Dolphins | fullback battle

Miami Dolphins trying to lure Vonta Leach

 

Ravens castoff Vonta Leach could be the Dolphins’ starting fullback if he decides to sign with Miami.

abeasley@MiamiHerald.com

Charles Clay couldn’t have picked a worse day to have perhaps his worst practice of the spring.

Working extensively with the first-team offense at H-back on Wednesday, Clay had three drops, including a potential touchdown. Compounding the problem, general manager Jeff Ireland was on hand to see every one of them.

Under normal circumstances, flubbing a June minicamp is not that big of a deal. But this was no normal day. Not when a potential successor was literally waiting in the wings.

Three-time Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach spent Wednesday tucked away on the top floor of the Dolphins’ headquarters, meeting with coaches and decision-makers.

Cut by the Ravens earlier this week, Leach is a coveted free agent and a likely starter should he sign with Miami — even with returning contributors Clay and Jorvorskie Lane already on the roster.

Despite the visit, Leach left town without a deal Wednesday and returned home to North Carolina to mull his options. The Texans are among the teams also interested.

Leach was the league’s top-ranked fullback in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, softening up linebackers and catching the ball out of the backfield. But he couldn’t work out a restructured contract with the Ravens and was cut this week. On Wednesday, Leach made Miami his first visit in a June free agency tour.

“Tough guy, tough guy,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said, when asked to describe Leach.

Philbin should know. He was the Packers’ assistant offensive line and tight ends coach in 2004 when Leach signed with Green Bay as an undrafted rookie.

Philbin’s first interaction with Leach: discovering him wandering the streets one day before training camp, looking for the practice field.

“Totally lost,” Philbin said with a chuckle.

Leach has found his way since. He has caught 112 passes in his nine-year career, preventing defenses from keying on him solely as a blocker.

Philbin said Wednesday that such versatility is preferred in today’s pass-happy NFL, and if minicamp is any indication, a prerequisite for making the team.

Clay, who can play tight end and fullback, has gotten far more reps with the first team thus far than Lane, who was on the field for roughly 30 percent of Miami’s offensive snaps last season.

“There’s no added pressure for me,” Lane said. “It’s the name of the game. Everybody here needs to compete, and the best man wins.”

There are plenty of candidates for the job. The Dolphins this week signed Evan Rodriguez, a former fourth-round pick cut by Chicago after two offseason arrests — including one in South Florida.

Rodriguez was accused of disorderly intoxication in Miami Beach in March, but the charges were dropped. His attorneys said Rodriguez was neither drunk nor engaged in disorderly conduct.

However, Rodriguez was arrested again in May on drunk driving charges, leading to his release from Chicago.

“I feel like I’m getting a second chance,” Rodriguez said Wednesday. “I’m thankful to the organization for it. That’s definitely all behind me. That stuff’s in the past. It’s a lesson learned.”

Philbin famously has little tolerance for embarrassing distractions, whether it be an arrest or talking out of turn to the media. He acknowledged that Rodriguez’s history had been discussed before the team offered him a contract.

“When you’re a member of the Miami Dolphins, we expect guys to represent the organization the right way on and off the field,” he said. “That will be the requirements of him, just like it is the other 89 guys on the roster.”

Several of those guys — perhaps Leach, included — will be battling for one or at the most two roster spots over the next few months.

Given the touch-football format of spring practices, there’s little true evaluation that can be done at the fullback position until the pads come on in training camp.

But more than anything, the Dolphins will be looking for a fullback who can help get the tough yard. Of the team’s 41 plays of third- or fourth-and-2 or less last season, they converted just 26 times.

“As a coach, you want to have it all,” Philbin said. “You’d love to have the kind of guy who can lead up on an inside zone play and take on a [middle] linebacker and get movement and push and square. But we also like a guy who can move and sift on some outside zone plays.

“We’re looking to get the best fit possible that we possibly can.”

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