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  Secondary Considerations
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Those of us who watch football with a discerning eye know that OTAs, quarterback camps, minicamps, and any other offseason “camps” coaches think up have three primary purposes. I call them the Three Ts: Teaching, Telling, and Teasing.

 

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The Teaching part is critical; once the season starts, coaches have precious little time to work on fundamentals and techniques with their charges. Players practice in helmets but no pads or other hard gear per se. As such, there is little or no contact. Coaches stress the importance of players staying off of the ground to avoid injury.

 

The Telling…Telling Apart…is the process of figuring out who can play and who cannot. Try not to laugh too hard when Nick Saban professes to only be interested in Teaching, not Telling. In reality, coaches evaluate their players all the time. They have to in order to understand what a guy can and cannot do well. It’s part of the learning process and, ultimately, part of the decision process.

 

Finally, there’s the Teasing. That’s the part where the public, including the press, get to watch a few benign practices. You, the fan, are the main focus here. The team wants you to get excited so that you will buy Dolphin tickets, products, and services. Remember, the Miami Dolphins are first and foremost a business; winning thankfully comes first but the almighty dollar ain’t too far behind!

 

With the Three Ts in mind, that old football saying, “Everyone looks good in shorts”, comes into better context. This is especially true for the new faces in the Dolphin secondary.

 

During these non-contact camps, defensive backs cannot jam receivers, cannot over aggressively guard them in the route, cannot tackle runners, and cannot take on blockers. They can run in space, play the ball in the air in a conservative fashion, and hone some of their technique. That’s about it.

 

Given these constraints, figuring out if the secondary will indeed be better is still a major guessing game; perhaps no other team area will have more bearing on the 2006 season than this reconstructed unit.

 

Gone is the great Sam Madison, departed via free agency to the NY Giants. Gone is Lance Schulters (unsigned), probably the team’s best defensive back last year. Gone is Reggie Howard, departed via free agency to the Carolina Panthers. Tebucky Jones and Kiwaukee Thomas are now with divisional rivals (Patriots and Bills, respectively).

 

The prevailing sentiment of team watchers is that the secondary will be improved over last year. Critics of the 2005 squad lamented that a) Madison’s style of play didn’t fit Saban’s philosophy, b) Schulters was too slow, and c) Howard lacked talent.

 

Among the 2006 defensive backs, three intrigue me the most: Will Allen (free agency, Giants), Jason Allen (NFL Draft, first round), and Will Poole (returning from injury).

 

Here’s why: In my view, there are two key questions that prevail over all others related to the secondary. First, are the Dolphins better off with the Allen boys over Sam and Schulters? And, second, can Poole return to form?

 

We know Will Allen can play; he is, after all, a six year NFL veteran with a body of work to stand on. He plays the cornerback position the way Saban wants it played, which is why he is a Dolphin.

 

Will Allen is especially good at one thing that Saban demands from his corners; he can run and cover the deep ball. Another, tackling, has been viewed as something of a concern by some, though you’d never guess it by looking at his 2005 numbers (70 tackles, 62 solo).

 

My early perspective on Will Allen is that he will prove to be a capable, yet unspectacular, successor to Madison.

 

Jason Allen is no stranger to Saban, having once been recruited by him as a high school senior. For now the Dolphins are playing him at safety, but he does have the ability to play corner. His college pedigree is very good, though questions about his durability persist. As is the case with most rookies, he looked tentative at the two camps he’s participated in.

 

Part of it is that Saban’s defenses are complex. This means that we should not be surprised to see Jason Allen start slowly, provided that he earns the starting FS job. We should also expect opposing offenses to test him, trying to take advantage of his inexperience.

 

Right now we do know that Jason Allen’s ability to also play corner should create opportunities for the Dolphins to deploy mixed looks. Versatility and flexibility were things that Saban noted when the Dolphins drafted him.

 

If Jason Allen can stay healthy, he will have chances to make some big plays; those moments will tell us what we need to know about him as a player. We’ll learn more once full contact drills begin.

 

Then we have Will Poole. Used mostly as an extra defensive back in 2004, Poole registered 37 tackles and a sack while showing off excellent football instincts. His presence on the roster was an important consideration when the team decided it could afford to trade Patrick Surtain to the Chiefs. Shortly thereafter, however, disaster struck at a May 2005 minicamp when Poole blew out the ACL in his left knee.

 

The recent minicamp is the first we’ve seen of Poole on a field since last year. He has worked very hard to rehabilitate the knee and get back to where he was. The question at this point isn’t ability; we know he can play. Rather, it’s his health. While Poole appeared fine participating in the various drills, we won’t know anything definitive until full speed contact drills begin.

 

When healthy, Poole displayed legitimate shutdown corner ability. If he can regain that level of play, and do things the way Saban wants them done, he would be an important improvement to the defense and give Saban some additional options with the remaining depth he has to work with. For example, Travis Daniels could be utilized as an extra defensive back…a role he may be currently best suited for.

 

This is one of the many considerations in the secondary the coaches may have to weigh in the coming weeks. How these personnel changes work out will have a great deal to say about the success of the 2006 Miami Dolphins.

 


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