Quick Sunday night note: UM's NCAA Tournament opener against Pacific has been set for 2:10 p.m. Friday on TNT and WQAM-560 from Austin, Tx. If heavily favored Miami wins, it would play the winner of Illinois-Colorado on Sunday.
SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
The view on the Dolphins first week of free agency? Mixed, but tilting positive. The feedback I solicited from three professional talent evaluators, including two former general managers - plus analysts Cris Collinsworth and Dan Dierdorf - was largely positive, but several NFL Network voices keep pounding the Dolphins.
“They’ve got a plan,” said Collinsworth, who’s encouraged by what he has seen. “They’re young. They’re growing together. They’ve got a good core nucleus and a good coach.”
Dierdorf’s take: “It’s still New England’s division. Let’s not kid ourselves, as long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are there. Underestimate them at your own risk. But the Dolphins have really taken positive steps and I’m not sure you can say that about the Jets and Bills.
“Nobody has looked at the Miami offense for years and thought quick strike big play offense. That changes now.” With Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess (if the Dolphins keep him, which they haven't told him) and Brandon Gibson, “this is an impressive receiver group – it’s a nice blend, can make a lot of quarterbacks look good.”
Said longtime former Falcons/Packers/Raiders executive Ken Herock: “Now you have receivers who make the quarterback better. You can see the Green Bay influence, with Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman, in the players they’ve gone after. Jeff Ireland should thank them. Dannell Ellerbe is a perfect fit for them, and I thought Philip Wheeler was Oakland’s best defensive player last year. I’m more optimistic about them now.”
Still, there are loud detractors, mostly former players and executives employed by NFL Network. Warren Sapp blasted Miami for giving $35 million to Ellerbe, and former NFL offensive lineman Jamie Dukes said: “The Heat won. The Dolphins won’t win this way. A lot of big money for a lot of questionable players.”
Chatter on Miami’s signings:
### Wallace: NFL Network’s Charley Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans general manager, said Wallace is “not a complete receiver” and Miami “absolutely overpaid. He’s not a premier top receiver in the NFL. But in free agency, you want a player, you overpay.”
Former Colts GM Bill Polian added: “You can argue, as Bill Parcells did, that’s too much for one player, and I accept that argument. But that deal was a market price deal. Now they’ve got a three-level passing game which is the basic premise of a West Coast offense. With the talent of the quarterback and the other receivers, Wallace is the perfect complement to what they have.”
ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said: “Yes, you overpaid. He’s going to touch the ball about six times a game…. You hope he’s going to take the top off the defense, create intermediate areas where other receivers can make catches.”
Keep in mind that Wallace ranked second in yards per reception (21.0) in 2010 and 20th in 2011 but fell to 54th last season (13.1). His 4.4 yards after catch in 2012 tied with Davone Bess for 45th of 102. “But Pittsburgh wasn’t a deep ball oriented offense under Todd Haley last year,” said ESPN Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson, a former Browns scout.
Williamson’s concern: If Wallace “has hamstring or ankle injuries” that reduce his speed slightly, “what is he going to bring to the table? He’s not going to break tackles, not going to beat you with crafty route running. This front office is in a little bit of a desperation mode. But what he does is better than anybody. Whoever is covering him is generally going to be very afraid.”
Wallace drops far fewer passes than, say, Brandon Marshall – 17 the past three years.
“Wallace is the only one I see in the league making those kind of over the top plays, and that’s a difference maker,” Collinsworth said. “I don’t think he’s polished [as a route runner], but he makes tough catches over the middle. With Miami’s receiver situation and attendance situation, they had to something. But it’s a huge roll of the dice. You better be right.”
Dierdorf makes a good point: “A guy like Wallace makes it a lot harder to drop that eighth guy in the box, so he’s a huge addition to the running game. Denny Green once told me, ‘I feel Randy Moss is worth 50 yards a game to our running game.’ And he’s going to make the routes that Hartline and Bess run more effective.
“Wallace has been inconsistent at times, but he has game-changing abilities and game-changing speed. Those are two things in short supply in the NFL, and people will always pay to have them.”
### Dustin Keller: Williamson ranks him about 12th among 32 starting tight ends: “He’s what they need, can create mismatches against linebackers. A better weapon than Anthony Fasano, but not much of a blocker.”
Pro Football Focus consistently ranked Fasano much higher than Keller because of far superior run blocking metrics, and Keller’s hamstring and ankle injuries that cost him eight games in 2012 give pause for concern.
