Ah, yes, the special teams. On every team, a player may be asked to play special teams at some point, but on the Dolphins it's more of a 'take it or leave it' guarantee. The following players were chosen as players to watch through training camp and the pre-season because I wanted to show a variety of reasons why they could end up making it onto the 53-man roster due to special teams play. There are a good 20 or more players that fit into this category, but to keep things from epic-proportions I've narrowed it down to eleven players and also have skipped over the field-goal unit. We all know that the linemen blocking for the kicker are going to be chosen for their line play, not their special teams presence.
So, in no particular order, here we go:
Jason Allen, CB. Two reasons why I immediately wrote down Allen's name when I started my list. First, he was the top kick coverage guy on the team last year, leading the unit in tackles, downed punts, and almost always outran his blocker. He did everything that was asked of him on special teams. But everyone is asking him for more. They want him to be a starter on defense. And the fan comments I've read over the last two years suggest that they believe if he's not a starter, he's not good enough to be on the team. Well, his production as a reserve speaks for itself. His size and speed cannot be overlooked when looking for a 'gunner'.
Eric Walden, LB. Miami's special teams coverage unit was not that 'special' through most of the year in 2008. We needed a spark to get things clicking. Enter Eric Walden. Whether it was the shuffling around of bodies, or Walden in particular, the bottom line is that things got better when he showed up. With the incredibly crowded linebacker corp creating competition between Matt Roth, Jason Taylor, Joey Porter, Cam Wake, Walden, Charlie Anderson, Tearrius George and Quentin Moses, the only realistic way that Walden makes the cut is if he is the special teams beast we might think he is.
William Kershaw, LB. Ok, so Channing Crowder, Akin Ayodele, and Reggie Torbor are going to be on the 53. That leaves space for one more inside linebacker spot and it's going to be between Kershaw, JD Folsom and Orion Martin. Kershaw has experience in his favor, playing primarily special teams in a half dozen NFL games over the last 3 years. He would need to be so good on special teams that he would be hard to live without. Even then, it's likely he wouldn't be on the active game roster. I believe he has more upside than Folsom, but possibly less than Martin. With that said I see Martin as a prime candidate for the practice squad and Folsom being a bit out of his depth. I think Kershaw by now should know what he needs to do to win a roster spot.
Vontae Davis, CB. Say what, Tin? Our number one pick needs special teams to make the roster? No, I'm not saying that. But I am saying that he will likely get more reps on special teams than on defense, at least to start with. Miami had a few gunners last year, J. Allen, Brandon London, Patrick Cobbs, Nate Jones, etc. Well, my guess is London won't make the team, and Cobbs and Jones both struggled at times last year at bringing down the returner. Enter Vontae Davis. If you know his style, he's really well set to be the guy who runs 50 yards downfield and pummels the guy trying to catch and run with the ball.
Nathan Jones, CB. Jones was one of several special-teams 'aces' that the Trifecta brought in last year with th intention of having a sure thing on S/T whilst giving them an opportunity to have a break-out year on offense or defense. Well, most of them didn't have any significant impact on those units (think Boomer Grigsby, Keith Davis, Torbor, Anderson, etc.) but of that group, Jones probably got the most opportunity. I would say he was average at best. He seemed to be in my group of guys to yell at during the season for missing tackles or playing too soft. I would suspect that if the Trifecta were going to sit in a room and look at game tape of all the DBs and then choose who gets to stay and who gets cut, Jones would be in trouble. But I suspect he practices well enough to make an impression. He got to start a game last year despite looking very shaky prior to that in games. He got a bit better towards the end of the year. But he didn't make any impact on special teams which was his golden ticket before the season. You know when they replace you with miniscule Patrick Cobbs or skyscraper Brandon London, that you may not be getting the job done.
Brian Hartline, WR. Ok, this guy just signed a pretty decent contract, and I recently discovered he's rated a '92' on EA Sports' NCAA football. He has been called 'just another Camarillo' which is unfair, because had he been in the same offense for two years in a row, he could have been a second round pick whereas Camarillo was an undrafted free agent and only caught 46 passes in 4 years at Stanford. Hartline, meanwhile, caught 52 passes in his sophomore year at Ohio State alone. Also, Camarillo ain't playin no special teams these days. Hartline, however, is one of the few players I've ever seen both returning and covering punts in the same game as well as being a starting WR. The guy has won several special teams player-of-the-week awards in College. We'll have to see how he does against the 'big boys' but I suspect you will see Hartline on that Sunday S/T unit.
