With Mark Walton (cut by Cincinnati) and Kendrick Norton (released by Carolina), the Dolphins have now snagged two of UM’s talented early entrants from the 2018 draft without even needing to use a draft pick on either one of them.
Keep in mind that just 14 months ago, NFL draft analyst Chad Reuter spoke of Walton’s “pro-level speed, agility, vision and balance” and said “scouts looking at his 2016 tape will see a potential starter at the next level.”
And just a year ago, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. was calling Walton “a second-round talent…He looked like a guaranteed third-round pick and then he had the ankle injury [in October 2017 against FSU]. Go back to two years ago, 2016, he was outstanding in a lot of areas. He can catch, he runs inside, he can bounce it to the outside.”
And then during a Dolphins OTA practice on Tuesday, we were reminded of Walton’s skill set when he made a difficult catch from Jake Rudock in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
“That’s something I do,” said Walton, who was a dual threat in 31 games at UM, with 26 touchdowns on the ground (and 5.1 yards per carry in his career) to go along with 56 catches for 624 yards (11.1 average) and two TDs through the air.
“I take pride in catching the ball out of the backfield,” he added Tuesday. “That’s something I always want to do. In this offense, we’re working that in very well. Just putting me in position to do it and making the best of my opportunity.”
Off-field issues — including three arrests — cost Walton his job in Cincinnati, even though his rookie numbers (14 carries, 34 yards) were modest.
Walton will have three court appearances for those arrests. At some point, the NFL will decide whether those warrant a suspension under the league’s personal conduct policy.
He was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in January, and that case has a June 5 trial date.
In February, he was charged with misdemeanor battery after he allegedly took a phone from a neighbor at his Brickell condo. That case will go to trial June 3.
He was then arrested March 12 and charged with a felony for carrying a concealed weapon he owned and misdemeanor charges for marijuana possession, reckless driving and resisting a police officer without violence. There’s a June 24 trial date for that case.
“I think people deserve a second chance,” coach Brian Flores said. “Obviously, talented player.”
Walton’s agent Malki Kawa told CBS-4’s Jim Berry during a studio appearance earlier this month that he spoke to the Dolphins about giving Walton at least a tryout at rookie minicamp, and the Dolphins were receptive.
Walton immediately flashed his diverse skills, earning a contract with 48 hours after the minicamp started.
“I’m more than thankful,” Walton told me Tuesday. “I’m blessed to be here. It’s an honor to be here also.”
Though he averaged a modest 2.4 yards on just 14 carries with the Bengals during the regular season and 21 yards on 22 preseason carries, remember this is a player who was averaging 7.6 yards per carry on 56 carries as a junior before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury against FSU.
He said he hasn’t needed to watch tapes of his good work at UM to remind himself that he can run the ball effectively.
“When I’m running downhill I’m at my best,” he said. “As a running back, you know how to run the ball outside, inside, wherever. I’m trying my best wherever I get it.”
Walton has faced considerable personal tragedy. His father died when he was 7 and his mother died, following a stroke, in March 2018. He also lost his grandmother and a brother.
Asked what he has learned through personal ordeals, he said simply, “I’ve learned growth, just growth as a person.”
As for Norton, he turned pro after his junior year, expecting to be picked by the middle rounds. Instead, he slipped to the seventh, 242nd overall, and failed to make the Carolina Panthers’ 53-man roster out of training camp. The Panthers signed him to their practice squad, and Miami plucked off their practice squad on Dec. 19.
“I saw a chance to come down here and maybe get some playing time,” he said.
Norton insists he doesn’t regret the decision to go pro, despite not being on a 53-man roster until the final two games of last season. An associate said he was simply ready to begin his professional career instead of continuing on as a student-athlete.
“No regrets,” he said. “I’ve got to take the good and the bad and make the best of any situation.”
He said he “still feels good about “ having a long-term NFL career.
“I am just trying to sharpen anything I do have,” he said. “I have different skills I haven’t been able to showcase yet.”
Norton will be competing to stick as Miami’s fifth defensive tackle, behind Christian Wilkins, Davon Godchaux, Vincent Taylor and likely, Akeem Spence. Miami could keep five or six defensive tackles because some of the tackles are also being used as ends when Miami plays a 3-4 defense.
There’s still upside with Norton, who had a combined four sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore and junior at UM.
At the NFL level, he won’t be a “playmaker,” draft analyst Tony Pauline told WQAM’s Joe Rose before last year’s draft, but a “big gap-occupier type of guy who will take on blocks and let the linebackers make plays on the ball. He could grow into a zero-technique, a nose tackle. He’s not there yet, but he’s got that playing style. He’s not getting any taller. He could get wider, which could be a benefit for him.”
Norton is pleased the Dolphins signed Walton: “It’s always good to have a familiar face.”
And Walton is thrilled to be reunited with Norton: “We all know what Kendrick did at the University of Miami. Having him on the same team with me with the Miami Dolphins is amazing.”
(A third former Cane on the Dolphins, Clive Walford, left UM after 2014, before Walton or Norton arrived.)
The other top UM player who turned pro early after that 2017 season – Norton’s close friend, defensive tackle Richard McIntosh Jr., - went in the fifth round to the Giants, missed the first two months of his rookie season with a thyroid condition and appeared in six games the final two months.
McIntosh and fellow former UM defensive tackle Olsen Pierre will need to battle to make the 53-man roster, with the Giants having selected Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence in the first round and Syracuse defensive tackle Chris Slayton in the seventh.
Incidentally, the Dolphins bypassed the chance to sign UM’s top undrafted player in the 2019 class, Gerald Willis, who opted not to attend the Dolphins’ local pro day workout because of a conflict with a private workout with an undisclosed NFL team and a subsequent meeting with the Dolphins never materalized. Willis signed with the Ravens after the draft.
NFL TV NEWS
There was major NFL TV news Wednesday that will affect fans who live in South Florida and the 31 other NFL markets.
For many years, viewers without DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket could watch only two Sunday afternoon games on TV — instead of three — on Sundays when the local team was playing at home but the other network had the double-header.
That rule was eliminated Wednesday at NFL owners meetings at the Ritz Carlton at Key Biscayne.
So here’s the upshot: Take the opening Sunday of this upcoming season, Sept. 8. In past years, viewers in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market would have been able to watch Ravens-at-Dolphins on CBS at 1 p.m. and Giants-Cowboys at 4:25 p.m on Fox.
Now, we can see a third Sunday afternoon game on “free TV” — a 1 p.m. Fox game among Philadelphia-Washington, Rams-Carolina or Atlanta-Minnesota (whichever Fox is assigned).
Another example of how that will create more viewing options this season:
On Week 2 (Sept. 15), besides getting Patriots-at-Dolphins on CBS at 1 p.m. and either Saints-Rams or Bears-Broncos on Fox at 4:25 p.m., viewers in Dade and Broward now also will get a 1 p.m. Fox game (probably Cowboys-Redskins).
South Florida will also get three afternoon games on free TV on Oct. 13, Nov. 28, Dec. 22 — three dates that otherwise would have been limited to two afternoon games under the old rules.
Bottom line now: We will get three afternoon games each of the first 16 NFL Sundays and four on the final Sunday, just like markets without NFL teams have done for years.
▪ During the second week of the playoffs, the kickoff for Sunday games have been moved from 1 p.m. and 4:40 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., in line with kickoff times for the conference championship games. Saturday playoff games are expected to remain 4:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.