But in his last three full seasons (2009-2011), Keller averaged 55 receptions and 675 yards, compared with 34 and 439 for Fasano. Keller has just four drops in his past 24 games, after 14 his first two seasons.
“If he’s the guy who gave the Jets those good years, he’s a nice addition,” Dierdorf said. “He’s got a good feel for the passing game, good hands, good route runner, can find openings in a defense.”
### Gibson: Forty three of his 51 catches went for first downs, and that 84.3 percent ranked third in the league behind only Vincent Jackson and Lance Moore.
His yards-per-catch have risen every year (to 13.5, higher than Wallace last year) but he’s not a speed demon and his 2.4 yards-after-catch was fourth-worst among 102 receivers in 2012.
“He’s a jack of all trades, a really solid No. 3 receiver,” Williamson said. “Last year, Miami’s skill positions were bottom two or three in the league. Now it’s in the middle.”
### Ellerbe: Among 53 inside linebackers, Pro Football Focus ranked him third as a pass rusher and 13th against the run. Polian really likes his skills as a blitzer.
He ranked 48th in pass coverage, but that’s somewhat misleading. Quarterbacks had a 97.1 rating in his coverage area – 18th best and better than every 2012 Dolphins linebacker.
“Ellerbe was Baltimore’s best inside linebacker, even when Ray Lewis was healthy,” Dierdorf said. “He’s the loss Baltimore is most lamenting. He’s got good range, can make blockers miss. Has shiftiness, can really run.”
Collinsworth was impressed by “his ability to decipher what was going on the offensive side. The speed and hustle stick out. He can cover running backs.”
But Williamson cautioned: “Ellerbe isn’t Pro Bowl caliber – Karlos Dansby, at his best, I would take over him. And I don’t know that Ellerbe is great in coverage.”
### Wheeler: Perhaps the most polarizing signing. “He’s a journeyman – I would have put signing Sean Smith ahead of him,” former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said.
Said Casserly: “Wheeler is a good player, but I’m not sure spending that money [five years, $26 million] doesn’t come back to bite them later because they have other needs.”
The bad news: Of 43 outside linebackers, Wheeler ranked worse against the run than Kevin Burnett (25th to 6th). He allowed 51 of 61 passes thrown against him to be caught, though the 9.6-yards-per-catch was above average for his position.
The good news: In 126 pass rush chances, he had three sacks, 14 hits and 13 hurries; Pro Football Focus ranked only Von Miller ahead of him as a rusher among 4-3 outside linebackers.
Polian, who drafted Wheeler in Indianapolis, calls him an “excellent player who took a little while to adjust to the pro game. He’s a very tough, smart guy, a big hitter. The light went on in his third year (2011).”
Herock said: “I studied Oakland’s tape, and he’s fast, active, goes hard all the time. He’ll be one of Miami’s top couple defenders.”
### Please see our last post for Saturday Dolphins news regarding Elvis Dumervil, John Abraham and corners still available.
### After preliminary discussions with the Heat, Greg Oden’s agent said he will resume talks with Pat Riley this summer about Oden possibly joining Miami to start next season. Five teams are in the mix, with Cleveland and Miami having as good a shot as anybody. “Miami is high on his list, and Pat is still excited about him,” agent Mike Conley Sr. said.
### One of the things that bothers UM about the NCAA’s notice of allegations is the NCAA included, without much or in some cases any noted corroboration, claims that Nevin Shapiro gave financial inducements to several players to try to get them to sign with his sports agency, AxCess Sports. UM expected most of the AxCess Sports violations would be removed when Sean Allen’s deposition was tossed.
### UM’s Dyron Dye said it was his idea to ask Al Golden to move from tight end back to defensive end because he believes his pass rush skills (32 sacks his last two years of high school) can help fix one of UM’s biggest weaknesses.
### West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman receiver Travis Rudolph de-committed from Miami on Friday largely because he wants to play receiver, and UM sees him as a cornerback. That leaves UM with four oral commitments so far for the 2014 class.
### Even former Duke guard Jay Williams said Saturday that UM should be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, ahead of Duke, if the Hurricanes win the ACC Championship game today. But his ESPN colleague, Digger Phelps, said UM would be best off as a No. 2 behind Gonzaga in the West Regional.
### Marlins bullpen update with two weeks left in spring training: Steve Cishek, Jon Rauch, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb and likely A.J. Ramos are safe, with Chad Qualls, John Maine, Kevin Slowey, Evan Reed and Sam Dyson top contenders for two or three other spots.