Cameron Wake, LB. Well, we've discussed a few 'gunners' but every special teams unit needs some bigger bodies that also have the speed, the ability to escape blocks, and long reach to get to the returner. Wake obviously has those skills, and with the traffic jam at his position, I can't see a scenario where he wouldn't have to play on the S/T unit. That may seem like a step-down for the former CFL-standout, but lo and behold, the guy played on special teams in Canada at the same time he was the consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award winner. The number of kicks he's blocked in his career is more than the number of people who've actually seen the elusive Krispy Kreme Bacon Chees Burger in the wild. [don't quote me on that]
John Nalbone, TE. Nalbone is going to be in the fight for his life come August. He had the great misfortune of being drafted onto a team that already had 3 tight-ends, with a fourth converted from the WR position. If that wasn't bad enough, they then picked up an undrafted rookie as well, bringing the total to 6. I can't see the Dolphins keeping more than 3 tight-ends (open to debate), and at this point Fasano is a sure thing, and unless they have a trade partner set up, Martin should be safe. The question then comes up of who has the most upside, Haynos, Wilford, Nalbone or Bronson. I can safely say it's not Wilford or Bronson. Bronson can't catch, and Wilford can't run or separate from blocks which means he can't play special teams. So that leaves Nalbone and Haynos. Haynos is not a speed demon but he is massive and played a lot on kicking units as a blocker. Personally I'm a fan of Haynos and I can see lots of reasons to keep him, but the Nalbone pick suggests that their may be a chance for change at the position. Nalbone's only real shot at making an impression this early on is on special teams. Based on his opening day rookie-camp comments about preferring not to be a blocker, he'd need to change his mind-set. He's no Kellen Winslow. He's a low-round drafted rookie at the bottom of the depth chart.
Patrick Cobbs, RB. Cobbs is not going to slip out of that 3rd RB spot, and Coach Sparano has said he'd like to get Cobbs more involved. For the time being though, it looks like he'll have to continue to try to make his impact on special teams. We just have so many offensive options heading into 2009 that it will be hard to spread the ball around (a very good problem to have). Also with more snaps going to Ronnie Brown in 2009, Ricky Williams and Cobbs will get fewer touches out of the backfield. But Cobbs can return kicks and play coverage (like Hartline above), and this will get him on the field.
Charlie Anderson, LB. I've been dreading doing this write-up because I knew I would have to put Anderson up here. Charlie Hold-erson, as he's referred to at my house on Sundays, was lucky last year. While he was committing costly penalty after costly penalty on special teams, I was unaware of how much we were paying him to void touchdowns and big returns. Between Anderson and Torbor, we might have the most expensive special teams unit heading into 2009. Surely then, we should have the best unit? The truth is that Anderson only has one shot to stay on the Dolphins, and that's his special teams play. He did manage to block a punt at the end of the season. But before that, he was wholly unspectacular apart from providing some pressure on 3rd down pass-rushes. It wasn't good enough.
Anthony Armstrong, WR. The more I know about Armstrong and London, the implied last two men standing in the competition for the final WR spot, the more I like Armstrong over London. But that's personal bias. The fact is that London has more upside, and a lot of people have suggested that London is THE guy Sparano has referred to as THE potential #1 guy despite not giving a name. I see where that argument comes from, but I honestly believe that Sparano was actually just saying what he needed to say, and that he doesn't know yet who that guy is. But back to Armstrong. Obviously he's not the #1 guy, he's trying to be #5 or #6 at this point. The thing he will have to do to get there is return kicks. He's fast as ****, and needs to use it to blow everyone else out of the water. His best chance to do that is on kick returns.
So those are the eleven I'll be watching in training camp to see who is returning kicks, who is 'gunning' for the returner, etc. I believe that due to increased competition at several areas where special teamers are usually grabbed from, the final s/t unit could be made up of some significant talent. Who else do you see needing to break out on special teams to make the team?