From Davone Bess to Dan Carpenter to Derrick Shelby, the Dolphins have had pretty good success unearthing undrafted rookies who not only made the team but contributed in their first season.
It’s not certain yet if anyone from this class of undrafted rookies will become another Shelby or Bess, but linebacker Chris McCain and defensive tackle Anthony Johnson are making a case for the 53-man roster, and running back Damien Williams cannot be ruled out.
Pro Football Focus rates McCain as Miami’s third-best defender in the preseason, behind Jason Trusnik and Will Davis.
“He flashes playmaking ability in different areas,” coach Joe Philbin said of McCain. “He can really run. He can track down a ball-carrier very well. He’s got a little pass rush ability that we are working to develop.”
The Dolphins are playing him mostly at strong-side linebacker, where he is splitting second-team snaps with Jonathan Freeney, behind Philip Wheeler. But they are also using him a bit on third downs at defensive end.
California deployed him in a way similar to how Oregon used Dolphins teammate Dion Jordan.
But his college career ended three games into his senior season when coach Sonny Dykes dismissed him for conduct detrimental to the team. “It wasn’t just one thing – it was a series of things,” Dykes said at the time.
McCain wouldn’t discuss specifics of his dismissal but said “it wasn’t a violation of rules. It was attitude. I got a big head, and me and coach got into a disagreement. I didn’t want to be dismissed, but it was the best thing I needed to get my life back on track. I’ve grown up.”
McCain, who has gained 25 pounds over the past five months, received only two offers after the draft. He picked the Dolphins over St. Louis because of “location” and because linebacker coach Mark Duffner “and I really connected when we talked right after the draft.”
As for Johnson, some thought he could be a second-round pick before he reportedly failed a drug test at the Combine. General Manager Dennis Hickey has praised his work in training camp, and he’s in the running to be the team’sNo. 5 defensive tackle, perhaps No. 4 if AJ Francis’ knee isn’t healthy enough to start the season. But Johnson has missed two of the last three practices with a shoulder injury.
He had nine tackles for loss, three sacks, one batted pass and one interception as a junior starter at LSU last season. Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft preview called him a “thick, athletic defensive tackle who shows in flashes but leaves evaluators wanting more. A boom or bust” prospect.
“I feel like I couldn’t be with a better organization,” he said, declining to discuss the drug test. “I’m in better shape now. Everybody loves my personality and drive and effort. This team needs a lot more TFL’s [tackles for losses], and I feel like I can make those plays they need.”
The Dolphins remain intrigued by Williams, who was dismissed from Oklahoma’s team last November after violations of team rules. At Oklahoma, he had 946 yards rushing as a junior (5.4 per carry) and 34 receptions and averaged 4.9 per carry as a senior in nine games.
Williams, who had several offers after the draft, has only 22 yards rushing on 17 carries in the preseason, but Philbin said Williams “has been productive” and that the lack of effective blocking contributed to his low per carry average. Williams, who has four receptions for 22 yards in the preseason, needs a strong next two weeks to have any chance of unseating Daniel Thomas or Mike Gillislee for the third-string running back job. He could end up on the practice squad.
Williams declined to detail his violations at Oklahoma but said “you only get so many chances. Me having a 7-month-old child, I’ve been able to mature. You can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over.”
Nawrocki’s draft preview said Williams “has a lot of speed and very good hands” but “likes to bounce it outside all the time. His run instincts are average. Runs with blinders and missed holes.”