SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
As much as the Dolphins front office squandered too many early-round draft picks over the past six years, give general manager Jeff Ireland credit for this: He has made good use of several mid-to-late round selections, which has been reinforced in recent weeks. Consider:
### From the 2012 draft: Rishard Matthews, selected 227th, was great value in the seventh round and has become a solid slot receiver since Brandon Gibson’s injury. Nobody selected that low in 2012 has been as good, and only one other NFL receiver (Vincent Brown) has as many catches (30) without a drop.
Matthews has caught 68 percent of balls thrown to him, which ranks 22nd among 112 receivers. “I’ve proven I can be trusted,” he said.
Olivier Vernon at No. 72 and Lamar Miller at 97 were also good value, though we’re focusing here on picks in the bottom half of the draft.
### From 2011: No player chosen in the sixth or seventh round that year has been as productive as Charles Clay, selected 174th. Clay (53 catches, 581 yards) ranks sixth among tight ends in receptions, has more catches than Anthony Fasano in any of his five seasons in Miami and might break Randy McMichael’s single-season record for receiving yards by a Dolphins tight end (791 on 2004).
“He’s making some clutch catches that he didn’t make all the time last year,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.
Seventh-round cornerback Jimmy Wilson, picked 235th in 2011, has improved significantly; quarterbacks have a 67.9 rating in his coverage area, which is 19th-best in the league and down from 99.6 in 2012.
### From 2010: Reshad Jones (drafted at 163) and to a lesser extent, Nolan Carroll (145) rank arguably among the top 5 to 10 players picked in rounds five through seven that year. (Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown is clearly the best.)
Jones’ play has declined somewhat from a year ago, but Carroll is much-improved; he’s allowing a 66.1 passer rating in his coverage area. That ranks 15th-best among 112 qualifying cornerbacks.
### From 2009: None of the 130-plus players picked in the fourth round or lower are clearly better than Brian Hartline (chosen 108th), and he might be the best. Also, Chris Clemons (165) ranks among the top five to 10 players plucked in the fifth round or lower that year, along with the Dolphins’ Gibson (drafted 194th by Philadelphia).
After Miami picked Clemons, Dallas then chose Clemson’s other safety, Michael Hamlin, who is out of the league. Pro Football Focus ranks Clemons 13th among 84 safeties; he has allowed only six completions.
(As for this year's draft, it's too soon to definitively judge Miami's late-round picks, though Caleb Sturgis hasn't been as consistent as the Dolphins expected.)
It's notable that the Dolphins are getting strong play from a secondary featuring two undrafted corners signed from other teams (Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson), three fifth-rounders (Jones, Clemons, Carroll) and a seventh-rounder (Wilson). “This shows draft status doesn’t matter,” Grimes said.
Grimes (perhaps Ireland's best free agent signing ever), Carroll and Clemons are all impending free agents; the Dolphins haven’t made offers to any but clearly want to keep Grimes.
Of course, it’s more important that teams hit on their high picks, who have a higher ceiling, than the lower ones, and that remains the problem here.
Miami began the season with only seven non-rookies selected in the first two rounds (including irrelevant free agent pickup Danny Watkins), compared with 16 for the 49ers and 15 for the Broncos. And the string of poor second-round decisions continues to haunt the Dolphins.
So for all his good work late in the draft, Ireland ultimately might be unable to overcome the mistakes in the early rounds.
### Whereas coach Joe Philbin is expected back in 2014, Ireland’s status will remain very much in question until after the season. If Ireland isn't retained --- and nothing has been decided --- team performance would more likely doom him than BullyGate. That's why the final month of the season is more important for him than for Philbin.
One prominent former Dolphins player who is used by the team to visit fans in Sun Life Stadium suites during games bemoaned how fans turn those visits into Ireland-bashing.
### Discouraging: On third down and 1 or third and 2, the Dolphins have parlayed only 8 of 16 chances into first downs when they run the ball, a worse percentage than any team other than St. Louis and Chicago. (Lamar Miller is 2 of 6, Daniel Thomas 3 of 6).
But Philbin indicated Miami feels no need to add a short yardage back, even with Thomas injured. Linebacker Austin Spitler said he gets weekly practice work at fullback, but the team hasn't used him in that role in a game. (He said he handled that role at Ohio State occasionally.)
Behemoth defensive tackle Paul Soliai said he would love to help on offense in short yardage, but Miami tried him as a blocker on a goal line play a couple years ago and “it didn’t go well.”
### With the Heat's win against Minnesota tonight, Miami has won 16 straight against Western Conference teams, four short of the NBA record.... Also tonight, the Heat held Minnesota to the worst shooting performance of any team this season (29.3 percent).
