The Dolphins are an intriguing team right now because they promise so many fascinating story lines based on the coming competition in training camp.
One position that is of particular interest to me is the cornerback spot. The group is bursting at the seams with competition. Outside of Will Allen, who pretty much has a lock on his starting spot, everything else is up for grabs.
A starting job in the base defense is up for grabs. A starting job in the nickel package is up for grabs. And two or three roster spots are up for grabs. It's a big grab bag, everybody!
Let's start with Miami's philosophy on cornerbacks so you can carry this into the future as the team makes roster decisions, draft decisions and decisions on free agents:
“I think a big part of our philosophy, when I say our philosophy, me, Bill [Parcells] and Jeff [Ireland], has always been to have big corners," coach Tony Sparano said. "It really has. So we like big corners. In fact, we’ll take smaller corners in some situations off the [draft] board. And they might just be good players for other people just maybe not for us. So we kind of really wanted to have big corners. It’s something that we believe in."
"They’re a little bit more physical and you can do maybe a few more things with them in some situations but I would also say yes. To answer your question. Randy Moss, now Terrell Owens. Those type of people in this division. Just knowing Terrell, just being with him and how he approaches some of the smaller corners, there’s certainly a history versus Randy, in those type of situations you better have some big, strong people that can compete against these guys because they’re big, strong, physical receivers that can’t take over a game and I think that you need to be prepared when you’re playing against them and of course for us, our division is first and foremost.”
OK, so that's one reason the Dolphins loved Vontae Davis (5-11 and 203 pounds) and Sean Smith (6-3 and 214) in the draft. That is also a reason Jason Allen (6-1, 200) has lasted as long as he has.
That settled, look at Miami's cornerback situation. Eric Green was basically handed the starting job at the start of this offseason and it was up to him not to give it up. All he had to do was improve at the same rate and pace as what rookies Davis or Smith did and the job was his because of his built-in experience.
He couldn't do it.
On Tuesday, after an excellent practice Monday, Smith passed Green. The Dolphins bounced Green to second-team and promoted Smith to first team. Now the competition for the starting job is officially on.
Smith had flashed while competing against second-team players so the Dolphins wanted to see what he might do against better players, against starting-caliber receivers. There is no doubt Smith may have some difficult moments against the varsity. But he will be evaluated on whether he seems over his head, whether he continues to improve with each practice repetition, and whether he can be around the ball as often against starters as he was against reserves.
Smith's improvement has been eye-popping for its speed. The first OTA session open to the media I noticed fellow rookie Patrick Turner was pretty much dominating Smith. Turner caught passes in front of and behind Smith. And even in tight coverage, Turner was catching the ball over Smith.
The OTA session open to the media last week told a different tale. Smith was all over Turner. Smith seemed to have jumped up a couple of notches and was now getting the better of the matchup.
So what does that mean?
It means Smith has flashed enough to suggest he can compete for the starting job. It means he is not only freakishly big for a corner, but is apparently a quick learner and is improving with the work. It means he's absorbing the coaching pretty well.
He hasn't won the competition by any means. In fact, he can just as easily fall back to second-team behind Green or Davis. But he's in the mix.
“He’s been getting better and better each practice and getting his hands on more footballs," Sparano said. "He is playing a little more confident. He had a real good practice yesterday. So as he starts to progress a little bit we just want to see him versus better people. So everybody is kind of going to get an opportunity a little bit here to get some reps with that group and it was his day today.”
Green can still recover. He is the safe fallback position. He is more experienced. You know what you're going to get with him when the pads go on. He is insurance.
The obvious question that remains is where that leaves Davis? Davis was, after all, the first-round selection. He is the guy who came to the Dolphins with a better draft grade and higher expectations. Well, he's fallen slightly behind the other two.
But that is not a permanent situation.
Davis can still make this a three-man race to the starting job. He will get some time with the starting unit to see if he plays up to the competition. I do not know why exactly he hasn't improved as rapidly as Smith to this point. I don't even know that Davis has done anything wrong. I do know Smith is just doing a lot of things right of late.
The Dolphins have 15 defensive backs in camp right now. Nine of those defensive backs are cornerbacks -- Green, Joey Thomas, Davis, Will Allen, Jason Allen, Will Billingsley, Smith, Nathan Jones and Scorpio Babers.
The Dolphins will keep between six and eight out of this group, depending on what happens at safety.
With Davis, Will Allen, and Smith pretty much on the team, that leaves maybe four roster spots open. No, I'm not giving Green a certain roster spot. He's likely to make the team. It would be a huge upset if he doesn't. But what if he's terrible in the preseason? He's got to earn his way on rather than be annointed.
That means there are six players vying for three or four spots. The breakdown of the five not yet mentioned:
Nathan Jones finished last season in the dime package and is running with the first team there. He's in a good spot to stick.
Jason Allen is running with the third team now but he's been a productive special teams player and he still represents a sizeable gash to the salary cap if he's cut. It'll be a tough call.
Babers is running with the third team also so he's a longshot. Thomas, frankly, shows as a special teams guy but has not really stood out in the practices I've watched, which admittedly are a small sample size of what is truly going on.
Billingsley has shown raw ability but is currently in a numbers crunch. He also is a longshot.