With Dolphins training camp practices beginning Thursday, chatter on eight unresolved issues/competitions/conundrums to keep an eye on during the next six weeks:
1. Resolving the starting linebacker job alongside Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons.
With Koa Misi out for the season, this will be a battle between front-runner Raekwon McMillan --- the Dolphins loved how the rookie second-rounder has picked up the system and believe he will be a three-down player eventually - and Neville Hewitt. Dolphins officials thought Hewitt played well in the second half of the season - he started five games overall - and aren’t going to simply hand the starting job to McMillan, though the rookie will have every chance to win it and it would be disappointing and surprising if he doesn’t.
The third starting linebacker figures to play less than half the defensive snaps.
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In spite of losing Misi, the Dolphins feel no need to immediately add a veteran linebacker because they like their top five players at the position – they include Mike Hull in that group and believe he is more than merely a special teams player – and want a long look at former CFL player Deon Lacey, who left them intrigued during the offseason program.
Timmons might be best equipped to play the middle, with Alonso at weakside and McMillan at strongside linebacker, the position many draftniks projected him to play in a 4-3 defense. But the Dolphins have been mum about who will play where. McMillan also can play inside, but Timmons seems the most sensible fit there.
2. Is there enough quality and depth at defensive tackle and offensive line?
There doesn’t seem to be at defensive tackle behind Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips, but the Dolphins want a closer look at what they have – particularly rookie fifth-rounder Davon Godchaux; one team source called his play “encouraging” in the offseason program.
If neither Godcheaux, Vincent Taylor, journeyman Nick Williams or former British track and field Olympian Lawrence Okoye prove worthy of the No. 3 job, we’re told the Dolphins plan to either trade for a defensive tackle or sign one from a list of free agents including - among others - Roy Miller, Sen’Derrick Marks, Dan Williams and Paul Soliai, who would welcome a return.
(And that’s not even getting into whether Phillips will finally transition from an erratic player to a reliable one, which is as important a factor as anything on this defense and won’t be known until the regular season starts.)
As for guard, the Dolphins are comfortable with Jermon Bushrod at one guard spot, and Ted Larsen is the front-runner at the other, though Isaac Asiata will be given a chance to compete. The Dolphins worked out three guards Wednesday – Kitt O’Brien, Connor Bizick and ex-FIU player Isame Faciane – but signed none and are comfortable with what they have.
The Dolphins don’t seem overly concerned about tackle depth beyond Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James. Sam Young is a serviceable No. 3 but none among Avery Young, Terry Poole, Jesse Davis or undrafted Virginia rookie Eric Smith consistently could stop the Dolphins’ pass rush in practice, albeit without pads. Miami needs to find a fourth tackle on the waiver wire or via trade.
3. Starting cornerback job opposite Byron Maxwell. Xavien Howard improved significantly in the offseason program and enters as the favorite to start opposite Maxwell.
Tony Lippett said starting is important to him, but it would take a great camp from Lippett, and a poor one from Howard or another injury, for Lippett to start ahead of him.
4. Nickel corner. The Dolphins will give veteran addition Alterraun Verner every opportunity to beat out Bobby McCain, who has just one interception in 32 career games. (Verner has 15 in 110.)
But Verner’s roster spot isn’t assured; he’s one of those rare players who could either start (when Miami opens in a nickel package) or in a worst case scenario, not make the team at all if he flops.
That’s because Verner’s one-year, $900,000 deal (the minimum salary for a player with his service time) comes with no guaranteed money if he doesn’t make the team. He would get $468,000 if he’s injured in camp. And because it’s a minimum salary benefits deal, his cap charge is just $615,000.
5. The No. 4, 5 and 6 receiver jobs. Jakeem Grant will make the team as the returner, barring something shocking, but the Dolphins need to see more consistency before they entrust him with regular offensive snaps. He had a couple of good catches but at least three drops in the seven practices open to reporters in May and June.
Leonte Carroo showed enough improvement in the offseason program to remain the favorite for the No. 4 job (a position that resulted in only 103 offensive snaps last season). Rashawn Scott (on PUP with a foot injury), rookie seventh-rounder Isaiah Ford (very good in the final handful of offseason practices) and Drew Morgan (the most impressive of the four undrafted receivers) are the top candidates for the sixth job if Miami again keeps six.
The Dolphins like what they’ve seen in Morgan but aren’t quite sure what they have, knowing skill position players can frequently flash without pads in June.
UM’s Malcolm Lewis and Mississippi’s Damore’ea Stringfellow also had some good moments in the offseason and cannot be entirely discounted, though they’re long shots for the 53. It’s impossible to judge Stanford’s Francis Owusu because he missed the offseason program to complete his spring semester (per NFL rules).
6. No. 2 running back. This doesn’t mean a lot, because Kenyan Drake (33 carries, 179 yards, 5.4 average) and Damien Williams (35 carries, 115 yards, 3.3 yards) will both have opportunities behind Jay Ajayi.
Drake has more upside and will get more snaps if he eliminates some of the occasional mistakes that irritated coaches. With 23 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns last season, Williams demonstrated his value as a receiver out of the backfield.
7. Sorting out roster battles in the secondary. If Walt Aikens stays as expected – and presuming Michael Thomas and Verner make the team – that’s 10 defensive backs, not counting T.J. McDonald, who has an eight-game suspension to start the season.
It’s difficult to envision Miami keeping 11, which would leave Jordan Lucas, Lafayette Pitts, AJ Hendy and promising undrafted rookie Maurice Smith on the outside. Lucas said he cross-trained at both safety and corner.
Aikens, a special teams standout, worked at corner in the offseason and now is equipped to play corner and safety.
8. Incumbent Dolphins trying to win or hang onto roster spots: The Dolphins tinkered with Brandon Doughty’s delivery to quicken his release but he needs an exceptional camp to stick as a No. 3 quarterback… Difficult to see Thomas Duarte making it on the 53-man roster barring a major injury to tight ends Julius Thomas, Anthony Fasano or MarQuies Gray….
With Charles Harris and William Hayes the new backup defensive ends, Terrence Fede and Julius Warmsley likely are competing for one spot on the 53.