### It will be great theater Tuesday, with the first of four pre-playoff Heat-Pacers meetings. Chris Bosh said of the Pacers: “It’s easier for them than us to find motivation” during the regular season. “Their hunger is different than ours.”
One NBA scout, on why Indiana is a bigger threat to Miami than ever before: Besides Paul George’s evolution: “Lance Stephenson might be the most improved player in the league, C.J. Watson is an upgrade over D.J. Augustin at backup point guard and they’ll get Danny Granger back” eventually from a calf injury.
There’s somewhat less animosity between the teams with Tyler Hansbrough now in Toronto (Luis Scola has replaced him). But among Heat players, there's some distaste for Granger (Dwyane Wade once accused him of fake toughness) and Stephenson, who actually gave LeBron James multiple choke signs (only one was caught on camera) in a game two years ago.
### Udonis Haslem, who has played infrequently and not especially well, turned introspective last week and believes he must change his approach.
"It’s so programmed with me: I’m mainly the guy that’s setting the pick and C.B. runs to the corner. I’ve been sacrificing. I’ve talked to Chris and [assistant] David Fizdale about Chris setting the screen sometimes” and letting Haslem take the shot.
“It’s my fault,” Haslem said. “I have to do what I did in the Indiana series last year.”
Haslem has taken thousands of three-point shots in the past several months and said he’s ready to try it in a game. “I would encourage him to use it,” Erik Spoelstra said.
Of greater concern: His rebounds per 48 minutes is down from 12.7 in his career to 7.6 this season, and players he’s guarding are shooting 16 of 23 against him, according to SynergySports.com. That must change for Haslem to convince Spoelstra to give him regular minutes. At 33, it's a bit of a crossroads for Haslem, but don't count him out. Adversity tends to fuel him.
### The Marlins’ decision to sign first baseman Garrett Jones and very likely trade Logan Morrison isn’t about money, but their belief they needed a power bat and a concern internally that Morrison (.242, six homers in 85 games in 2013) will not return to being the player who hit .283 as a rookie in 2010 or 23 homers in 2011. As one Marlins person said this past season, after two knee surgeries, Morrison has an old body for a 26-year-old.
Before targeting Jones, the Marlins called about pricey Mike Napoli and Corey Hart (.270, 30 homers, 83 RBI), but Hart wasn’t ready to move as quickly as the Marlins wanted.
### Boston, Milwaukee and Tampa are among the teams reportedly interested in Morrison. One executive with an AL team said Morrison remains an attractive commodity because he's a young left-handed hitter with upside. MLB.com identified Rays and former Miami Braddock High third baseman Sean Rodriguez as a potential Marlins target if the Marlins and Tampa engage in Morrison trade talks. Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks is another option appealing to the Marlins.
### Garrett Jones should be effective against right-handers, based on his career metrics (.271 career hitter against them, with considerable power). But he's only a .193 career hitter vs. lefties. One option would be using outfielder Justin Ruggiano at first base against lefties. Ruggiano, a career .270 hitter vs. lefties, took ground balls at first base late last season.
### One Red Sox front office official said even though new Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s .273 average for Boston in 2013 was a huge jump from .235 and .222 the two previous seasons, “I don’t think it was a fluke. He’s still a big swing and miss guy, but he’s not going to be a sub-.300 on base guy any more and he might have more success in the National League.
“He didn’t get enough credit for the turnaround with our pitching staff last year. He’s improved calling games. He’s such a hard worker and so committed to getting better that you have to respect guys like that.”
Whereas the Marlins hit .193 with two outs and runners in scoring position last season, Saltalamacchia hit .283. Among qualifying catchers, he was seventh in average, ninth in RBI (65) and 10th in homers (14). A switch-hitter, he’s better against right-handers (.294 last season) than left-handers (.218).
### The lighter side: The pastor at Morrison’s wedding at a Cabo resort last month joked that it was beautiful that Morrison would invite a “homeless person.” The “homeless person” was actually outfielder Bryan Petersen, sporting a long, unwieldy beard. Peterson left the Marlins for the Rangers last week.
### With FSU shellacking Duke tonight, the question is whether the Chick-Fil-A bowl will prefer 9-3 UM over 10-3 Duke. (A strong case can be made to pick Miami.) Yes, Duke beat Miami, but tonight's performance will be fresh in the mind of Chick-Fil-A officials, and UM is the better TV draw, especially considering the challenge of drawing viewers on New Year's Eve. TV is certainly a factor in the decision, among others. Bowl matchups will be announced Sunday night...
Please see the last post for UM notes from Saturday.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz