SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Whenever the Dolphins face New England, we’re always reminded how Bill Belichick can take players that the Dolphins deemed expendable –-- specifically Wes Welker (now with Denver) and Rob Ninkovich (19.5 sacks over the past three-plus seasons) – and turn them into key starters.
This raises a larger disconcerting issue: Of the veterans that joined the Dolphins from other NFL teams in recent years – via trade or free agency – several have become less productive after coming here.
Conversely, several key veterans who recently bolted Miami have become more productive elsewhere.
What does this say about the Dolphins? In many ways, it’s a reflection of coaching, of personnel evaluation, of the player’s maturity, of the quality of players around them, among other factors.
A few points to consider:
### It’s notable that many of the veterans that moved on from Miami during Jeff Ireland's tenure --– though some of the early decisions were made by Bill Parcells –-- have performed clearly better elsewhere, from Brandon Marshall (averaged 83 catches in two years here; 106 in four other recent years with the Broncos and Bears); to Ninkovich (a backup and special teams player here); to Philadelphia’s Evan Mathis (cut by Miami and now rated the NFL’s No. 1 guard by Pro Football Focus), to Reggie Bush (averaging 121 yards per game with Detroit, compared with 79.8 last season in Miami).
Cornerback Sean Smith, rated the 74th best cornerback last season with Miami, is 12th with the Chiefs, and the quarterback rating in his coverage area has dropped from 85.1 to 58.2.
Vontae Davis, traded for a second-rounder that Miami used on cornerback Jamar Taylor, has risen to fourth among all cornerbacks and drew praise for his work last Sunday against Denver’s high-octane offense. He was 37th in 2011, his last season in Miami.
Jake Long, ranked 46th among all tackles last season, has jumped to 12th in his first season with St. Louis.
In Marshall’s case, it obviously helped having a better quarterback (Jay Cutler over Chad Henne). But questionable coaching and evaluation also have been factors. The Dolphins mistakenly didn’t believe Mathis was worth developing and didn’t see the pass-rushing upside in Ninkovich that Belichick did.
This coaching staff couldn’t maximize Bush’s unique gifts in the open field. And the Chiefs are allowing Smith to play press/man coverage, which he preferred and thrives in. The Dolphins used him a lot in off-zone and off-man, which everyone knew wasn’t his strength. No wonder he's playing a lot better in Kansas City.
In fairness, a few players –-- Ted Ginn Jr., Greg Camarillo and Ronnie Brown –-- put up lesser numbers after leaving Miami, but that’s largely because they went from being starters to backups.
### Also worrisome: Though the sample size is still limited with this season’s additions, several veterans have become less productive after signing here.
Mike Wallace is on pace for fewer than three touchdowns; he averaged eight his previous four seasons. Dannell Ellerbe, ranked 14th among all inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus as a Raven in 2012, has dropped to 32nd here. Phillip Wheeler has plunged from sixth to 19th among outside linebackers since leaving Oakland for the Dolphins.
Tackle Tyson Clabo went from allowing five sacks all of last season for Atlanta to eight in six games with Miami, a pace that would easily shatter the NFL record. (He won't get the chance because he's headed to the bench.) And the list goes on, from Richard Marshall to Brandon Marshall to nearly the entire eight-man 2012 free agent class that signed and was cut months later.
There are myriad factors: injury (in Lance Louis’ case), to diminishing skills (Clabo) to an overestimation of players skills when they’re signed (Legedu Naanee, many others).
Two very recent former NFL general managers who asked not to be named said they were dumbfounded by the Dolphins giving a $27 million contract to Wheeler, who’s allowing a 121 quarterback rating in his coverage area and missed a key third-down tackle on Buffalo’s final possession before its winning field goal last Sunday.
Coaching assuredly also plays a part, including how Wallace is being used.
Conversely, what veterans acquired by Miami in the past four years have become clearly more productive after coming here? Not many: Richie Incognito (thanks largely to his improved maturity), Matt Moore and Brandon Gibson, who's on pace for 858 receiving yards, which would top his career high of 691.
