure of Jay Fiedler means that A.J. Feeley enters 2005 as the team’s starting quarterback. In what proved to be the most controversial off all of Spielman’s offseason moves, the jury is still out on Feeley’s acquisition (which cost the Dolphins their second round draft pick). Coming into a new but restrictive offensive system, Feeley started the season slow but finished strong. His outstanding performance against Patriots on Monday Night Football was his best game of the year. While Feeley still has very little football under his belt since graduating from high school, questions about his physical abilities and toughness were proven unfounded. Blessed with a strong arm and the quickest release we’ve seen in these parts since Dan Marino, Feeley can make any throw with authority and accuracy. His willingness to play hurt was noticed by all. The challenge for Feeley will be to quickly pick up and be effective in Linehan’s offense. Still, Linehan’s system and tutelage should do wonders for Feeley’s development as last year’s coaching chaos hurt his development.
Whether or not Feeley will retain the starting job is up for debate as the Dolphins signed journeyman Gus Frerotte to compete for the job. Frerotte is extremely familiar with Linehan’s system, having played for Linehan in Minnesota. Simply put, Frerotte is an insurance policy until Saban settles on a long-term starter, be it Feeley or someone else.
Surprisingly, Sage Rosenfels elected to re-sign with the Dolphins. In limited action this past season, Rosenfels was mostly ineffective. He started one game, the finale against the Ravens, and threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to Chris Chambers. He may very well have the strongest arm on the team but has yet to put the rest of his game together well enough to convince coaches that he deserves a meaningful shot as the starter.
Strengths: Solid prospect in Feeley with good upside.
Weaknesses: Lack of a proven starter. Questionable reserve strength in Frerotte and Rosenfels.
Offseason Priority: High. Saban demands efficiency and productivity at QB and is not likely to put all his eggs in one basket (Feeley’s). Do not be surprised if the Dolphins use their top pick (#2 overall) on either Cal’s Aaron Rodgers or Utah’s Alex Smith. Either player would look really good in a Dolphin uniform. Other promising prospects, like former Florida State QB Adrian McPherson, could be a possibility later on.