Armando Salguero: Joe Philbin mum but decisive about Miami Dolphins starters

08/30/2013 12:01 AM

08/31/2013 8:42 PM

This final preseason game is supposed to be about the bottom half of the roster and underdogs fighting for jobs selling out in the NFL rather than selling insurance or cars in the real world.

And Dolphins coach Joe Philbin did his part in promoting that narrative by playing a lineup of backups with the lone exception of starting right guard John Jerry.

But despite all the hopeful reaching for final roster spots the Dolphins did Thursday night and the studying of tape that’ll be done by coaches Friday, the real stories didn’t even break a sweat this warm summer night.

The bigger stories didn’t play a down.

The story coming out of this game that will actually affect how successful the Dolphins are this season involves the settling of starting jobs and a couple of backup jobs that Philbin previously declined to admit had been settled.

At running back, those who trekked to this game saw neither Lamar Miller nor Daniel Thomas play.

That’s because with the preseason over and the next game on the schedule being the Sept. 8 opener at Cleveland, the Dolphins basically announced that Miller is their starter and Thomas is the backup.

That seemed obvious after last week’s dress rehearsal game in which Miller outplayed Thomas but Philbin tried to brush that suggestion aside days ago when he was asked if he’d settled on Miller as his starter.

“Not necessarily,” he said in his usual vagueness.

Except there is practically no chance that with neither Miller nor Thomas playing against the Saints that Philbin could justify awarding the starting job to anyone but Miller. Miller led all running backs with a 4.2 yards per carry average this preseason while Thomas averaged 2.7 yards per carry.

Sure, Thomas is still a solid pocket protector on passing downs. But you know what that makes him?

The No. 2 running back behind Lamar Miller.

Miller has won the job.

Philbin was equally reticent to shed light on his plans in the defensive backfield. Yes, Brent Grimes looks like an excellent offseason acquisition by general manager Jeff Ireland.

But the Dolphins entered training camp uncertain whether Richard Marshall or Dimitri Patterson or someone else would win the other starting cornerback job.

That competition was trimmed to a two-man race between Patterson and Marshall early in camp and seemingly settled when Marshall was cut last week. But even then, Philbin wouldn’t confirm what seemed obvious — that Patterson is his other starting corner.

And when he was asked what the team would do beyond Grimes and Patterson in the all-important nickel and dime packages, Philbin was predictably ambiguous.

“We’re still playing around with that a little bit,” he said Monday, “going to give some guys some opportunities.”

None of those opportunities extended to this preseason finale. That’s because neither Nolan Carroll nor Jimmy Wilson, the two next most experienced cornerbacks behind Grimes and Patterson played a down.

And as no one behind Carroll and Wilson seem ready to play ahead of them, they have indeed won jobs in Miami’s nickel and dime packages.

It seems almost certain that on nickel situations, the Dolphins will ask Carroll to take a position on the boundary while Patterson moves inside to cover the slot receiver — an assignment familiar and more comfortable to him.

Wilson, who Kevin Coyle said played nearly 500 snaps for the team in 2012, will also form part of secondary the defensive coordinator will deploy on obvious passing downs.

How can we be so sure that’s how it will go against the Cleveland Browns in the season-opener?

Well, the only candidates to change that lineup aren’t ready. Rookie Will Davis, promising earlier in the preseason, will have to recover from an apparent ankle injury to return to practice next week to be any kind of game day option in the opener. He didn’t play against New Orleans.

Second-round pick Jamar Taylor did play Thursday but got a taste of how difficult working against a big-time NFL wide receiver can be when Marques Colston beat him on an 18-yard completion in the first quarter.

Taylor may be very good some day but not yet. He missed several weeks of camp with a hernia issue, and is still trying to catch up. He might be part of the plans in a few weeks, but in one week? As a starter in Miami’s nickel package ahead of veterans?

Not very likely.

All this doesn’t suggest some men who played Thursday didn’t make statements. A couple did — one not good, one not.

Jerry, still out of shape and needing work after missing three preseason games, isn’t in danger of losing his starting job but he is nowhere close to the form he showed during a solid 2012.

That’s not good.

Rookie tight end Dion Sims, meanwhile, is starting to be something of a revelation for the Dolphins. He led the team with four catches and had a touchdown grab in six targets against New Orleans.

Last week, starting tight end Charles Clay was targeted six times against Tampa Bay and had only one reception to show for the trouble.

This doesn’t suggest Sims should start ahead of Clay. That won’t happen against the Browns and possibly not for some time. But Sims will play a lot this year and if he continues on his current trajectory, don’t be surprised if he’s Miami’s starter by season’s end.

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