Even during an offseason when they gave Ndamukong Suh the richest contract ever for a non-quarterback, the Dolphins were very clear about this: For salary cap and other reasons, they simply cannot throw money at every position, looking for a quick fix. Instead, they must invest in their cheap, young players, hoping several can develop into starters or key reserves.
Through 17 days of training camp and one preseason game, the early returns on those young players have been somewhat mixed, but more favorable than unfavorable.
Let’s start with guard. After uneven performances during camp practices, Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas “did a good job” against Chicago, coach Joe Philbin said Saturday. Turner, who played 33 snaps, and Thomas (24) performed well enough to keep the Dolphins from feeling any compunction to offer free agent Evan Mathis the $5.5 million he’s seeking.
“They both competed hard, both had some really good plays on tape. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect,” Philbin said, with Turner called for a holding penalty deep in Bears territory.
After a week of sometimes being thrown aside by Suh, Turner said “it was fun” to compete against somebody else.
“But it’s fun going against him everyday, too, because going against the best makes it that much easier in the game when you’re going against other guys,” Turner said. Against Chicago, “the thing I saw on film personally that I liked was I was finishing stuff.”
But Philbin said this week will be particularly telling for the young guards when the Dolphins and Panthers hold joint practices on Wednesday and Thursday in South Carolina before playing Saturday in Charlotte.
“It will be really good for them to go to Carolina and practice more against a four-man line,” Philbin said. “At times, they were uncovered. Again, they are going be uncovered some in the Carolina game. But we are going to get a lot more even defense where both guards are covered… in the two days of practice and the ball game. That’s going to be a really good next step for them.”
There were also some positive signs at cornerback, another position where the Dolphins are relying on several young players. Jamar Taylor, who has had a solid camp, allowed just one short completion (six yards) in 23 snaps against Chicago.
Will Davis, coming off November ACL surgery, made a very good play in coverage Thursday and “he climbed in my eyes,” Philbin said. “There was a big difference between Will Davis at FIU [at the previous week’s scrimmage] and the Will Davis at Chicago.”
Philbin also was pleased with Walt Aikens, the 2014 fourth-round pick who started at safety and played 39 snaps Thursday in the absence of Louis Delmas, who was resting his surgically-repaired knee.
"He’s much further along [than a year ago],” Philbin said. “He played well. Sometimes when you’re a safety, it wasn’t like he had a lot of action. Overall, solid. Wasn’t a ton of tackles but just the way the game unfolded. He feels more confident in the defense and lining up, [has] confidence in how to execute his job.”
Two negatives: Cornerback Bobby McCain, the rookie fifth-round pick who has been very good through training camp, committed three penalties Thursday and sustained a hamstring injury that sidelined him for Saturday’s practice. And safety Cedric Thompson, another rookie fifth-rounder, failed to make tackles that could have prevented the Bears’ final two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins were very encouraged by the play of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, the rookie second-rounder.
“I like the way Jordan ran to the ball,” Philbin said. “He came close on that one screen, that one screen he almost chased down. He had some penetration on some plays.”
Second-year defensive end Terrence Fede had a tackle for loss against Chicago and has made a disruptive play in nearly every practice.
“He played well in the game; his run defense was excellent,” Philbin said. “In pass protection, there were some things he can improve on… Terrence has really had a solid camp.”
The Dolphins also emerged with a good feeling about some of their young linebackers. Undrafted Zach Vigil had a sack and two tackles for loss and continues to show that he’s “productive,” Philbin said. “He’s involved in tackles. If you’re a linebacker, one of your job responsibilities is to get in on tackles and have production.
“He has good instincts. He showed pretty well. Good first outing.”
Philbin said all four undrafted rookie linebackers “didn’t look timid about going into the game. In my 13 years, I’ve seen young players kind of anxious about going into a game. I don’t think it was too big for them.
“There were some plays they didn’t make they have to do better, but I like overall their approach to the game, how they competed, what they did.”
There wasn’t a big enough sample size Thursday to judge first-team strongside linebacker Chris McCain, who was limited to 10 plays after sustaining a minor ankle injury.
McCain, who practiced Saturday, said: “I did my job [Thursday]. I did enough where the coaches can still trust and continue to put me out there. I feel really comfortable [at strongside linebacker].”
Linebacker Jordan Tripp, who sustained a right ankle injury against Chicago, was on crutches Saturday and is out indefinitely. Besides Tripp and Bobby McCain, receiver Kenny Stills (calf), offensive lineman Chris Martin (back) and receiver Christion Jones (hamstring) also did not partake in the team portion of practice.
But Stills caught some passes, without anybody covering him, and seems close to returning. And left tackle Branden Albert participated in a couple of 1 on 1 drills against Cameron Wake --- his biggest step yet in his return from major knee surgery.
### Rookie running back Jay Ajayi, sidelined the past week by a hamstring injury, returned to practice.
### The Dolphins released injured receiver Tommy Streeter and re-signed receiver Tyler McDonald.
### Saturday’s practice featured no 11-on-11 work, producing the dullest session of training camp.
In receiver/cornerback drills, Jarvis Landry made a great catch on Michael Thomas in the end zone; Matt Hazel had a nifty catch on Tony Lippett; and LaRon Byrd had a terrific catch over Louis Delmas.
Reshad Jones, Taylor and Jordan Kovacs had notable pass breakups.
### The Dolphins have two final local practices open to the public, at 8 a.m. Sunday and Monday. The practices at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., are also open to the public (8:30 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday).
### Twitter: @flasportsbuzz