Even during an offseason in which they gave Ndamukong Suh the richest contract ever for a non-quarterback, the Dolphins were very clear about this: They simply cannot throw money at every position and instead must invest in their cheap, young players, hoping several can develop into starters or key reserves.
So far in training camp and through one preseason game, the early returns on those young players have been more favorable than unfavorable.
Let’s start with guard. After performing inconsistently during practices, Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas “did a good job” against Chicago, coach Joe Philbin said Saturday.
Turner, who played 33 snaps, and Thomas (24) performed well enough to keep the Dolphins from feeling any compunction to offer free agent Evan Mathis the $5.5 million he’s seeking.
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“They both competed hard; both had some really good plays,” Philbin said. “Obviously, it wasn’t perfect.”
But Philbin said this week will be particularly telling for the young guards when the Dolphins and Carolina Panthers hold joint practices Wednesday and Thursday in South Carolina before playing Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It will be really good for them to go to Carolina and practice more against a four-man line,” Philbin said. “At times, they were uncovered [against Chicago]. We are going to get a lot more even defense where both guards are covered … in the two days of practice and the game. That’s going to be a really good next step for them.”
There were also some positive signs at cornerback, another position where the Dolphins are relying on several young players. Jamar Taylor, who has had a solid camp, allowed just one short completion (6 yards) in 23 snaps against Chicago.
Will Davis, coming off ACL surgery in November, deflected a pass and “he climbed in my eyes,” Philbin said. “There was a big difference between Will Davis at FIU [at the previous week’s scrimmage] and the Will Davis at Chicago.”
Philbin also was pleased with Walt Aikens, the 2014 fourth-round pick who started at safety and played 39 snaps Thursday in the absence of Louis Delmas, who was resting his surgically repaired knee.
“He’s much further along [than a year ago],” Philbin said. “He played well. He [has] confidence in how to execute his job.”
Two negatives: Cornerback Bobby McCain, the rookie fifth-round pick who has been very good through training camp, committed three penalties Thursday and sustained a hamstring injury that sidelined him for Saturday’s practice. And safety Cedric Thompson, another rookie fifth-rounder, failed to make tackles that could have prevented the Bears’ final two touchdowns.
But the Dolphins were encouraged by the play of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, the rookie second-rounder. “I like the way Jordan ran to the ball; he had some penetration on some plays,” Philbin said.
Second-year defensive end Terrence Fede had a tackle for loss against Chicago and has made a disruptive play in nearly every practice. “He played well in the game; his run defense was excellent,” Philbin said. “In pass protection, there were some things he can improve on.”
At linebacker, the Dolphins’ confidence in undrafted Utah State rookie Zach Vigil continues to grow; he had a sack Thursday. “He’s productive, has good instincts,” Philbin said.
There wasn’t a big enough sample size Thursday to fully judge first-team strong-side linebacker Chris McCain, who was limited to 10 plays after sustaining a minor ankle injury.
McCain, who practiced Saturday, said: “I did my job [Thursday]. I did enough where the coaches can still trust me and put me out there.”
Linebacker Jordan Tripp, who sustained a right ankle injury against Chicago, was on crutches Saturday and is out indefinitely. Besides Tripp and Bobby McCain, receiver Kenny Stills (calf), offensive lineman Chris Martin (back) and receiver Christion Jones (hamstring) also did not partake in the team portion of practice.
But Stills caught some passes without anybody covering him, and seems close to returning.
▪ Left tackle Branden Albert participated in a couple of individual drills against Cameron Wake — his biggest step yet in his return from major knee surgery.
▪ Rookie running back Jay Ajayi, sidelined the past week by a hamstring injury, returned to practice.
▪ The Dolphins released injured receiver Tommy Streeter and re-signed receiver Tyler McDonald.
▪ Philbin, asked Saturday how he has changed: “Early on, I wanted to … know every minute detail of what the team did. Now I want to be more involved with the players … build that relationship with the players so they trust me and have confidence in me. [And] I’ve tried to give them ‘whys’ of what we’re doing.”
▪ The Dolphins have two final local practices open to the public, at 8a.m. Sunday and Monday at their facility in Davie.