So what conclusions should we draw from all this? Former Falcons, Packers and Raiders executive Ken Herock said coaching is a factor in some of this (as in Smith’s case) and noted “most GMs listen to the coach, and with a new coach, there’s always something you don’t like about a certain player.”
For example, Joe Philbin was troubled by Davis’ immaturity, which was obvious on HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2012. Philbin was excessively irked about Davis needing to go to the bathroom once during practice in August 2012 and endorsed trading him when Ireland presented the idea to the coach.
The Colts view him far differently. "Since he walked in this door, I've seen this guy every day get better and take on a leadership role," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said last week. "He's got that mental makeup you need to play out there on an island."
So Philbin probably was too hasty in judging Davis.
“Davis is still a good starting corner and those are tough to find,” Herock said. “You don’t let him go. He's better than what they have. And I would rather have Kevin Burnett than Philip Wheeler for $27 million. Reggie Bush is better than what they have.”
Bottom line: When many of your key players play better after they leave, it raises questions not only about player evaluation but whether the coaching staff can maximize their talents.
### Jonathan Martin hasn't complained at all about moving back to right tackle, the upshot of Miami’s trade for Bryant McKinnie. But he admitted recently he was uncomfortable playing on the right side at times in 2012, and he gave up the most quarterback hurries of any right tackle last season (47) – even more than turnstile Marc Colombo’s league-leading 40 for the Dolphins in 2011.
Martin said at times this season, “I look at film and say: ‘I’m not sure who that guy is.’” He expects more of himself…. Though McKinnie has allowed only one sack, he’s rated the worst run-blocking left tackle in the league, per PFF.
The one right tackle Miami coveted in free agency was Gosder Cherilus but the Dolphins wouldn’t match the five-year, $34.5 million deal he took from the Colts. Cherilus has allowed one sack.
### Cameron Wake, off a knee injury, wasn’t himself in 22 snaps last Sunday, and the Dolphins hope that changes against New England. Though teammates said Wake looked better this week, he said Friday: “I’m not pleased. When you do what I do, this injury is quite a bit more [impactful] than other positions.”
### One encouraging sign with the Heat’s Michael Beasley: He was often a ball-stopper during his first stint here --– partly because the Heat isolated him a lot --- but Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem said that’s changing. “It’s not sticking,” Haslem said.
Beasley cracked: “I only play 10 minutes a game. I don’t have time to hold the ball! The more the ball sticks, the less chance for our shooters to get it quickly.”
We all know, as Ray Allen said, that Beasley “can create his own shot.” But Allen said: “If he can create shots for others, if he added that, it would be lights out. If Beasley and Greg Oden get to the point where they’re playing at the high level they’re capable of, it will be a scary roster.”
### Plantation American Heritage's Sony Michel, rated the nation's No. 2 running back by rivals.com, attended the UM game Saturday and continues to be heavily recruited by Miami. But Michel told rivals.com last week that he remains "100 percent" committed to Georgia... Elite football/basketball recruit Derrick Griffin tweeted that he will enroll at UM Jan. 2, but the Hurricanes don't have official word yet that he has qualified. They remain hopeful. He could practice with the basketball team this season but cannot play this season because of NCAA rules, UM says.
### Two rookie Hurricanes basketball players cut in the past two days: forward Kenny Kadji by Cleveland and forward Trey McKinney-Jones by Milwaukee.... Please see the last post for UM-Wake Forest postscripts and reaction.
### The Marlins quietly gave three-year extensions, through 2018, to their recently promoted top two baseball executives: Michael Hill and Dan Jennings… The Marlins tell us that they have decided not to bring in the fences at Marlins Park, despite the wishes of Giancarlo Stanton, who said in September that the park is too big and “everyone” knows it. Pitchers disagree, of course.
### Twitter: @flasportsbuzz