The roster the Miami Dolphins cooked up this summer is, in some significant areas, better than any they have had in a while and definitely better than the one they put on the field a year ago.
I can say that because this offensive line is better, this receiver corps is better and the safety position seems like a team strength to protect the back end of the defense.
Said more bluntly, which I suppose is my specialty, I like the Dolphins’ 2016 depth chart more than the 2015 version because it’s a clear upgrade when Dallas Thomas is not the starting left guard, when Jamil Douglas is not the starting right guard, when the top receivers don’t include an ancient Greg Jennings, and there are hopes the middle linebacker might be a star rather than just another journeyman filling the spot once manned by Nick Buoniconti, John Offerdahl and Zach Thomas.
Consider the difference between today’s Dolphins and the club Joe Philbin put on the field for the opener one year ago:
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Thomas is a backup lineman now. He was a starter last year.
Douglas was cut Saturday, having never gotten any higher on the 2016 depth chart than third team. He started the first three games at right guard and the final two at center last year.
Jennings is retired and not a factor. He started the first four games for Miami last year. And by the way, watch out for Kenny Stills because if he stays healthy this year he is going to be a huge factor.
Kiko Alonso is the starting middle linebacker now. Kelvin Sheppard was the starting middle linebacker most of 2015. So Miami’s defensive pivot man can run and rally to the football — something we haven’t seen in years and didn’t see from Sheppard last year.
The starting safety alongside Reshad Jones the first few weeks last year was Walt Aikens. He was succeeded by Michael Thomas. Neither one of those is a starting safety anymore, with Aikens a special teams guy and Thomas vying for playing time as a nickel corner.
That means the safety spot has been upgraded because Isa Adbul-Quddus, who has an NFL reputation as a solid hitter who limits mistakes, has pushed former starters Aikens and Thomas to supporting roles.
All of this change is good only because it suggests improvement as well as change. The Dolphins simply have more talent now at offensive line and wide receiver and safety. Excellent.
But I don’t recall saying this team has no issues.
This roster, like most in the NFL, still has issues. And Miami’s issues are similar to ones shared by all but the exceptional teams.
To comprehend the scope of those issues, you have to compare what the Dolphins are doing at certain positions to what other teams have been able to do.
I present to you the cornerback spot.
Yes, I constantly pick on that spot in the space the Miami Herald grants me as if it were an itchy scab. I go after it. I don’t stop. The Dolphins don’t appreciate that.
But I’m simply reminding the Dolphins of the quarterbacks they’re about to face who will try to pick on and chase their cornerbacks all year long because there currently isn’t enough talent on that unit.
To understand the scope of this team’s cornerback issues, you have to understand that Jordan Lucas, a promising but incomplete sixth-round draft pick from Penn State, made the roster despite struggling most of training camp.
He’s on the team because of what he might become but primarily because the Dolphins didn’t have somebody better. The fact the Dolphins don’t have somebody better than Lucas to fill what is their third or fourth boundary corner spot is troubling.
Lucas needs a year on a practice squad or on the inactive list. Anyone with eyes recognizes that. But the Dolphins need him now, early in the season when he’s most inexperienced and vulnerable. They also need Tony Lippett, another project cornerback who is maybe another year from being a good player.
Lippett is going to be active on game days, and he’s one pulled muscle from playing a lot. That’s scary because although he might be ready for that duty in 2017, we are still in 2016.
Both these players, full of potential but not ready for prime time, are on the Miami roster. Compare that to the Denver Broncos, who reportedly were trying to trade cornerback Aqib Talib on Saturday.
Talib is getting up in years (30) and had a gun incident this offseason that makes his status for the start of the season uncertain. The former Pro Bowl player is also the third-best corner on the Broncos now.
But he would be the best cornerback on the Dolphins. And that’s one difference between a Super Bowl defense and the Dolphins defense.
All around the NFL, good teams got rid of good players because they believed they had better options. The Packers got rid of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. The Ravens cut former Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett. The Jets cut raw but promising tight end Jace Amaro.
And as much as I know the Dolphins would disagree, these unemployed players are better than players the Dolphins kept on their roster at the same positions.
So what is the point?
Get familiar with the term “work in progress” as it applies to the 2016 Dolphins. They’ve come a long way from the talent they put on the field early last year. They’ve still got a ways to go.