As far as bombed auditions go, Dallas Thomas’ tryout in Tampa was a doozy.
Gerald McCoy all but left tire marks on Thomas’ chest in the Dolphins’ 2014 preseason game against the Buccaneers. The lowlight: When McCoy, one of the league’s premier defensive tackles, bull-rushed Thomas and stripped the ball from quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Thomas also committed two penalties in his short time on the field. By the time the Dolphins next practiced, he was no longer a starter.
Fast-forward 12 months, and Thomas again is in the spotlight. All signs indicate he will start in Thursday night’s exhibition opener for the Dolphins against the Bears. The only difference: He will line up at left guard instead of right.
How he plays could shape not only his career’s trajectory, but also the Dolphins’ plans at the position going forward. A strong showing could win Thomas the starting job. If he struggles, Mike Tannenbaum could finally decide it’s time to sign guard Evan Mathis, an intriguing free agent option.
The Dolphins remain in the hunt for Mathis, who surely wants to sign with a team soon.
“I just got to go out and work hard, and show I can do it,” Thomas said this week. “I can’t think about all that. I can’t be thinking negative, ‘Is this make or break for me?’ I’ve just got to go out and play my type of game, play physical, play hard and get the job done.”
His mind-set is the right one. But it doesn’t change the stakes.
For the Dolphins’ draft class of 2013, the time is now. The people who drafted Thomas, Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Mike Gillislee and Caleb Sturgis are long gone.
The Dolphins’ offseason purge proved that Tannenbaum and Dennis Hickey don’t have an emotional investment in players Jeff Ireland picked. Year 3 is when even high draft picks must produce — some to regularly see the field, others to simply keep a roster spot.
No one understands that more than Taylor, who has never had a better chance to win the starting job. Since the spring, he has battled with newcomer Brice McCain at right corner.
Coach Joe Philbin hopes to have his lineup set by the third preseason game. That means the next two weeks could largely determine Taylor’s fate with the Dolphins.
“I haven’t done anything to prove my worth yet,” said Taylor, who took the bulk of first-team reps in practice this week. “Nobody thinks that I can do it. I’m out here to prove that I can, prove that God blessed me with great talent to go out there and fly around. Put it on tape like I did last year.”
If it sounds like Taylor plays with a chip on his shoulder, it’s because he does. The former second-round pick has never had it easy. A sports hernia set him back his rookie year, and then the Dolphins brought in veteran Cortland Finnegan to play ahead of him in 2014.
Taylor has ability, but for whatever reason, the coaching staff has not yet fully committed to him. In that way, he’s a bit like Vontae Davis.
Like Taylor, Davis was a high draft pick. But despite his talent, Philbin deemed Davis expendable and OK’d his trade to Indianapolis in 2012.
A fresh start did Davis well. He blossomed into a star with the Colts. Pro Football Focus ranked Davis second among all corners in 2014; quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 38.8 when throwing in his coverage area a season ago.
Could the Dolphins repeat their mistake with Taylor?
“I feel like my first year was a little rough,” he said. “My second year, I kind of got my feet wet. This year, I think I’m ready to kick the door down.”
If so, he could turn a potentially great defense into an elite one.
Then there’s Will Davis, another talent corner taken a round after Taylor in 2013. He is expected to play Thursday just nine months after tearing his ACL.
Davis, Gillislee and even Sturgis are at a career crossroads. With a strong preseason, each could earn not only roster spots, but also significant roles with the team.
But if they falter, they could be looking for work before Labor Day.
“We’ve got to get a good look at under the lights and see how they respond when coaches aren’t making corrections or everybody’s not doing everything for them,” Philbin said. “We haven’t finalized anything, but it’s safe to say that we’ve got to get a good look at some of those young guys.”